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Visual artist Paul Yore sees his sumptuous artworks as a kind of experimental archaeology of late capitalism. By Helen Hughes.

Artist Paul Yore

Artist Paul Yore.
Artist Paul Yore.
Credit: Devon Ackermann

“In an age of low attention spans and boredom, the devices of spectacle, of misdirection and subliminal messaging are key,” says the artist Paul Yore. “It is the art of pickpocketing someone while you distract them with something shiny.”

This month Yore has a major exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). Titled Paul Yore: WORD MADE FLESH, it will feature more than 100 works, many of which have been borrowed from the collections of national institutions such as the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The exhibition’s curator and gallery director, Max Delany, described Yore’s upcoming show to me as a mid-career survey, coupled with a major new commission. But “mid-career” somehow feels slightly premature when applied to the work of a 34-year-old.

Perhaps it shouldn’t. Yore had his first museum exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2009 when he was just 21 and a third-year art school student at Monash University. A few years later he was one of the youngest ever studio artists to be awarded a two-year studio residency at Gertrude Contemporary.

In conversation, Yore – a self-described autodidact – is sharp-witted with intellectual tendrils unfurling in manifold directions. He moves effortlessly between topics as diverse as the legal framework of obscenity to the art history of the Catholic Church to Mughal-period architecture to Gandhian philosophies of self-sufficiency and eco-anarchy. His artwork evinces a similar “everything, everywhere, all at once” quality.

Yore is known for his freestanding grotto-like enclosures, on which every surface teems with cultural material – glittering sequins, mardi gras beads, crocheted blankets, mannequins, children’s toys, musical instruments, dildos, fake flowers, brooms, flashing fairy lights, handpainted signs, blinking LED signs. His aesthetic has been described appositely as bowerbird-like.

These installations, which have been commissioned for Dark Mofo in Tasmania and more recently for Melbourne’s RISING festival, take on the logic of a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, in which the viewer is fully enveloped in the sensory world of the work. The new commission for ACCA will be the biggest installation yet, featuring a towering geodesic dome covered in a patchwork of second-hand crocheted blankets, cyclone fencing and a large, patterned plastic floor.

Yore is equally known for his contribution to textile arts. He was included in the global survey of contemporary textile artists, Vitamin T: Threads and Textiles in Contemporary Art (published by Phaidon in 2019); was awarded a residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in 2013 and the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Art Prize the same year; and was exhibited and collected by the Textile Art Museum Australia, Ararat, in 2019. Internationally, his work has been included in the Rijswijk Textile Biennial in the Netherlands, the 16th International Triennial of Tapestry in Łódź, Poland, and the 2019 Garden of Eden group exhibition in Austria, as part of the European Textile Network. One of Yore’s appliqué quilts was featured in the  recent landmark exhibition QUEER: Stories from the NGV Collection.

As with his installations, Yore’s textiles have a busy, “all-over” quality. The effect of gazing upon his work is a restless interplay of intrigue and distraction that resonates with the hyper-attenuated attention economy we live in under late capitalism, with its attendant drip-feed of media spectacle and scandal. It’s not so much a straightforward critique of the attention economy as a gleefully grotesque embrace.

For all his success, Yore’s career hasn’t been calculated. In 2004, Yore’s year 11 class went to see the Australian surrealist James Gleeson’s survey at the NGV. It was his defining early encounter with queer art. “I went back and saw [the show] by myself four or five times,” he says. “I was particularly taken by [Gleeson’s] small, collaged works on paper, featuring male nudes cut from old physique magazines interpolated into ambiguous landscapes rendered in watercolour … It was the first time I had seen queer art in a public space and I found it immediately affirming.”

He says that he “took the long path to contemporary art”. It happened “via researching psychedelic art and literature, naive and folk art, vernacular architecture and visionary environments and other examples of so-called outsider art”. The textile works for which he is perhaps best known are the accidental result of self-prescribed therapy after a major mental health breakdown in 2010.

“I was exhausted from juggling my double degree, a part-time job washing dishes at a nursing home, and putting on a solo show at a museum,” he says. “I was also clubbing, binge-drinking and using drugs habitually. All this culminated in a disastrous set of events in which I found myself sectioned, detained in a psychiatric facility against my will, while I was in England on holiday with my family.”

The experience was deeply traumatising. He recounts being “held down and injected with sedatives and forced to take a cocktail of medications which rendered me little more than a zombie”. Yore was kept at the now defunct Bootham Park psychiatric hospital in York for two weeks before he was able to appeal against his sectioning and be released.

Yore’s partner and long-time collaborator, Devon Ackermann – an artist as well as a producer of many of Yore’s exhibitions, including with Delany in the development of the upcoming survey – flew to England for Yore’s recovery, which they spent together at the York home of Yore’s uncle and aunt. During this period, Yore bought some embroidery needles and wool and began to teach himself needlepoint, with no particular outcome in mind.

“At the time, I was still on heavy medication, which I was trying to slowly wean myself off,” he says. “I was lacking in energy and sleeping most of the day and night, I felt completely numb.” The task of embroidering the surface of a canvas, stitch by stitch, was “very slow and laborious, but I found it incredibly cathartic given the state I was in”. Embroidery and patchwork quilting have a long association with therapy, and were deployed as an activity for incarcerated women in England from the early 19th century. Stitching also, as Yore observes, connotes healing: “It is about repairing and putting things back together, which is also a metaphor for art as therapy.”

Yore’s mental health emergency wasn’t only the result of exhaustion or the cavalier lifestyle of his early 20s. It marked the tipping point in a prolonged period of stress that stretched back to his devout Catholic upbringing. His father was a Franciscan friar from a small coalmining town in England and his mother a missionary from Gippsland. Although his family is very supportive of him and his work, he was raised in a tradition at odds with his experience as a young queer person. Yore has described his years in a private Catholic boys’ school as “hellish and prison-like”. “I was bullied mercilessly at school for several years,” he recalls, “called a faggot, even though I was still in the closet, and physically assaulted.”

He befriended a handful of other social misfits and together they survived high school. This identification as an outsider co-evolved with Yore’s emerging political consciousness, which became radicalised during high school – largely in response to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, which he says filled him with “political rage”. “I organised students from my school to strike and join the protests and became adept at constructing and painting anti-war placards,” he says.

Yore also became involved with the animal liberation movement and adopted a vegetarian diet (he is now vegan). Most significantly, he fundamentally broke with what he refers to as his family’s “holy trinity”: “The Roman Catholic Church, the Australian Labor Party and the Collingwood Football Club. All somewhat flawed institutions in their own ways.”

Yore stopped attending Sunday Mass and started volunteering for the Greens party. His support for the Collingwood Football Club is somewhat vexed – he still watches AFL on television with partner Ackermann while he sews. Later, he became an active member of the anti-capitalist Occupy Melbourne movement – he first met ACCA director Max Delany at the Occupy camp in the Melbourne CBD, before the occupation was broken up and Yore was “dragged off by three riot police”, along with dozens of other activists.

In 2013-14, Yore was embroiled in the highly publicised Linden trial, when he was charged with the production and possession of child pornography after a police raid on an exhibition at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in St Kilda. The charges were dismissed by the magistrate, who rebuked the police for damaging Yore’s works in their raid and ordered them to pay Yore’s legal fees.

An older generation of artists and supporters – including Delany, Geoff Newton, Mikala Dwyer and Juan Davila – gave invaluable support to Yore as a young artist in an invidious position. Yore had first encountered Davila’s work at an NGV retrospective in 2006, and it had a lasting impact. His work succeeds Davila’s by issuing its anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-imperial and anti-racist critiques with generous servings of irreverent homoerotic humour and historicism. In the months between being arrested and charged, Yore was undertaking a residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Against the stress of the court case, he reflects, “It was nice to be in a workplace dominated by women, giant looms, more wool than I had seen in my life, and long morning teas.” At the time, the team was working on a tapestry based on a Davila painting for the State Library of Victoria, so the Chilean–Australian artist was regularly popping in.

“He gave me a great deal of advice regarding my situation from his own experiences with scandal, public hysteria and censorship,” says Yore.

Another notable mentor in Yore’s career was the late artist, curator and musician John Nixon, who taught at Monash University when Yore was a student. Though seemingly at opposite ends of the minimalist–maximalist spectrum, Nixon was drawn to Yore’s experimental use of ready-made materials and introduced him to Sue Cramer, then a curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Cramer immediately drew a parallel between Yore’s site-specific installations and Annandale Imitation Realist Mike Brown, who in 1982 created a sprawling junk-art installation in the Modernist house at Heide. Brown also holds the distinction of being the only visual artist in Australian history to have been successfully prosecuted for obscenity, in 1966-67, for his use of expletive words in his paintings.

Yore says his undergraduate studies in anthropology and archaeology seeped into his artistic practice. “I see my process of collecting and assembling objects as a kind of experimental archaeology,” he says. “[It’s] an investigation of the value systems embedded in the materiality of a cultural environment.”

Committed to a small carbon footprint, Yore buys his artistic materials from op shops. His quilts and sculptural assemblages thus reflect whatever society has most recently “made waste” – whether Justin Bieber T-shirts or One Direction bedspreads. This might be likened to the archaeological practice of “garbology” – the study of a culture and its consumerist behaviours through the examination of its trash.

Delany likens Yore’s methodological approach to a dragnet that trawls through high and low culture indiscriminately, offering up its contents as excessive spectacle. In Yore’s words: “Decoration is a way of talking to a sense of decadence in our culture, a hedonism and material excess that I see as signalling societal breakdown. Historically, cultural decadence seems to precede major events of civilisational collapse – just think of the final decades of the Roman Empire.”

Leaning equally on the vast wastescapes of late capitalism and the sumptuous aesthetics of the High Baroque, the results in Yore’s hands can be sublime.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Tales of yore".

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