As Above, So Below
Photos courtesy Tilton Gallery
The weight of Yashua Klos’ collages is apparent in scale and value, but the sensitivity of his mark-making denotes quietness and complexity that is vital to his work. In his recent Tilton Gallery show, “As Below, So Above,” Black figures exist suspended in a primordial space where cement, wood, and cinder blocks envelope, invade and fragment their faces. The intimacy of Klos’ hand-drawn detail partners with the epic scale of his wood-cut collages to create an unsettling balance between the two—overwhelming even, when one considers the time invested in the wood carving, printing, pasting and drawing invested in each piece. In a rising atmosphere of escalating polarities and intolerance, Klos’ work stands as an ever important contribution to the strength, vulnerability and grief experienced in the Black community. In his conversation with Newfound, Yashua Klos shares his thoughts on the fluidity of Black identity, the importance of myth, and what motivates his art practice.
COURTNEY SIMCHAK: While there is a sense of universality within your collages, there is a specific experience from which these collages originate. In your recent Tilton Gallery show, “As Below, So Above,” Black portraits simultaneously move apart and together in these large, detailed collages. Can you share more on what motivates this series and your work as a whole?
YASHUA KLOS: I’m seeing the Black body as a state in flux. The survival of Black life in America is reliant upon ingenuity—knowing when to adapt, transform, or stand your ground. The series you’re referring to is not portraiture, really, but examples of how to shift around death. Each “head form” is negotiating its preservation with that planar obstruction in its path. Some of us will merge with the obstacle, some will break through, some will wear it, etc. There are so many ways we survive, and in the resilience we can become more expansive—even more human, I think.
SIMCHAK: Our relationship to myth is complicated. Western thought associates myth with storytelling and popular belief and these remains of myth are an important informant of our modern understanding of identity. What are your associations with “myth” and how does it inform your work?
KLOS: Myth is layered in my work—that’s a great question! In America, “history” is a mix of fact and propaganda—which make a sort of myth. The myths here are obviously constructed to preserve a hierarchy and mitigate power. We have statues and monuments erected to concretize these myths. Ancient cultures have left behind the architecture and art of their mythical identities as well.
In my late teens I began to reclaim histories and myths around Black identity since I felt I was deprived of a true telling of history through the Chicago Public School system. This was my introduction to Afrocentrism in the mid 90’s—a project based around an African American reclamation of a heroic African identity. Myth in this sense is a way to dramatize and concretize lost histories.
SIMCHAK: In addition to mythical, your work is also exceptionally elemental. The “planar obstructions” are stony, wooden, and concrete, and the titles of your work incorporate stars, wind, animals, darkness, space, even ghosts. Our physical environment and its elements are important when building a mythic consciousness because it ties abstractions and idea to physical experience, but it’s definitely not its only use. What relationship do you have to these elements and materials? Why choose these elements as the building blocks of the Black mythic identity you wish to express in your work?
KLOS: I’m thinking a lot about the earthly materials made in constructing statues and monuments. I’m thinking about them as physical materials that are both strong yet vulnerable to time and decay. There is a strange timelessness to ancient monuments that have been standing for thousands of years yet decaying as well. The Olmec heads or the Colossi of ancient Egypt seem to have been meant to last for eternity, and they still communicate the monumentality of that culture’s identity and their relationship to time.
The materials I reference sometimes are the leftovers from urban abandonment. You may see milk crates, broken bricks, or wood beams in my work. I’m dealing with my own desire to “construct” a monumental black identity while only having access to those local scrap materials.
I also grew up in an area where there was a lot of thinking around black spiritual consciousness. My neighborhood is the home of the Nation of Islam, and there were also Black Hebrew Israelites and black folks practicing Buddhism.
Some of the elements I refer to are revelatory, like fire, or meditative, like wind. So I’m considering those elements that can also be related to the mythical or mystical. I like when elements in my work hold that duality as well—where wind can remind us of focused inner breath, or the brutal Chicago winter!
Each “head form” is negotiating its preservation with that planar obstruction in its path. Some of us will merge with the obstacle, some will break through, some will wear it, etc. There are so many ways we survive, and in the resilience we can become more expansive—even more human, I think.
SIMCHAK: The detail and size of your work is also an important element in expressing the mythic and spiritual. These collages are large and packed with rich, intricate detail. What kind of process do you use when composing a collage piece like “Wind Monument,” for example?
KLOS: Yes, scale is very important in my work. I think monumentality is really closely linked to phenomenology and then possibly linked to ideas of the Sublime. Both concepts deal with our body’s relationship to the sight experiences we are having, where we are reminded of the vulnerability of our own bodies in that moment. At times I try to push scale in 2D to enact something similar. I think a piece like “The Face on Mars” would be my most successful attempt at activating a phenomenological experience through scale. Scale, of course, is not related in ratio to a work’s size—so I’ve arrived there with smaller pieces too. “Wind Monument” is less about that physical art object being monumental and more about depicting a moment where a monument or memorial marker seems to breathe or to be living in some way itself.
SIMCHAK: What do you believe wood block printing brings to the phenomenological experience within your work? What draws you to use printmaking techniques along with collage?
KLOS: I don’t know if, in and of itself, the woodblock engages us in something phenomenological, but it is an indexical mark. The rawness and directness of that carved line can be a gesture about physicality.
SIMCHAK: How did you get involved in the act of making art? Did you start with drawing and printmaking or did your creative interests start somewhere else?
KLOS: I was a drawing baby actually! My mom would tape paper to my high chair tray and I’d get at it with Crayolas. I started copying comic book figures in grade school and that’s where the love of rendering really began. I saw my power as an artist, too, when the other kids in class would plead for me to help them with their art projects or ask me to draw certain heroes. We had to do a book report on Perseus, the Greek myth, so I illustrated the story into a comic book and got an A+. Drawing was my entry point for sure. Translating drawing into relief printing was very fluid to me since I’m really just drawing with a carving gauge. All the rules of drawing still apply—line weight, contour, gesture.
SIMCHAK: Where do you hope your work will take you from here?
KLOS: My work has really been taking expansion in concept and scope lately. I’m excited about making public sculptural work that can open up discussions about unearthing some powerful histories in the urban landscape.
From here I want to make works that activate spaces outside of the gallery setting. I’ve worked as an art educator for fifteen years, so while my studio practice becomes more demanding, I cannot be in the classroom as much. I’d like to find ways to engage the youth through my works. I feel my move toward developing public projects and projects with an increased social justice agenda. Much more to come!
In my late teens I began to reclaim histories and myths around Black identity since I felt I was deprived of a true telling of history through the Chicago Public School system…Myth in this sense is a way to dramatize and concretize lost histories.
SIMCHAK: There is an explosion of progressive art collectives and a grassroots movement of young artists who are working to introduce more diversity and equality in the art world—but there is still a domineering inequality in the industry that makes it difficult for minorities, both as artists and as art viewers. Can you share any advice you might have for discouraged or disheartened artists trying to break into the industry?
KLOS: Well I’ve been learning from my friends that there is a way to find opportunity in the margin. What I mean is that instead of feeling disheartened, we can consider how to appreciate our uniqueness in spaces that are not afforded equal representation. This is the sort of defiant self-empowerment that James Baldwin talked about when he said “I was born black, gay, and poor in Harlem. I felt like I hit the jackpot!”
In 2005 Yashua Klos was awarded a residency at The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and in 2009 received his MFA from Hunter College in New York. Klos is the recipient of a 2015 NYFA Grant and a 2014 Joan Mitchell Award. His works have been reviewed in The New York Observer, Modern Painters, and the New York Times.