Kennedy Yanko Isn’t Afraid to Take Up Space

A new family of salvaged metal sculptures celebrates the women who shaped her sensibilities. Here, the vanguard Brooklyn artist meditates on how her deeply personal work challenges our perceptions through sensation and contrast.

Kennedy Yanko. Photography by Mike Vitelli

You dedicated each work in “Salient Queens,” on view at Vielmetter Los Angeles until December 12, to a woman who taught you how to take up space. What does the notion of taking up space mean to you?

It’s best described through sensation. It’s as if there’s a hum emanating outwards, and I have the opportunity to do with that pulse what I wish. I can make it louder and as expansive as I want to, or keep it small and close. Taking up space means embodying the ability and perception that I can show up in whatever way I choose–verbally, physically, emotionally.

Tell me the backstory behind one particularly meaningful piece in the show.

There’s a piece named Micky after the artist Mickalene Thomas, who opened the doors of the art world for me. Everyone always talks about the art world being a cold, dark, and terrible place, but I’ve had a very different experience largely because of Mickalene’s openness, support, willingness to share, and generosity in her successes. Having experienced that with her, I know how I want to treat other artists, and how significantly words and actions can impact someone’s life. I want to care for artists the way Mickalene cared for me.

"Micky" (2020). Photography by Martin Parsekian
"Micky" (2020). Photography by Martin Parsekian

What do you want viewers—particularly women—to take away after having experienced these works?

I don’t make this work for anyone else, and I don’t make this work just for women. I make this work for myself. I do it because it’s something that I want to do, because I like to do it, because I love it. I’m not intentionally making space for empowerment, but my process is evident of a search stemming from passion and holds my excitement, and is the result of following my intuitive desire. Hopefully the power that I receive in my practice, in my flow state, permeates the work, and permeates the viewer. 

The materiality sits between hard and soft; supple paint skins elegantly draped from mangled metal. What’s the most difficult part of striking this balance?

Translating it. The mind must immediately reconcile what it sees and allow for deviation. I’m after that initial moment where the body intuitively responds to a work more immediately than intellectual thought, so much that the viewer must pause and let sensation override thinking. Contrast resonates with me so effortlessly because of my life experience and what intrigues me. It feels like a natural place for me to exist at the center of. So the real challenge has been—and continues to be—educating people on my visual language and putting words to my own perspective when it’s so deeply rooted in sensation.

Photography by Mike Vitelli
Photography by Mike Vitelli

What sparked your interest in metal? What makes you keep coming back to it?

In 2016, I became tired of my work and wanted to do something different, so I apprenticed in an iron-working factory near my studio in Bushwick. I was first taught to work with sheet metal—welding, cutting, and bending. My interest in metal’s potential has only grown. 

Metal offers something I’ve been looking for since 2009, when I first started pushing the canvas. I wanted to open it up, so I started by lifting paint skins and installing them on their own. As soon as I removed paint from the canvas, a subconscious search for a skeletal system began. I started throwing paint on rubber and extending the paint by moving my body beneath the rubber, which brought a new viscosity to the paint. I worked like that for seven years, reworking the rubber works like my early abstract canvas paintings, and entered a new dialogue for myself with three dimensionality. I’m still getting to know metal, but it’s shown itself to be the backbone I was seeking. I’m excited by how much more there is to discover. 

Where do you source metal? Can you tell when you’ve found the right scrap?

I used to work with demolition teams, but now I mostly go to scrap yards along the East Coast. I don’t have just one that I work with because the piles are always turning over; sometimes one yard is empty, and another is packed sky-high. Lately, it’s been super dry. I try to make a scavenger hunt of it so even on days when nothing happens, it’s at least a good day of driving with my best friend and exploring. When I go, I’m looking for color—very specific colors—and specific densities of copper or steel. Some are flimsy, some are solid, and I need them both and everything in between. 

Photography by Mike Vitelli

How have you been keeping busy during the pandemic? Has quarantining impacted your creativity at all?

Right before the pandemic, I was spinning. I was supposed to go to Milan for a show and had finished producing two shows of work, which I finally got out of the studio this summer. Since then, I’ve been resting, researching, and enjoying a slower pace of life that I haven’t had since I was a child. 

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past six months?

I’ve had to have an even more rigorous reckoning of my conditioning. It’s something that I talk about a lot in my work—this importance of understanding our conditioned states, and our skewed perceptions versus our actual perceptions. I try to confront my beliefs on a regular basis, but the real work is in pushing forward, especially when I think I’m finally figuring something out. I have to question and challenge my mind every single day. And I have to be open to the reality that I’m constantly changing. I will never arrive at a complete, finished, defined place, and I don’t want to. I’ve continued to question and shift while grasping more thoroughly that the shift is ever-present. 

Photography by Mike Vitelli

Beauty has long informed your practice. How do you think collective notions of beauty have shifted since you first started making art?

The idea of collective notion in itself is a strange thing for me to speak on, but there continue to be fads, ideals, and accepted and rejected norms. It’s important to acknowledge that I live in New York—a very small enclave of thought and creation unlike anywhere else. In that, I realize even more thoroughly that I can’t speak collectively, but one thing I know is that the world tends to eventually follow the avant-garde.

What was once wild and eccentric is sure to become mainstream. Veganism and yoga used to be obscure cultural practices, but now are on every corner. Being in New York gives me this privileged view into the future because I’m at the core, at the epicenter, living where beauty ideals are chosen and challenged. I see things that people probably consider ugly as stunning and fascinating. I find contrast necessary and incredibly sexy. In fact, contrast is the key to beauty because there’s friction—there’s challenge, and at the same time familiarity and intrigue. That’s the seduction. With that in mind, do we respond to beauty or allure?

"Salient Queens" at Vielmetter Los Angeles. Photography by Robert Wedemeyer

You’ve described making art as a way to help cope with anxiety, which is dominating the national mood leading up to November. Do you still face anxiety? How does making art help you confront all the anxieties of 2020? 

This isn’t 2020 anxiety. This is “living in Our Time” anxiety, in this moment of capitalist desire. We need this anxiety for humanity to turn a corner and see more clearly what we’re doing. To answer your question directly: yes, anxiety is something I face today, especially in pursuit of things that aren’t immediately accessible. I have social anxiety and deal with what I call a genetic paranoia, and must balance fluctuations between miserable and awesome moods depending on the day. This extends from the insatiable curiosity of being an artist.

I naturally become interested and passionate about things I can’t immediately solve. I can’t solve injustice, nor can I protect those who need protection most, but I can contribute to my surroundings and my community. That’s what I focus on. I’ve made art my life because of what it offers me—this balance in my life. It’s such a cathartic process when I’m creating. When I finish something, I always walk away with a sense of balance, purpose, and clarity.

What’s usually on your mind when you’re sculpting?

Nothing. When my hands are working with my materials, I’m not thinking—at all.

(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) "Gussie"; "Lulu"; "Bambi," all 2020. Photography by Martin Parsekian
"Sky" (2020). Photography by Martin Parsekian
(FROM LEFT) "Julia II"; "Judith," both 2020. Photography by Martin Parsekian

Kennedy Yanko: Salient Queens” will be on view at Vielmetter (1700 S Santa Fe Ave, #101, Los Angeles, CA 90021) until December 12.

All Stories