The Conversation: Robert Yoder & Ian Toms
This is the first in a series of discussions conducted between professionals - gallerists, collectors, curators, artists - who have some kind of connection or partnership that elicits conversation about practice, collaboration, or the business of art. Robert Yoder (NAP #7, #85) is a Seattle-based artist who has shown work internationally and is no stranger to New American Paintings. He runs a gallery called SEASON out of his mid-century home in the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle. Ian Toms is a young painter and sculptor who has developed a close working relationship with Yoder. Both of their work flirts with provocative obfuscation and dabbles in a vernacular of glamorous filth. Perhaps flirts and dabbles are too weak of terms.
The following interview took place in Toms’ studio. It’s sparse, gritty. There are a lot of spray paint cans and sharpies scattered around, canvases stacked up, ripped magazine images and sketches taped to the walls. One of the sharpie drawings on the wall shows an S-shape repeated randomly on the page. - Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor
Amanda Manitach: What are these symbols? They look familiar but I can't place them.
Ian Toms: It’s most commonly known as the "Stussy S" or the "Superman S". You probably used to see them when you were in junior high all over people's notebooks. I saw one recently and I was like "I used to draw that shit on my folder all the time and I want to know what it is." I started googling it and it turns out that it was used off and on by gangs, but the actual origin of the sign is unknown and it's turned into this sort of urban rune. It's fucking bizarre. Nobody knows where it came from. It tends to jog people's memory: they'll remember having drawn it on folders or walls. But it's this anomaly that doesn't really mean anything; if you put two together it starts to look like an "88" (a prison neo nazi sign), or it can be an infinity sign. You can see so many things in it.
AM: It seems you take inspiration from the city. There’s a grittiness, lack of polish.
IT: I grew up in Aurora, IL. It was a really weird petri dish of society, sort of lower middle class, small track home suburb of this huge city. People from McMansions would come over to our neighborhood to buy drugs. We weren't quite in the ghetto, but we also weren't upper middle class, normal white suburbia.
AM: Is there any crossover for you between your painting and street art?
IT: No. My problem with street art, tagging in particular, is that it's often just about someone getting their name up or making something pretty or hard-looking. That's interesting for about five seconds. I suppose that sounds a bit hypocritical, but my usage of that kind of work is not about the actual painting, but the subtext that comes along with it. I love the pretense of angst, and the idea of searching for masculinity through destruction. I respect when street artists, or artists in general, can transcend or subvert and do something different, even if it isn't good.
AM: So I assume you don't take your spray paint into the streets.
IT: No, totally uninterested.
AM: What's your relationship with Robert? I can see how his show at Platform, DILF!, might be influenced by you a bit.
IT: We have an ongoing dialog with our work. We're both into the same shit and it becomes symbiotic when you spend enough time with somebody and with their work. When you give each other permission to steal each other's ideas and turn it into something else, you begin to ask what can I do to make this person jealous, make them wish they'd done it first.
Robert Yoder: We are feeding off of each other. There's this feeling of wanting to make something that, when he looks at it he says “damn, I wish I'd made that first.” It's a friendly competition, but it's a competition nonetheless.
Ian Toms | Untitled (SPELL pieces), 2012, spraypaint, sharpie, tape on Arches, 22 x 30 inches.
AM: How do you feel about obscenity? Nothing's really shocking these days. But you seemed to playing with this in your DILF! show, obfuscating pornographic images under layers of paint.
RY: There is a lot of drawing underneath all the painting. It's covering up, yes. And it's not really porn, its just drawings of nudes. I don't think there's anything wrong with obscenity...
IT: You know, to be perfectly honest I think with direct obscenity, it's just not very interesting. I spend the majority of my day looking at porn online --
RY: I think we already knew that.
AM: Wait, can I put that in?
IT: Yes, if I say it it's on record.
IT: Shock has been done and done and done and overt obscenity is not that interesting. I think changing it enough so that it feels like it's subversive but it's not immediately apparent why it's subversive is an interesting thing. You can go online or open a magazine and see literally anything you want, so that hardly seems worth even thinking about. But changing it into something different - something that still has a pervy, dirty, weird feeling that makes you feel something…that's kind of where the art is.
Ian Toms | (front to back) Untitled (skull), 2012, mixed media on canvas, 12 x 16 inches; FERAL TEEN (X), 2012, sharpie and spray paint on canvas, 16 x 24 inches; ALIEN FEELING, 2012, spray paint and tape on plywood, 26 x 30 inches.
AM: A lot of the stuff in your work is illegible.
IT: It feels like there's something there that might be offensive if you could read it but there's really no point in reading it because then it's not any fun to think about.
RY: It isn't screaming out at you what it is. It makes you spend time with it along the way. You know there's something there, but does it really matter what it says? It's visually lovely.
AM: Is that how you approached your DILF! pieces too?
RY: There's a lot of covering up, a lot of concealment. Partly because I'd rather not see another show of painted dicks. Like Ian said, that's been done. So how does that subject matter become a painting I'd be interested in doing? Concealment is really important. It's preferable to seeing a whole picture all at once; for me it continuously brings you back. If you see everything at once it's a one-liner and you're quickly on to the next thing.
Robert Yoder | UNTITLED (DALE), 2011, oil on panel with collage, 10 x 8.5 inches.
Image courtesy of Platform Gallery.
AM: When did you two start working together?
IT: We met in 2010 at the first SEASON show - it was Jesse Sugarmann and Natalie Häusler. And I really dug what Robert was doing. I was pretty unfamiliar with his work at the time - no offense! - but I showed him what I was doing and the more we talked the more we found out we're doing the same thing: changing something that's immediately destructive or sad or sexual or whatever, kind of burying that and chasing it. It's something that he's done for a long time, and I had started doing similar work six or eight months before I met him. And it was all uphill from there.
RY: (laughing) All uphill? I think we discovered that we liked a lot of the same people. And we shared a similar fed-up feeling. We want something to happen and it's not gonna happen unless we make it happen. There's a lot of DIY that needs to get done. A lot of people seem to want to rely on others to give them whatever extra push they need, when in fact if they just need to recognize they have the ability to do it themselves. That's one of the ways we really connected: the method isn't working so let's make a new method. Maybe it won't work either, but it's better than waiting for the one that's not working to not work for us!
AM: It seems to be working for you.
RY: It's slowly working! There's some frustration about the speed of it, but not the success of it. I'm very, very patient, but there are some things I want to have happened yesterday. When it comes to the people I work with and I respect, I want more and I want it now. It's weird to say because I never hear other people say the same thing.
Robert Yoder | TEENAGE DONNA (ADDICT), 2012, graphite on paper with marker, 11 x 15 inches.
Image courtesy of Platform Gallery.
AM: Robert, what do you think of Ian's work?
RY: There's a rawness to it that I find refreshing. A real honesty. The more I know him the more I see him in the work, so there's a real maker of the works behind them.
IT: I think you said the magic word: honesty. Honesty and authenticity is extremely important and is what draws me to the shit that you do, now that I know you're a lecherous pervert! (laughter) In the best way! I don’t care about illusion in painting and art: gloss just doesn't give me a hard-on. I like something that feels like it was plucked out of something else and not made specifically to hang on a wall.
AM: What do you think of the regional aesthetic? A few of the artists you show have tapped into…well, I want to refer to Matthew Offenbacher's Green Gothic or (I hate to lean on the term), a lush, painterly Northwest mystic vibe.
RY: There's a little bit of that, but I think the work I'm really interested in that Seattle artists are doing - at least the ones I'm dealing with - all has this sub-layer of subversion going on. Even if it's a really beautiful landscape painting there's a subversive element that gives it layered information and meaning.
Robert Yoder | TEENAGE DONNA (RELEASED), 2012, graphite on paper with collage, 20 x 20 inches.
Image courtesy of Platform Gallery.
IT: It's like the Northwest breeds that: people hiding their feelings. In a person it's totally fucking uninteresting and a personality flaw, but I think in artwork it's actually a really interesting thing, where you don't always get it on the surface….
RY: There is something about the quality of living here that’s beneficial, and I can see that seeping into everybody's work. But in the end the work is a reflection of the artist's personality and it's hard to say that where you live really influences you. It does do something, I'm sure, but to what degree?
IT: It depends on the kind of shit that you make. I think that the work you and I are doing is so personal that it's irrelevant where we live. So if I ever move to the fucking middle of nowhere in Montana nothing will really change that much!
RY: It would still not find an audience! You would not find a bigger audience there!
IT: Because there's less people, if I got one person to an opening that would be absolutely fucking perfect!
RY: The percentage of people interested would go up! That's the other reason we like each other. Because we dump a lot on each other!
AM: It's beautiful.
RY: And we don't mean it.
IT: Sometimes! Only sometimes!
Robert Yoder's paintings and collages have been shown across the country and internationally and are in numerous private and public collections. His work is represented by Frosch & Portmann in New York and Zurich, and Platform Gallery in Seattle. Two years ago, he opened SEASON to promote local artists to the world and introduce international artists to Seattle. His show DILF! is on view at Platform Gallery through June 16, 2012.
Ian Toms studied painting at Cornish College of the Arts. His work is in private collections in North America and Europe. He and Robert are currently collaborating on a book of porn stories, with pictures.
Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.