Interview by Sarah Curtis
I have been living away from my desert home for about three years now. Though I’ve been immersed in lush, green, gorgeous Oregon working on my undergrad, I can feel my bones aching for smells, sites, sounds and the embraces I left behind in Phoenix. When I saw artist Steven Yazzie’s work the aching in my bones dulled and I felt comfort. I was able to see and feel home through Steven’s eyes and the images were so rich and complex I couldn’t help but dive in headfirst. He seems to capture the physical tension, this sort of constant tug-of-war that holds The Valley in place and creates that palpable desert energy. Steven balances the surreal and the serious and to travel through his body of work is a complete experience – it’s beautiful, thought provoking, sad, funny, political, whimsical, stark, intimate… it is a gift and an immeasurable opportunity for growth to explore the canyon land through Steven Yazzie’s personal insight, paintings, installations, and collective endeavors.
Sarah Curtis: You seem to deal with the idea of place a lot in terms of connection to place and an interaction with Landscape. What about the idea of home? What is home for you? Is home stationary? Is it dependent on place and landscape?
Everywhere I Go I Take Another Place With Me
Steven Yazzie: Lately, the idea of place and home has become something I’m more interested in as a point of departure in my work. When I think of home, or the idea of home, I tend to think both of the geographic place I’m from and where I’m living today. I grew up in small rural communities on and off the Navajo Reservation: Black Mesa, LeChee, and Page, Arizona. I eventually moved to Phoenix later during my high school years, and ended up back here after the military and traveling around the country. There is something for me about living in the desert and coming from canyon land that gives me a connected feeling, and in those places I’m home. I don’t think sentimentally about it as much as I think context, experience, and relationship. This could get more abstract, so to answer your question, yes, place and landscape are big factors for me.
SC: In Coyote Interiors, do you see the coyotes as adapting to the current sprawl of the valley, or the valley having to eventually adapt or concede to the coyotes? Is that maybe the ongoing struggle physically and psychologically?
SY: The coyotes I‘m painting represent the idea of adaptation itself. I want the meaning of these figures to be flexible as they represent different things for different people, especially in the indigenous community. For me, they are the instigation and an adaptation metaphor within the larger narrative of expansion, growth, and development of man-made communities. The coyotes are the intersection of the natural and man-made. I started this series with the sprawl of Phoenix in mind. Now that the real-estate market collapsed recently, it seems that the coyotes are invading the space, giving the sense of an apocalyptic feel, which I think is just as interesting.
SC: Birds are in so much of your work - from your paintings to Postcommodity projects. In an excerpt I found, you said the bird’s role is, “that of the mediator between heaven and earth – between the spiritual and the material worlds.” They are able to span the convergence of two worlds whatever the case may be – local and global, “progress” and tradition, urban and rural, nature and development, identity from within and without. The Small Bird Series feels like it is about the birds themselves, sort of up close and personal or even an ode to them, can you comment on that?
Capt. Feathers and the Arroyo Vista Club 11
SY: I love that consideration in Western Art. I’m not religious, but feel connected and can relate to those ideas because I was brought up in a Christian home. From a Native perspective, the birds are more esoteric and have defined roles in storytelling. The bird image for me represents the idea of the graceful, transitory and illusive experience. Their worlds are in the sky and beyond the earth and represent the in-between and that idea is powerful. The Small Bird Series was more of a formal and material study. Those paintings were all done in acrylic and I’m mostly an oil painter, so I was engrossed in the experimentation of trying a new painting process.
SC: I loved the Postcommodity project called SpecialOps. What was that experience like for you? How about for your collaborators in Postcommodity and for the border patrol and Minutemen you guys worked with?
Bird Capture - www.postcommodity.com
SY: SpecialOps was not an intentional work, but came from some early fieldwork we were doing for a border project that has yet to be fully realized. During our visit to the southern Arizona location we met by chance with local officials from the region, part-time Minutemen, former border patrol agents. Through our conversations with those local officials about the controversial border issues, we realized in researching the area it became more of a “happening” and the documentation of that experience became, SpecialOps.We initially visited a riparian area near the US/Mexico border, collecting video footage of birds for an exhibition project we were developing for the Czech Republic. We used the video footage and images of the birds from the Arizona/Mexico border, and transposed them onto video of a contested Czech landscape. The exhibition where this footage was ultimately used took place in the Czech Republic during the summer of 2007.
SC: So much of your work seems to be spoken through the language of the southwest, yet the SpecialOps footage was used for an installment in the Czech Republic. Do you think this highlights a shift toward a global consciousness and/or a global struggle?
Intersections; History of the Future (south view) -www.postcommodity.com
SY: The footage from “Special Ops” was used in the work for “Intersections,” an exhibition examining the intersections of land, flesh, culture and political identity within the contested geographic spaces that surround international borders. The work explored the ebb and flow of fortification, paranoia, xenophobia, political coercion, and perceptions of economic opportunity; the rise of walls in the U.S. and the fall of walls in the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic we saw the physical history of the communist regime transformed before our eyes. Deer stands transformed into watchtowers during the communist era have become deer stands again; farmland transformed into minefields has become farmland again. However, in the United States we saw the walls rising, a lustful paranoia becoming more and more insatiable. I’m not sure we were trying to address the global consciousness as much as we were interested in finding relationships within two different communities that were some distance apart from each other.
SC: You were quoted as saying, “A great painting for me always begins with struggle and ends in balance.” Could the birds in your work be a manifestation of that balance - or do they play a role in the struggle for balance? Could the answer vary based on the medium - like from their presence in your paintings and the presence of them in Postcommodity projects?
SY: That quote is more a reference to the decision making process than to the image. When confronted with a blank canvas, if you really step back from it, I guess thinking philosophically; the act of painting is ridiculous. It poses nothing but problems and the “painter” spends his entire time fixing, readjusting, and making it less confusing for himself and the viewer. The consideration of the process has been stated more eloquently by many other artist/painters in the past, and so I guess that could be mine. As far as the Postcommodity perspective, the idea of the birds I might have brought into the collective project still resonate as mediators, especially for the Czech Republic installations, but they can also just be birds.
SC: Was there a distinct shift in the creation process of your work or in the work itself, when you transitioned from living and working in the “House Studios” to subsequent living and work spaces?
SY: I think the “House Studios” had a big impact on my work in the beginning, mostly because I had no other art making references. The House was very communal, all encompassing world for a while. It was much different than the way I work today. The “House Studios” was inhabited by a bunch of crazy, transient, romantic-bohemian types; quite a different life after the Marine Corps. I somehow found my way in, and I really took to the House’s non-academic approach to painting and hanging out all night. At the time everyone there seemed to pull from each others style and most of the work coming out of there had this signature “House Studios” whimsy and surreal thing going on.
When I left the House, my work began to evolve into directions I couldn’t have imagined back then. I do think the subsequent studios I’ve worked out of since had there own special charm, but also working in more isolation over the last few years brings a certain kind of meditative practice; I’m forced to work out a lot of problems on my own before they leave the studio. So much outside the studio affects the process too. Engaging the public in shows, building institutional relationships, personal relationships, and all those experiences help give me a broader perspective on my creative practice.
SC: How is the creation process different when you work as an individual versus working in a group like Postcommodity or YRGproject? What about with something like Draw Me a Picture?
SY: The creation process between working as a painter and being part of a collective is very different. As a painter I enjoy working alone; I work well in my own controlled environment and I have a set way about the studio practice. When it comes to painting, I’ll probably always work this way.The collectives give me a great place to experiment with other artists and try things I might not try on my own. Doing collective work is all very worth it too if you can think of yourself as part of the whole and not the whole. It can be hard sometimes when egos get in the way, but our friendships help keep things intact. In the Postcommodity collective, we share responsibilities for each stage of our projects. We have a process for working together between ourselves and we spend a lot of time conference calling and working out ideas before we meet. It can be a challenge because we all live in different areas and we have to travel to meet up for a lot of the things we are doing.
Do You Remember When? www.postcommodity.com
The YRGproject is a little more freestyle in approach, but has the same logistical concerns with one of our members living in L.A. Our goal with that project is to keep coming up with interesting photos, however we get there, so our process is still pretty open.
Uno - www.yrgproject.com
Draw Me a Picture was work I did after a residency in Maine at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, during the summer of 2006. It was a complete shift into a conceptual practice that might have inspired the collaborative approaches. While that project had elements of collaboration, it was mostly controlled from my end.
Draw Me a Picture - www.tract.it
SC: What is your relationship to your color palate? Do you assert the content and placement of these colors in your work or do they assert their own role? Does that relationship change when working collectively?
SY: I tend to lean more toward the painterly and surreal. I’m not a conceptual painter, although I do conceptual work. I’m also not concerned with paint and color in a symbolic sense. The figure is my first love in painting and I guess there could be a color relationship in that context. I’m interested in the natural state of things like light and reflective light. My relationship to light and sky is in part because of where I live and paint in Arizona. The light in the west is especially intense and bright with hard shadows. The transitional times like morning and dusk are incredibly dramatic and that can inform the palate too. I guess that’s still open for interpretation. With Postcommodity’s palate, we seem to all agree on the color black as our dominant color and I’m not completely sure why, but it works. I really can’t speak for all the collective member’s perspective on the matter, but to answer your question, yes, the color relationships change, when working with other artists collectively.
SC: Your paintings entitled Grandfather and Self Portrait have similarities (the camouflage backgrounds, the forward facing gazes, the arms at rest) and also some sharp contrasts (how you both are seated, how you both are dressed, the color and sharpness of the camouflage). Can you discuss these similarities and differences?
SY: My grandfather and I both served in the Marine Corps. He was a Navajo Code Talker in WWII and the painting of him is from a photo I took after he had received an award. I wanted to acknowledge our shared experience in the service with two different portraits. I thought the camouflage made a nice background for both of us and was pretty straightforward. An interesting note is even though I’m sitting “Indian Style”, it is an actual military sitting position. In the Marine Corps they train you to sit with your left leg over your right. It’s considered the proper body position when you are shooting your rifle sitting down. It really only works if you are a right handed shooter.
SC: You were quoted as saying that, “The original statement for the DreamWarrior… describes the piece as a larger than life portrait of the undying romantic image of indigenous people,” and you said you have since realized it is also, “A portrait of myself walking my own lines of identity, sarcasm and disconnected truths.” If the white guy in the painting was just a random white guy and not Randy, do you think your personal identification with the piece would have been different? What was Randy’s reaction to this piece?
SY: Your question poses an interesting observation. But, I think any white guy dressed up as a Navajo would have worked for that portrait. At the time I was working on that portrait, I was right next door to Randy’s studio, so he became an easy target when I needed a model. As far as Randy’s reaction to the painting, he loves it. Who wouldn’t like a 7’ portrait of themselves dressed up like a Navajo?
SC: Here are two quotes of yours I found that dealt with Fear of a Red Planet, Relocation and Removal, 2000. The first is: “Knowing that a part of me that went into it is truthful. I think out of that I wanted to be known not as a Native American artist, but an artist that happens to be Native American. I wanted self definition.” The second is: “When I started developing the story and the painting, it started demanding more of itself and more of me… now that I am done with it and everything - I feel like there is so much that is expected of me. I was representing Native American culture, and before that I never had.” These quotes seem to illustrate a convergence of worlds maybe within yourself or within your process of self definition - kind of the way worlds collide in Coyote Interiors, Land Extractions and really in so much of your work. Do you feel like a part of your process of self-definition is striking a balance among the many intersections of your identity?
SY: I think part of my process does strike a balance with my identity and it happens naturally. Identity based themes are not issues for me in my work anymore, at least not overtly. I think these are issues for a younger Indigenous and mixed race artists. They were for me and I definitely worked through some of those issues in my work; The portraits of my Grandfather and myself, Randy as the Dream Warrior, Navajo Lingo, and the Speak and Spell paintings to name a few. The quotes you mention are from the time I was making the mural and I was a younger artist trying to make sense of who I was. Working with a Native American Art Museum, The Heard, brought on a larger sense of cultural responsibility and representation something that I didn’t think about, nor was I always ready for. It was a great learning experience. As far as for the intersections and convergence today, yes it’s there and it plays out in some of my work, and those intersections are sometimes abstract or unclear and I like that kind of unknown in my work.
SC: Can you see the theme of identity resurfacing in your paintings as your paternal identity takes shape? Or when your son starts to assert his identity?
SY: That’s very hard to tell as to what degree, but I’m sure it will surface at some point for him and maybe more for me again in the future. In 2008 I attempted to create some work about loosing Navajo bloodlines in an installation piece titled “Sleeping With Jefferson.” It’s a little complicated installation to get into, but basically it was proposing a hypothetical notion that exposure to different cultures and life experiences in urban centers like Phoenix will ultimately influence the purity of bloodlines. I used the conceptual landscape of Phoenix and a waterbed to explore that idea. It’s a loose interpretation of miscegenation playing out in the Jeffersonian grid. There’s a better description on my website. The images will probably help as well.
Sleeping with Jefferson
Text (below) from www.stevenyazzie.com
“Sleeping with Jefferson is an installation based on a futuristic hypothetical narrative of miscegenation and the impacts of geographic space we live in. The installation incorporates a video projection on a bed of hubcaps/ wheel covers. The video is about 5 minutes long and is two parts, a pixilated view of mixed race couples having sex and images of moving water in different color arrangements. A digital picture frame that sits in the headboard, displays a map of metro Phoenix, the 5th largest metropolitan area in the US. This looping digital picture frame changes every 5 seconds, beginning at the 2000 census of Native American population and ends at the 2200, showing the declining pure blood Native American population in Metro Phoenix. For this information, I used my family’s history to forecast the probabilities of future generations of Natives to be Native and or Post-Native in the Phoenix metro area and I rely on a geographic information system (GIS) linking the results to spatial information on a changing map.”
SC: Has your relationship with Fear of a Red Planet changed at all throughout the decade it has been displayed? Does your relationship with any piece you complete change? Does the piece itself change in reaction to its environment and its place in time?
Fear of a Red Planet: Relocation and Removal 2000
SY: I still feel incredibly grateful and blessed to have been apart of that experience. Fear of a Red Planet still resonates for me today as it did when I made it. It seems to be doing its job in the Museum too, engaging the public audience today as it did 10 years ago. The mural was very timely for all parties involved and I’m very proud of that work. Over time I have changed as an artist, and my work has also changed. I think as far as work changing in reaction to it’s environment and place in time, I’m not sure how to completely answer that, but in general I always look at my work in a timeline to understand where I’ve come from and what new direction I’m moving. I don’t think I’m capable of much more than that. Maybe I need a few more years of making art to answer that question completely.
SC: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
SY: I think of myself more as an American artist, but I have no problem with Contemporary North American Indigenous Artist if that’s what you want to call me. This issue of labeling is mostly out of my hands. I think the terminology exists for orientation and depending on the writer, speaker, etc., it seems that they use this as a reference for artists and work. As far as the divide between Indigenous art and the mainstream, I really don’t know. Maybe there’s not enough good work made by indigenous artists to make a dent in the mainstream. Regardless, there are still artists crossing over into an international arena getting exposure in major venues and magazines. Some examples: Brian Jungen, Andrea Carlson, James Luna, Edgar Heap of Birds, and Jimmie Durham just to name a few.
SC: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
SY:Postcommodity members:Kade Twist, Nathan Young, Raven Chacon
Steven Yazzie (b. 1970 Newport Beach, California; lives and works in Phoenix Arizona) received and education with the United States Marine Corps, Phoenix College and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. His work has been exhibited at the Arizona State University Art Museum, Heard Museum in Phoenix Arizona and the Phoenix Art Museum; Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Arizona; Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tucson Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona. Yazzie has also exhibited in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Toronto, Spain and the Czech Republic. Yazzie has been a part of over numerous exhibitions, and is in many private collections throughout the country. He has received a number of regional and national grants and is currently exhibiting in Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Yazzie is active with two collectives/projects, Postcommodity andYRGproject. He is one of the founding members of Postcommodity, a contemporary American Indian arts collective. Postcommodity is an on going project who’s mission is to utilize collaborative, intertribal, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to experimenting with conceptual and aesthetic forms of contemporary American Indian expression.
He is one of the founding members of YRGproject, a photography based collaboration project designed to utilize a variety of collaborative, engaging, and relational methods as point of exploration in an improvised and sometimes staged environments.
While most of Yazzie’s work is painting, he also works in sculpture, video, installation and mixed media. His recent work addresses concerns of urbanism and man’s relationship to his environment in the Twenty-first century, particularly in the southwestern United States.