2019 McKnight Artist Fellowship Profile: Tetsuya Yamada

2019 McKnight Artist Fellowship Profile: Tetsuya Yamada

Posted August 20th, 2022 by Russ White

Our final profile of the 2019 McKnight Visual Arts Fellowship cohort, in which we take a closer look at each of the artists' studio practice

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the sixth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2019 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Culminating the two-year fellowship (delayed last year by the pandemic) was a McKnight Discussion Series:

The first was on May 24th at 6:30pm at MCAD, featuring Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, in conversation with Leslie BarlowMary Griep, and Melvin R. Smith

The second was unfortunately canceled due to Covid-related scheduling issues. It would have featured Henriette Huldisch, Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Walker Art Center, in conversation with Joe Sinness, Alexa Horochowski, and Tetsuya Yamada.


Photo by Rik Sferra


The saying goes that God doesn’t build in straight lines, but really that’s just a question of how far away you’re standing. Up close, nature looks gnarly – “organic,” you might say. Tetsuya Yamada’s studio is full of good examples: tree limbs bare and crooked, large stones oblong and pockmarked, shapes formed by hand with clay, precise but imperfect. It is the outdoors brought in, recalibrated into sculptures, vessels, and assemblages that share space in the studio. It’s all laid out on the floor neat and orderly, nothing touching, nothing messy.

Hanging on the wall behind these well-ordered organics, however, there’s a reminder that math is the language of nature as well: a series of small graphite drawings of perfect circles and ovals drawn precisely in simple, straight lines. They were inspired, he tells me, by the elliptical orbit of the Moon – another natural phenomenon, just zoomed out to smooth, mathematical perfection.

“My old work had lots of hard edges and straight lines,” he explains. “About ten years ago or so, I gradually became interested in the organic quality of lines.” Still, these drawings don’t feel out of place. Hanging from the ceiling are some newer forays into rotational orbits: sculptural mobiles crafted very simply out of branches bent and tied with twine. They resemble some kind of primitive instrument or ornament, accented occasionally with small clay spheres. “Those to me are very much like a drawing, but at the same time there’s much more of a space and physicality of the object.” They create that space the same way a gestural sketch does, calling to mind Eva Hesse’s Hang Up and Lee Bontecou’s free-floating assemblages. More than anything, though, they seem to be experiments in tensile strength, seeing how far a line found in nature can be bent in on itself.


Top: Morice, 2007. Bottom: Untitled, 2017.


There is a warmth and a care to Yamada’s organic minimalism; you can sense an earnest curiosity on the part of the hand and the heart here. These are explorations of everyday materials and casual inspirations – exploring, for instance, how the physicality of wood reacts to the pressure of a knotted rope. Or how a thousand thumbprints can leave an emotional impact across a thin wall of clay. Trees show up repeatedly: in some cases trimmed of their branches and standing on tip-toe, affixed to flat steel bases; in others, abstracted into hollow clay pipes balancing delicately against each other. A few potted plants are mixed in on the floor among the artworks and vessels as well, actual living specimens of the wild world just outside. “I like to live with plants,” Yamada says with a small smile. “I like my work to live with plants, too.”

Though inspired by nature, his works have a hint of the industrial to them as well. Small, beige geysers of clay cascade vertically up and then back down themselves, broken up sporadically like squishy chains by bold pinch-marks. A simple, perfect tube is creased forward on itself like an empty paper towel roll on its way to the recycling bin. Another hangs limp as a body, folded over a thin rope tacked to the wall. Next to it, a clean sheet of clay drapes over a dowel rod like an empty piece of parchment. The ceramics here are particularly impressive: this is technically difficult work made to look effortless, so simple in some cases as to seem inevitable.

“It’s a learning process for me, making things,” he says. In the same way that many of his materials and methods have been reduced to their most elemental aspects – clay, wood, and metal that has been folded, bent, or balanced – so too has the purpose of this practice been boiled down as well. For Yamada, doing this work is an active way to engage, quite simply, with what it means to be alive. “We are in a society where we are surrounded by objects and space and people, and those are the kinds of elements that constantly give me a question of who I am and how I want to exist.”

But there’s one piece hanging on the opposite wall, a painting actually, that has been bothering me. It is large – over five feet tall – and features nothing but black Army stencil letters on a white background, reminiscent of a CRASS album cover. But the words don’t make sense; the first line reads “NRSONFGFNUTSPSP.” “Arson” comes to mind, and “Nuts” are in there too, but the rest is just a bunch of sputtering nonsense. Then you realize the words actually read top to bottom, and that the first N is the beginning of “NATURE”. Okay, that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time, but where does this painting fit in? The answer is, against all expectation, skateboarding.


Top: Ride Till Tomorrow, acrylic paint on masonite, 65”x 52 1⁄2”, 2021. Image courtesy of Hair + Nails Gallery. Bottom: Model: Skate Park I, ceramic, 18.75 x 16.5 x 2”, 2021


Yamada grew up in Tokyo in the 1980s, skateboarding with his friends well before the sport was a successful video game, let alone an Olympic event. The subculture was underground, tied to punk and hip-hop, and by definition urban. The connection to nature, it turns out, is found in the physics. “You have to understand about your body,” he explains. “There is speed and force and attraction that you have to play into.” He still rides when he finds the time, but at 54, is much more cautious than in his youth.

“I was contemplating, trying to trace like a memory what that experience was about,” he says, about Ride Till Tomorrow, which he created for a 2021 solo show at Hair + Nails Gallery that was centered around skateboarding. “So I started writing, and those were the kind of words that came out.” Reading them is a small challenge, forcing you out of your own habit of reading left-to-right, but the words emerge: PUBLIC, SEVERE DOUBT, STRAIN, FRONT AND BACK, STARRY SKY.

"I don’t know if I would say poetry," he says, "but it’s a collection of the words." Whether the piece acts as a portal into understanding something about the artist (or the athlete) is really up to the viewer. When you spend time with the piece, your eye starts to wander across the letterforms, looking for words where none exist. Perhaps there is something to be found in the nonsense, too. 

These kind of riddles are not a one-off for him either; he shows me a hand-written list of phrases he has been mulling over, occasionally using them in his work. “Front and back, back and front” is near the top of the list, along with other contradictory binaries: “In and out, out and in,” “Slowly fast, fastly slow,” “Truly false, falsely true.” 

That last one in particular resonates with so much of our current moment, as wordplay has become weaponized and as truth has been subverted to a degree that is brazen even by American standards. I think what Yamada is exploring with these phrases is not just the rhythms of the English language but the tenuous grasp we have on what these words mean. He is searching, like so many of us, for something true, something real. For him, that search leads back to the hands. In one exercise, he taped two pieces of paper underneath a table and wrote the phrases out – upside down and without looking – with both hands at the same time, like some kind of ambidextrous palindrome. “Doing, not doing.” “Dark in the light, light in the dark.” The results are not so much the phrases themselves but the clumsy records of the struggle to make them. Scrawled on the paper are tall, wobbly marks made by uncertain hands, searching for control within the edges of the hidden pages. Again, the words lose shape; their meaning comes from the making.

These conflicting binaries could be another extrapolation from the artist’s youth. “I was born into a society where Western culture was very much well integrated,” Yamada says at one point. “There was East and West, new and old.” Those contradictions were woven into each other, perhaps helping him develop more interest in that gray space – or maybe more patience for it – than many of us seem to have today.

We circle back to his earlier question about how he wants to exist, and I ask how that manifests in his work. “It often seems to me that a complicated question comes down to a very simple, fundamental question,” he says, “and what appears to be very easy is very complicated. I tend to look at the foundation, the essence of things.” When I ask if he is seeking more for simplicity or for complexity, he rejects that binary as well. “No, I don't think I'm trying to look for either. I’m trying to look for the depth.”


Image courtesy of the artist's website.


On the floor, set atop a short stack of opened newspapers, is another sculpture: a small clay labyrinth. Its beige walls form a tight, square spiral inward to the center, each wall getting concentrically lower as they go, like an inverted pyramid. The newspapers have aged to the exact same yellow as the maze, and though their contents are entirely obscured, you know they’re there: more words laid out in columns, creating a flattened abstraction of the day they were printed. 

“I really felt that the newspaper became such a heavy, heavy content of everyday life, and at the same time paper is just a cheap material,” Yamada says. What interested him was "that rich range of how ordinary that material is at the same time that it carries a heavy content.” In a way, the same could be said of the clay, which carries hundreds of little smudges where his fingers formed it into this quizzical shape. The ceramic structure rests on top, low to the ground, inviting us to unpack and find order.

As our conversation comes to an end, sitting among this wide range of works, I ask where he looks for inspiration. “It can be what the hands might thirst for sometimes,” he answers. “Clay is always somehow a primary element in my work. Sometimes I get tired of clay and I have a little break, and then my hands start to thirst again, and I go back. The feel of it, nothing else can do that.”

Before I leave, he shows me the back room, where more pipe trees stand awaiting their first firing in the kiln. Around them on the table are a series of beautiful little bowls, perfect for your morning cereal. Craft and art, destined for different functions, are here laid bare as really no different in material or process.

“Throwing bowls, it’s almost like the beginning of everything for me,” he says. “It is always the beginning and maybe the end.”

Their elegant, open rims form perfect little circles, mimicking those drawings of the Moon and its orbit. Up close, they are surely imperfect, but from a distance, sublime. Moving from the scale of the cosmos to a cereal bowl, you catch a glimpse of something true, something real: it's not that the outdoors have been brought in; it's that there was never really any difference there to begin with. ◼︎


Walking Drawing, 2016

To see more of the artist's work, visit his website or follow him on Instagram @tetsuya___yamada

All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.

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