A Memorable Gathering of Witches
The night of October 31st is Halloween, the eve of the Christian festival of all saints All Saints' Day. But it is also São Paulo-based artist Yuli Yamagata’s birthday. For her first exhibition with Madragoa in Lisbon, called BRUXA (“Witch”, until October 31), Yamagata floods the gallery with dramatic characters and witchy props like an explosion of candies. The notion of witchcraft is often treated as children’s beliefs or cultural ideology. For the latter, it can be a means to describe life’s adversities by attributing them to occult beings or people who are unwelcomed in a particular community (notably, in the case of witches, women were historically targeted). Fairy tales on the other hand, offer clear and conceivable answers to children’s anxieties, informing them of the efforts they must accomplish and of the life challenges to come. They are also somehow cathartic, by offering a way of emotional release. Ultimately, as scary as the sorceress is, she’s usually either contained or transformed by the end of the fable.
Despite being crammed in the small gallery space, Yamagata’s works, nearly a dozen, certainly offer the notion of release. They are made of fabric, Lycra, ceramics, acrylic, and other household items and cheaply produced materials. Bold, they strike the viewer with varied colour blocks, but also patterns of reds, yellows, greens, browns, and pinks that are made stronger against the white background of the gallery’s walls. Yamagata works a lot with textile, she sews colourful scraps of fabrics together to create a lively visual language, abounding with monsters, witches, and eyeballs falling out of their sockets, on canvas-like structures or as stand-alone sculptures. She draws references and visual cues from her environment, São Paulo, comics, ads, and any other element from her daily life, experienced in person, via the media, or online.
Two large monochrome plinths covered in tiles, one in bright yellow and the other in shiny red, stand in the middle of the room. On the yellow one is, Sopa (all works 2020), a mixed-media (ceramic, silicone, polyester, velvet…) sculpture that consists of a plate filled with a brown gravy and bones, on which sits a corn on a cob. Attached to the cob, and growing sinuously towards the ceiling, is a velvety wire, supposedly representing the smoke from the cob, which reminds me of an umbilical cord, or of Jack’s magical beanstalk, the one that grew fat and stubborn towards the sky in the English fairy tale. And just like in the fairy tale, the work evokes a youthful agitation, mixed with mystery and the promise of danger. Like Jack’s beanstalk, this show offers a passage between reality (perhaps a dooming one) and a magical domain where possibilities abound, if we are courageous. On the red plinth is what looks like a fat brown snake made of fabric, comfortably curled up. From a distance, it could be mistaken for a sculptural representation of a poop emoji. On top of the snake-like curl sits an eyeball. Is this a half-snake, half-eyeball creature? Did the witch leave that eyeball there? (Is it hers, or is it for her corn soup?), is it macabre? Certainly, but also grotesque, liberated, and funny.
Nearby, another snake-like construction, Caipira I, hangs on the wall, but instead of snake skin, the patterns of the fabric are cartoon-decorated folk boots on a brown background. It could be a pattern for a little’s boy room whose dreams include farm’s life. Except for the fact that instead of an eyeball this curl has a penis-like green cloth protuberance in its centre. Snake and phallus, it makes sense. More works hang on the walls. Some are oils on canvas, some are made from mixed materials: paint on stretched Lycra with bits of porcelain, silicon fibre, velvet, and threads.
Witches and cats are often entwined in the realm of Halloween’s imagery, this exhibition draws from this to include several angry felines. In Overthinking cat, a cartoonish cat made of velvet and cut-out pieces of colourful stretched Lycra is perched high on the wall in a corner. Perhaps it is considering jumping on people walking underneath? A bellowing cat in Gato berrando stares at the viewer from its canvas. It is constructed from various pieces of stretched Lycra and velvet. Its mouth is wide open, striking an exaggerated palatine uvula that leaves no doubt about the intensity of the cat’s hiss. Its fangs are green and ready to scratch. He is not the only one. Gato, a large canvas featuring a black cat on a red background, imposes itself by the brightness of its fabrics stretched on canvas, as well as by its convincingly menacing posture: fangs, crazy eyes, and arched back.
Several oil paintings have evocative titles that poke at the viewer’s sense of smell, such as Pé com veias, a small canvas where a foot and pink veins battle a colourful red and yellow background, with some graffiti/comic strip-like drawings. Another work that describes an olfactive experience is Mão cortando cebola, a painting where yellow cartoonish hands are cutting onions. And another addition to the smelly series is Stinky feet, a painting that could perhaps also be described as a drawing of a foot wearing a high heel and stepping on fire crackers.
The works are playful and tactile. Like toys. The abundance of stretched and soft fabrics soothes the aggressive blows of some of the images. The childish aesthetics do that too. But all challenge taste, or perhaps totally ignore it. One way or another, they are confrontational. Visually, the exhibition throws together a mix of referential lexicon of Halloween, pop, and comics subcultures, with a bubbly energy that appears as a welcome distraction or a celebration. For the most part, happily coloured whimsical undertones release a welcome youthful energy. But the works also evoke violence and fear. Far from reality, just like psychoanalysis sometimes relies on our dreams, story-telling, and mythological imagery to explain our behaviours, these works bear witness to an associative process of thoughts. As a result, Yamagata crafts a personal vocabulary as if she was modelling clay, drawing from a subconscious stream of images. Her personal language could carve its own horror-friendly subgenre, which would include comical shock tactics and some irrational surrealist juxtapositions.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art critic, curator and writer. She is a regular international contributor to art publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and other publications including the South China Morning Post. She was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based independent art magazine Pipeline that ran print editions form 2011 to 2016 where she curated thematic issues with artists, curators and other art contributors. She has a Masters degree in International Prospective from Paris V University.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Yuli Yamagata, Bruxa. Exhibition views at Madragoa Gallery. Photos: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy of the artist and Madragoa Gallery.