When you come across a mirror it’s nearly impossible not to look in it. But what happens when the reflective surface is an artwork — when looking at yourself precludes looking at it, and vice versa? Carrie Yamaoka’s exhibition at PK Shop, titled after the Jimi Hendrix song “Are You Experienced?,” is reminiscent of the cognitive illusions of the young girl and the old woman or the rabbit and the duck, in which the same image suggests two different interpretations to our brains and we have difficulty apprehending them simultaneously. With Yamaoka’s work, I find myself caught in a complex intermediate space in which I must consciously decide where to focus my attention — on myself or on the exquisite material surface that keeps tempting me back to my own reflection. And there’s the ironic fact that while my own reflection is a pictorial representation, the artwork itself is defiantly not one; it is, rather, an attempt to reflect the indeterminate moment before apprehension coheres into image. That moment has a parallel in the tension I feel as my focus vacillates between the surface of the artwork and the image of myself that coheres on the surface, if I allow it to.
When we catch our gaze in a mirror, we’re simultaneously aware that we are looking at an object and at ourselves. In a way, Yamaoka’s paintings (and I call them “paintings” advisedly — she says they are “a hybridized zone between painting and sculpture and drawing,” according to artist statement) do something similar by creating an ambiguous pictorial space with an indeterminate depth so that our gaze is constantly being redirected.
Many of these works are created by using mylar — a form of film — and casting resin onto it. In some cases the resin rests below the sheets of mylar, and in others above it. While Yamaoka uses film to create the work, she’s more interested in the compression of space than she is in pictorial outcomes. One curious result of her process is that from a distance her images can reveal great striations and fluctuations in color, but as one draws nearer to inspect these details, they vanish. In front of Yamaoka’s larger works, one tends to behave as if before a sculpture, evading one’s own reflection by walking around the works and sizing them up from different angles. The artist described these pieces to me “a film plane where the shutter is always open.” They are reflective surfaces, and at the same time they’re absorptive: one has a sense of real physical depth below the surface, and as one gets closer and closer to the surface, the intimation of depth overtakes the search for detail.
Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term “the decisive moment” to describe both a photograph he had taken in 1932 called “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare” and what he believed made a photograph come to life: “If the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.” Bresson’s famous phrase comes to mind when looking at Yamaoka’s work because her ambition seems to be the diametric opposite — that is, to leave time unfixed, with fixer being the chemical that preserves the photograph and the decisive moment that Bresson aspired to. She’s more interested in slowing time down and getting us to pay attention to materiality.
Photography has traditionally been about the play of light on the plane of an unexposed sheet of film. Rather than recording with light, Yamaoka records with touch. Many of her works begin as rubbings: the surface of a wall, or her studio floor, or a sheet of bubble wrap is indexed onto a sheet of mylar by the simple process of rubbing the mylar against it. But while these surfaces are legible and physical, Yamaoka wants to arrest us at the moment before legibility occurs — a moment we’re rarely aware of, when we’re still processing but haven’t yet come to a cognitive conclusion.
In one pairing in this exhibition, two works hang side by side: a silver reflective surface and a black surface. As it turns out, Yamaoka created both works from the same material — a sheet of reflective vinyl film — but in one case the surface has been built on the front side of the vinyl and in the other on the back, almost as if a mirror has been dissected, separating the back that enables the object to exist from the front that enables us to see ourselves. An interesting divorce. Saul Bellow once said, “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.” Yamaoka gives us that black backing as well as our reflection, leaving us with an opportunity to see.
These works do one other thing that an artist would be unlikely to declare about her own work: they ignite covetousness; they make us want them for ourselves. And that desire to have stems from the beauty of the objects Yamaoka creates. When I was in art school, “beauty” was a dirty word. And yet, it’s undeniable that whatever fluctuations exist across cultures, people have a notion of beauty and they respond to it, whether the current ideology approves or not. Being able to create a beautiful object that is at the same time complex, compelling, and demanding is not an accomplishment to underestimate.
Carrie Yamaoka: Are You Experienced? continues at PK Shop (511 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 19.