In the Studio: Mark Van Yetter

New York

Portrait of Mark Van Yetter in his studio by Grant Delin.

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Mark Van Yetter is a representational painter whose ambiguous images are constructed intuitively, melded like dreams from random events, peculiar settings, and unlikely characters. Despite occasional forays into sculpture, collage, and printmaking, Yetter produces, for the most part, modestly scaled drawings and paintings on paper, the latter executed in smooth, creamy oils with masterful nonchalance. All these works marry familiar genres—portrait, landscape, interior, still life—to a style informed by 1930s American painting and illustration, Magritte’s enigmatic incongruities, and the occasional disco party poster. The results, from the merest sketches to elaborately detailed tableaux, are populated by suggestive figures and objects, which are often poignant or funny or both. Whether a painting depicts a dog staring at a chunk of red meat on a table or a human figure in a room, caught mid-action like a character in a film, the pleasure in Yetter’s work begins with parsing his pictures’ sometimes bizarre ingredients and imagining what they might mean.

Yetter was born in 1978 in the Poconos—in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania—where his family has lived for seven generations, and where his parents operated a mobile home dealership. Dyslexic, he dropped out of high school at seventeen but managed to complete a GED before attending the School of Visual Arts in New York. After earning a BFA in 2000, he returned to East Stroudsburg to paint, supporting himself with odd jobs and by buying and selling record collections. In 2005, after periodic stints in New York, he moved to Brooklyn, where he and Turkish artist Ayca Odabasi opened Marquise Dance Hall, a used book and record store cum art and performance space, in Williamsburg, named after a nightclub in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Yetter lived in the back of the store and worked on his art there until 2008, when the two decamped to Istanbul, taking Marquise Dance Hall with them. Five years later, Yetter relocated to Berlin, where he was represented by Micky Schubert Gallery from 2007 until the gallery closed in 2017.

Last September, Yetter moved back to East Stroudsburg, after having been abroad for nearly a decade. His travels are evident in his work, although references to particular foreign places or people are rare. Characters in his paintings are vaguely associated with various historical periods—from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages to the present day—and the spaces, whether city streets or subway stations, remain indefinite. Everything he makes gets filtered by his quirky imagination and translated into an anachronistic-seeming language of its own.

When we spoke last winter, Yetter was preparing for his second one-person exhibition at Bridget Donahue, New York, which runs through July 15. Since 2002, he has had nineteen solo shows in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Norway, and has been included in approximately two dozen group shows. His studio is a large room with sliding glass doors, attached to what was once his grandmother’s house. The structure sits atop a filled-in swimming pool, at the bend of a river, in a mobile home park built by his father. We sat on a couch facing what was then his newest painting, Damn Forest at Night (2018), which seemed a rebuttal to the sunny, snow-covered landscape outside.

Steel Stillman  How did you become interested in art?

Mark Van Yetter  I drew constantly as a kid. But my first introduction in a wider sense came at about age twelve, when an ex-hippie couple opened a community art center in town and attracted local and visiting artists of all kinds. Very quickly I realized I wanted to learn more. I soaked up what I could from books and, once I got my driver’s license, from trips into New York to see museum shows. Going to SVA at eighteen was a real turning point. I applied in illustration but was steered toward the fine art department. I’ve never really differentiated between fine art and illustration, but I was excited, at that time, to learn about artists like Mike Kelley, who scorned such distinctions.

STILLMAN Given your later experiences abroad, attending the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam for a semester in your junior year seems a harbinger. What was that like?

YETTER SVA was organized and rational, while the Rietveld was its polar opposite. There was almost no curriculum; students ran the classes, and teachers rarely showed up. Everything was related to Conceptual art, and no one was making paintings. I’d already become a painter by that time, but it was good for me to be exposed to perspectives that challenged my thinking and, in doing so, strengthened my commitment. If you want to paint, you’ve got to be able to spend a lot of time alone, and I realized I was fine with that.

STILLMAN  Why did you skip graduate school?

YETTER I didn’t think about it for a second. All that career building seemed ridiculous to me; there are enough over-studied, over-informed artists in the world, and I didn’t want to become one of them. I spent a few months in Berlin after SVA and then came up here to figure things out for myself. For a while, I painted landscapes like a boring old Sunday painter. But I destroyed most of them; what I was making didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Looking back, though, it was a fruitful period. I discovered that I felt more connected to an American strain of modernism, one that runs through artists like Charles Demuth, Thomas Hart Benton, and Palmer Hayden, than to the more widely acceptable European ones derived from Picasso and Surrealism and so on.

STILLMAN Beginning around 2005, certain motifs begin to appear in your paintings. Some of these—I’m not sure what to call them—feature symmetrical, frequently curtained prosceniums that bring to mind theater sets or baroque palaces.

YETTER I never know what to call them, either! Perhaps that’s because they start out like doodles. I paint a line on a piece of paper, without any preconceived notion, and the picture builds from there. Using a central vanishing point, subsequent lines begin to suggest spaces, indoor or outdoor, and eventually figures or other objects show up, including vases or fountains. The pictures are a bit like psychedelic images from the ’60s, spaces to get lost in. But they’re difficult to pull off without lapsing into kitsch, and often years go by before I can make another successful one.

STILLMAN Another category of paintings focuses on groups of people, gatherings large and small. In an untitled work from 2007, for example, two dozen characters from assorted historical periods congregate at the steps of a government building for a demonstration that has turned violent, while a TV camera records the action.

YETTER  That’s one of my favorites, a sketch-like painting with freehand smudges that resists precise definition. Though my images are representational and play with narrativity, I generally hesitate to say what they’re about for fear of killing them. Viewers’ associations are always more interesting than my own. Like most of my paintings, this one doesn’t represent an actual event, but it addresses the ongoing theme of oppression, a story that won’t go away.

STILLMAN  Your exhibitions frequently include a number of sketch-like drawings on approximately letter-size paper. Many are simple, funny images that explode in the mind, with the unnerving after-the-fact obviousness of a joke. How do they fit in?

YETTER The small drawings are at the center of my work, and they crystallize much of what happens in the more developed paintings. I often make them in batches of forty or fifty at a time, very intuitively, and throw most of them away. But occasionally, one or two will excite me a lot. For instance, in 2006, I made one of a turtle walking away from an overturned bucket and was pleased afterward to realize that an image of an animal escaping death could be a metaphor for human beings. Or another work, from around the same time, shows a man balancing on a line in the upper left of an otherwise empty sheet of paper, a high-wire act that might represent the course of one’s life. These images came to me spontaneously, and I’m convinced that’s why they succeed. If I were to set out to paint a high-wire act, intending it to symbolize x, y, or z, it would never work. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

STILLMAN Most of your paintings are done with oil paint on easel-size paper. What does that combination offer you?

YETTER Having started out in drawing years ago, I feel comfortable working on paper. And oil paint is smooth and controllable; it doesn’t dry too fast or buckle the paper the way watercolors and acrylics do. But scale is another factor. Except for a short period in Germany, and now here, I’ve worked mostly in small rooms on short walls or tables, so being able to work efficiently without having stretchers or canvases lying about has been a real boon. It took a long time to find a way of working that felt like my own, and it may be that painting in this way, on these surfaces, provides a kind of continuity that holds my work’s diverse subject matter together.

STILLMAN How did living abroad for the past decade affect you and your work?

YETTER The greatest benefit was in getting to know artists from other cultural contexts, people whose interests, histories, and reference points were unfamiliar to me. It’s often said that the art world today is global, but outside the international gallery system things remain quite local, even in Berlin. So maybe it’s not surprising that I never stopped feeling like an outsider. Despite the fresh stimuli—buildings, landscapes, people, ideas—what I knew best and used in my work remained grounded in American experience.

STILLMAN In early 2016, toward the end of your time in Berlin, you made a large work that looked at America from a distance. The mere knowledge of a fact is pale [2016]—its title comes from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court—was painted on forty-six pieces of paper and installed edge to edge, like a horizontal scroll, in two rooms at the Kunsthall Stavanger in Norway.

YETTER  The mere knowledge is a panorama of remembered scenes viewed from a car or train window, traveling from rural eastern Pennsylvania to New York City and back again. The whole thing was done in a grayscale, almost illustrational style. In my studio I set up a row of four or five sheets of paper and worked from left to right; when I finished the furthest left painting, I’d remove it from the wall, shift the others leftward and add a fresh sheet to the right end. One inspiration was a series of Robert Crumb drawings, “A Short History of America,” which I’d seen animated in the documentary Crumb when I was about sixteen. It showed a rural landscape in Anywhere, USA, becoming urbanized over decades. My panorama depicts people going about their lives in a region characterized by ugly highways, abandoned strip malls, and roads that lead from one parking lot into another. My goal was neither to romanticize nor condemn but, like Crumb, to create a clear-eyed portrait of life in America in the ’90s, knowing that, even as I was making it, the country didn’t look like that anymore, that development and change are unstoppable.

STILLMAN In recent years your solo shows have presented selections of disparate images in poetic—even political—juxtaposition. For instance, your 2016 show at Bridget Donahue, “The Terrifying Abyss of Skepticism,” seemed, among other things, to pit society and its constraints against the lure of escapism.

YETTER I don’t make thematic exhibitions, but I’m always hoping that individual works will build into something larger. The show at Bridget’s opened soon after the 2016 election, and near its entrance were three works that belonged together, advertisements for a fake brand of beer called Society. These were painted on green poster board and featured beer bottles, glasses on tables, and punning tag lines: “Open a Society Today”; “Forget About Your Problems with Society”; “Society, for Those Rainy Days.” Then there was a large painting, A Lack of Imagination Seems to be the Core of the Problem [2016], which had started out at half its current size, as a still life of a vase, on the left, opposite marble columns and an open window. I’d begun it on a residency at a castle in southern Germany, focusing on the challenge of painting marble and the effects of light coming in from outside. But before long, I added paper and made the composition symmetrical, with the window now at the center and a second vase on the right. Then I introduced, on the columns flanking the window, a pair of marble cupids who shoot arrows in the general direction of a bird perched right at the middle of the painting, on a branch that rises up from the left-hand vase. The bird can fly away but doesn’t.

STILLMAN Another painting from the 2016 show that seems to propose an imaginary escape is Damn Forest [2016], a lush landscape that looks part Disney cartoon, part Charles Burchfield. Why did you title it negatively?

YETTER  I don’t really remember, but perhaps the forest is in somebody’s way. Until a few months ago, when I made Damn Forest at Night for the new show at Bridget’s, Damn Forest, at sixty-six-by-ninety-four inches, was the largest painting I’d ever made. You’re right, it does have some Burchfield in it; he’s another artist whose work made a strong impression on me when I was young. And there’s definitely something cartoonlike in its flattened paint handling and strange scale shifts, with whole trees seeming to be made out of plant leaves or blades of grass. But it’s also wonky in less obvious ways, with multiple vanishing points that mislead the eye into dead ends.

STILLMAN Your new exhibition at Bridget Donahue—it’s titled with a Yogi Berra-ism, “You can observe a lot just by watching”—picks up threads from the 2016 show. In addition to the new forest painting, there will be a pair of political posters that are considerably more pointed than the Society beer ones.

YETTER Exactly. They’re called Cruelty à Go Go #1 and Cruelty à Go Go #2 [both 2018], and they use red poster board to frame photographs of two Styrofoam sculptures that I made more than ten years ago—one of an unpainted handgun, the other of an elephant coated in Velveeta cheese and sporting fake human teeth. I came across the elephant photo when I arrived back here, and it looked so Trump-like that I knew I had to exploit it. Except for the photos, the posters are similar, sort of hybrids of ’70s disco-party posters and political ones. They feature silhouette motifs of dancers and bongo players and large hand-cut text that reads “Grand Old Party,” a nod to the Republicans. Between them, I’m planning to hang a slightly larger charcoal drawing of a jailhouse scene, showing a whistling, goose-stepping guard marching in front of a cellblock, with a watchtower looming in the distance. This image feels to me like a picture of America right now, a picture that’s not so different from the way things were a hundred or even two hundred years ago. Whether for slaves, criminals, or immigrants, we’re still building walls and putting people behind them.

STILLMAN Poster board also frames a new series of painted portraits, vaguely medieval- or Renaissance-style headshots of one man and five women, all with the same phrase, “Penny for Your Thoughts,” cut out beneath them in a kind of Olde English typeface.

YETTER  I wanted the paintings to feel timeless, not linked to an identifiable tradition or convention of portraiture. The text can be read as if we were asking these characters for their thoughts. Or as if they were asking for ours. At the same time, how much is a thought worth? A penny doesn’t seem like very much. I’m calling the series the “Conceptual Collection” because in today’s art world, where everyone is continually asking artists and their supporters—gallerists, critics, curators, collectors—what the work is about, conceptual premises, which were once beyond reproach, have become marketing tools. Giving the portraits the same tagline turns these people into a group, a jury of peers, maybe, or a gathering of oracles.

STILLMAN In relation to the elephant and gun sculptures, you’ve constructed a shelving unit for the new show with about thirty cubbies to display small figurative sculptures made by dipping thrift store knickknacks in plaster of paris.

YETTER That’s the “Wind Gap Refinement Collection” [2018], named after a rundown indoor flea market in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, not far from here. Sometimes I find myself thinking about the decorative objects we have in our homes and what happens when we no longer need them. While you’re living with them, they’re sculpture, but when you die or get tired of them they become refuse. Coating them in plaster of paris and sealing them with Elmer’s glue seems to mummify them and give them another kind of life.

STILLMAN These small sculptures are a good example of how the past circulates through your work, whether as echoes of historical artists and styles or as subject matter that feels curiously dated. Are you using the past to say something in particular about the present?

YETTER Paying attention only to the contemporary seems naive to me. We know how quickly things change. Having lived in other countries, I’m particularly aware that earlier times and older cultural influences don’t disappear; they weave themselves into the texture of the present. My work draws on everything going on around me, from the news online to 1920s blues and folk songs to underappreciated artists like Julius Bloch, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, and Jacob Burck. But I’m not a storyteller. And I’m not trying to teach anyone anything.