In Conversation: Mikewindy and Yanira Vissepó

Published April 3rd 2024
By mikewindy

A few weeks ago, I met up with Yanira Vissepó in her Nashville studio to talk about her upcoming solo show at Elephant Gallery opening Friday, April 5th 2024. What I thought might be a 45-minute conversation lasted almost two hours! Yanira led me through her origin story of becoming an artist, finding out that Helen Frankenthaler, like her had also studied block printing in Japan and at least fifteen minutes about how amazing Ruth Asawa is. That conversation will likely yield a longer, future article about Yanira’s work but for now, here are just a few questions toward the end of our afternoon reverie of talking art in her studio that are specific to her current body of work.

Detail of Sugar/River Cane Acrylic, oil relief on linen - Image courtesy of Elephant Gallery

mikewindy- Can you connect those dots of the block printing and the cyanotype and how all that is connecting now to this current, last year or two body of work that you're doing?

Yanira- Well, I purposefully decided to not do cyanotype and keep the block printing really minimal for the show because I always love to pick up new mediums. So, when I picked up indigo dyeing and cyanotype and I had block printing, this was kind of like as far as I've gotten where I could combine all of those mediums into one piece and make it work. Now, with this new body of work, there was some push in me that, it came from the thought of like, okay, I need to fill the background of my composition that doesn't take me dyeing the fabric. And then I was like, I guess I'm painting and it started coming up a lot where like, okay, how am I gonna paint for this show? I don't paint. It's not something that I’ve been taught. How can I make sure that what my square is, is full of color and then I can add on and make a textile painting or a collage painting. Because it's a new body of work. I wanted to keep it really fresh in a way that I'm definitely still influenced by everything I've learned, but I didn't want to stick to work that I've done before. So, then I thought, okay, how do I introduce myself to the painting world, where I’m not like figuratively painting a face or a flower but I'm just kinda like diving in, in a way that's not overwhelming to me, so I started looking into stain painting and pouring. It's more stain painting. It's like you pour and then you stain the canvas and it's very much like dyeing fabric, and I didn't make the connection until I finally started doing the action of staining a canvas, and I was like, oh my gosh, I'm dyeing fabric! That's what I'm doing. I've done this before. (laughs)

mikewindy- You’ve been a painter the whole time. (more laughs)

Yaniara- (pointing out a piece she is working on) but like this is just block printing ink and I just watered it down and I was like I don't know, I guess I'm just gonna try it out and see before I buy like the fancy paints, and I really liked it and that's when I was like, okay, I'm doing it.

mikewindy- And did you just stay with the block printed ink or did you buy the fancier stuff and what is that?

Yanira-I bought the fancier stuff. It’s just the golden fluid acrylics, so, I just fill these (32 ozish plastic containers) full of ink or paint and then I put water in it plus this flow aid additive where it makes sure that it sticks or adheres to the unprimed linen because I didn't want to mess with priming canvas. I was like, I don’t know if I want to do all that! (laughs) One of the artists that I really looked up to in most recent years is Helen Frankenthaler because a couple years ago I found out she has woodblock prints and she went to Japan to study Japanese woodblock printmaking.

Nightshade Acrylic, oil relief on linen - Image courtesy of Elephant Gallery

mikewindy- and she's painting and pouring.

Yanira-yeah, and she's painting and pouring and staining canvas, and she did it with way different paints than I'm using, but I didn't go to school for painting, so I didn't know what I was doing and I felt that if I could just introduce it in a way that I could like wrap my brain around it and make sure that I wasn't, not sacrificing my tools, but I wanted to make sure that like the linen that I had bought and the paint that I had bought would make sense and bring what is in my head to a higher level of what I've been working on, you know, just being very intentional about the supplies that I'm using, in the same way that I'm very intentional about the supplies that I use for Japanese woodblock print.

mikewindy- So, before I keep talking too much, the show in April, that's coming up, these paintings are in the in-between stage and they're getting stretched. You think people are going to be excited about or you hope that they're surprised about the painting part. Is there anything you want to talk about in relationship to the concept when we first started, and you were talking about how there's some connection in the work to reproductive rights in Puerto Rico and historically some things that happened around that issue?

Yanira-Maybe I can talk about it a little bit. I think the work that I am working on for the show touches on a lot about environmental gentrification, not so figurative or literal that you're gonna look at it and be like, “oh, that's about the earthquakes that happened in Puerto Rico.” It's definitely more, I think, abstract landscape tones to the work brought together by these block printed pieces that are full of color and bright and gradient, and so the show is themed or it's called bioluminescence. There is a bioluminescence bay in Puerto Rico that people visit, not only locals but also tourists, it’s a big tourist attraction. So, Puerto Rico is and has been for a long time this beautiful getaway for US citizens. They don't need a passport. They don't need money exchange. There is a tax incentive now that US citizens can open businesses in Puerto Rico with no taxes, put onto them, but Rican Puerto Ricans can’t. Puerto Ricans that live there can't do that if they open a business.

So, a lot of the topics that I've been thinking about that may or may not come out in my work, or may not be so literal, but it is about the landscape in Puerto Rico when people visit and they're like, oh my god, Puerto Rico is so amazing! It's so beautiful! The colors, the food, the culture, they come back and they're like, “Yanira, why don't you live there? Why don't you visit more often?” You know, they're like so surprised that I don't go there enough or something but there's so much more than that. It's such a complicated little island and through the beauty that it brings, I also want to shed a light on that topic of like, the paintings, the work that I've made for the show, really focus on color and shape and form of like when I visit and I'm like, holy shit, and it's so green here! It's so blue! It’s like, so dramatic! Like I feel like this is a very dramatic environment when I touched down as opposed to a lot of other places that I’ve visited. So, I think where my thought is to bring that natural side of the island into my work, then, making this painting with the shape of a pill bottle. It's just gonna be covered in plants and flowers and it's kind of like an advertisement of being like, look how beautiful it is, but it's a pill bottle, which is a representation for the birth control trials that were happening in Puerto Rico in the 60s and these are the first women in like the world that were tested on with birth control and there was also an operation, a surgery that was happening to most women where the doctors would be like, “let's get all these women in because they're poor and uneducated and they don't need to be reproducing in Puerto Rico.” It was very sad in that time where a lot of women didn't know what they were getting into, and they didn't know that they would not be able to have kids again.

And that was the surgery, but there was also birth controls and there's like a whole campaign of people going door to door, women going door to door being like “ hey, you haven't visited the doctor for your birth control pills or for your surgery” and women are like, “Oh no, I don't want to go, like I'm fine” but it was like this pressure to do it and the whole concept of how birth control started was to make sure that poor uneducated women of color were not able to reproduce. So, that concept, I kind of touch that a little bit and there's a documentary that I'm going to screen during the run of the show called La Operación and it's all about that, and was made in the 80s by a woman, a Puerto Rican filmmaker, Ana María García.

So yeah, I kind of want to like fool people on being like, wow, this work is so bright and beautiful, but really, it's like, when I talk about it, it's a little dark.

A Greater Ecosystem Acrylic, oil relief on linen - Image courtesy of Elephant Gallery

mikewindy- Do you find that you want to be intentional about that, this time when you were making this body of work because people are missing that in your other work? Like they are missing a darkness in your other work that you wish they would catch and so you're like, oh, I want to really show it to them this time. Or is this just kind of a new layer that you want to add?

Yanira- No, it’s just a new layer I want to add. I like making beautiful work. I like making something that people can access and relate to and can look at it and be like, “oh, that's really beautiful or that really means something to me.” But I think language is really important with a show and so that's kind of how I feel with the shows I have, like I don't necessarily have to be so figurative and literal with the work I made, but I want to talk about it. I think that’s kind of where the pill bottle painting comes in where it kind of segues into “What is that? It's not the same as all the other work that you've done in the show, so, what is it?” It kind of closes out and it's like, why are you showing a pill bottle? I'm not planning to have a statement next to it. Just like the title card will probably tell you what it is about. Then we can have a conversation about it and be like, well, this is where I'm coming from, where I make a lot of my work and what I focus on, tragedies and traumatic experiences and what my mom is telling me firsthand on the island and I bring it into my studio.

…and thankfully for the southern art community, from her studio to Elephant Gallery April 5th-May 24th 2024.

Join Yanira and the Nashville art scene this Friday, April 5th from 6-9 and take in what Yanira has made to push us to think deeper about the world and collective environmental and art ecosystems that we share. Maybe you can catch her for a moment and have a conversation about her incredible new body of work! Elephant Gallery is located at 1411 Buchanan Street. Hours by appointment or Friday and Saturday 12-6pm.

Follow Yanira Vissepó @yaniravissepo

mikewindy is an artist,writer, founding editor of Number Inc. Young Art Writers Project, Art Education Coordinator at TSU, and runs the Little Free Skateshop out of his office at TSU & Missy Lindsay’s art room at McGavock High School