Jacob Yikes – Immersed (Part One)

Jacob Yikes needs no introduction. His distinctive wall work has been a familiar element of Christchurch’s post-quake landscapes, turning walls into vistas filled with intricate, impossible architectural forms and characters who are in turn both playful and nightmarish. But while his large-scale murals might provide a pathway to ‘Planet Yikes’, his studio and exhibited work has shown an artistic evolution that delves even deeper into the themes at the heart of his expression. His works on paper and canvas show an artist coming into full bloom, imbued with personal symbolism and exploring a range of imagery, expressive physical processes, and experimental and expanding mediums and materials. We caught up in his studio, surrounded by a series of still-in-progress new works, evidence of his soon-to-be-exhibited recent output; large paintings pulsing with dynamic energy. And yet, fittingly, our conversation took place just before Yikes’ March trip to Dunedin to paint a large wall, a reminder of his ongoing occupation of public spaces. With the sun shining outside his studio, we discussed the transition between street and studio, his latest body of work and the process of their creation, and how life has a way of keeping you honest…

Yikes, the last few times we have caught up it has been while you were painting outdoors, so it’s a nice change to be here in your studio. Your practice has always had that inside/outside dichotomy, shifting between walls and canvas so to speak, but considering how much work you have put in painting outside over the last five years, it’s easy to assume you have slowed down somewhat on that front! 

Yeah man, yeah… (laughs)

Has that been intentional, to allow you more time in the studio?

It’s a mixture of things really. I guess life catches up, you know, I’ve got two small children, so that’s definitely a factor, and they’re getting bigger, so that’s a thing, trying to fit that in. I think I’ve definitely felt a transition from wanting to produce works outside to being in my studio. Obviously, my studio is at my home, so I’ve got a very good set up now. I can kind of work quite erratically sometimes, so now when it is time to work, I can literally do it. Christchurch is pretty small, and I’ve done a lot of painting here, it’s not like I’m bored, but I am the type of person that has to keep doing new stuff. There’s definitely been a shift, and it’s not like, I’m never going to produce big works outside again, it’s nothing like that, it’s more like a certain tick that I need to itch! (Laughs) I feel like it’s a pretty natural progression as well, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I’m still here, I’ll still do whatever, it’s good…

Jacob Yikes’ Alice in Videoland mural, 2017-2018, Tuam Street. [Photo credit: Jade Cavalcante]
It’s not that they are mutually exclusive, they are both part of what you do…

Yep, and they always have been, and they always feed off each other. There are only so many hours in a day, and in a week, so putting it all into one thing, it’s really hard to try and find time to do the other. In the past I’ve sacrificed a lot of sleep to get that happening and it works for a while and that’s cool, but it’s not physically possible for me, and you learn the hard way. I’ve learnt that, and having children they will let you know… (laughs)

For sure…

So, yeah, it’s just about what do I want to do? What do I see myself doing? At the moment, I think the studio-based stuff is really where I’m trying to focus. But again, I wouldn’t be doing any of this studio stuff if I hadn’t done certain things outdoors. They always feed off each other, and they always will.

And of course, painting walls is built into your profile as well, right? It affords certain opportunities and exposure…

Absolutely.

From a material point of view, both approaches obviously have different potentials, as well as different challenges. What do you see as the main differences, in terms of what you can do in the studio that you can’t do when you’re working in the streets?

There’s always a certain element of impact that I’m trying to achieve with both, and that’s achieved very differently outdoors than it is indoors in the studio. So, with my outdoor works, I was introducing bold colours with quite wild imagery, wild in the subject matter and often how it is executed, like with a lot going on. And then I brought that into the studio to a certain extent, and I’ve been able to, even though because the works I’m doing at the moment and in the past have been quite large, not massive, for canvas or paper work, or board whatever, they’ve been quite big but they’ve gone bigger, I can focus way more on a smaller scale but still get good impact as well, whereas outdoors, you can, but it is a lot of effort. It’s like, for those bigger works, I tend to just do them myself because of how I work, it’s completely different to painting pieces of graffiti with any of the boys, it’s a different process, it’s a different mind-state. In saying that, while a lot of my work outdoors has been very busy, it has also zoned in on certain areas and really worked them, but to be honest it’s a lot of time and effort and often you’re not really getting to the point of that’s what I was trying to do, so you have to kind of walk away from them, feeling like ‘I could’ve done that’, ‘I should’ve done that’, and that’s come from graffiti too, like every every piece you see, there’s something that you just wish you’d fixed, and you know that’s just part of it, but with the studio stuff, I can’t walk away from it, it’s not a wall in town, I’m living with it. In a bizarre way, it sort of speaks to me when I’m doing it, so that’s reinforced the idea that I can work really hard on these areas of the painting and achieve something where there is more impact.

Mixed media on paper, 2017. Exhibited in Face Value at Fiksate Gallery, November, 2017

When you are painting a wall and you stand back and take stock, there must be a strong awareness of the public nature of the process, simply because of the surroundings, whereas in the studio I imagine you can get really invested in producing work which is increasingly personal, you can be completely focused on it and enveloped by it…

Definitely, because as an artist there’s always, I mean, I can’t speak for every artist, but there’s an element of being self-conscious about what you are doing. When you produce public work, you do pretty much need to wear a hard skin, or you can retaliate, which is also something that I’ve probably done a lot in the past! (Laughs) But that’s just kind of who I am too, I don’t have lot of patience for dickheads in all formats (laughs), so it all just kind of comes with it. But with the studio stuff, it’s me, myself and I, and that can be good and it can be bad, because I can be my own worst enemy. I guess it’s that little voice just kind of kicking you in the ass, it’s good, but outdoors you’ve got your self to deal with and what other people think. But at the end of the day, I’m not really doing it for what other people think. I mean, yes, there’s this massive amount of positivity that’s come with public work, street art, whatever, but I feel like I get away with a lot (laughs), you know I’m not out to paint pretty pictures, I wouldn’t even say I’m trying to beautify things, it’s not the reason I go and do something, if that happens that’s great, but I know not everyone’s going to think that way…

It’s something that’s a problem with the adoption of urban art into the mainstream and it’s perhaps at odds with the roots and the intentions from which it has grown. Essentially urban art is about personal expression going public, it’s not solely, or even explicitly about acts of civic duty or beautification…

That’s right, it’s not community murals…

Yeah, they are a completely different thing. At the heart of it, urban art is about personal style, personal communication, and that’s often the hardest thing to explain. People celebrate and champion these beautiful things, whereas what graffiti and street art are really able to do is take art and put it in the streets, it can be beautiful, but sometimes it can be challenging, or visually unexpected…

Yeah.

Manchester Street, central city, 2016

And that means it is lot of things, and that diversity is really important in retaining relevancy and potency. We are surrounded by a number of your latest studio works, the scale of your studio pieces has been growing over the last few years, and these works are another step up in size…

They are. I think they have to be…

Yet for me, they are still clearly distinct from your wall works as well. Even though the works are getting larger, the things you can do in the studio are still really clear and obvious, from the detail, to the actual style of painting and the material approaches. Is that something you are wary of, that despite the size increasing, they are still going to be honest as studio works, rather than edging towards murals on paper?

Yeah I guess, when I think about it, before I really started focusing on studio stuff, I was painting big work, like not monstrous like it got, but a piece is a pretty large painting, so what I realised, was in a studio I can create completely different feelings with the same materials, but I can’t do that with walls, because it literally comes down to how they are sitting. With washes, and the metallics I add into the washes, which are the things I’ve concocted to make these paintings, they kind of have to be flat, they are always in a very wet stage until I spend the last few days finishing them. Also, like I was mentioning earlier, because I work on so many at a time as well, it works with my erratic personality too, it’s something I have to do, because if I don’t, I’ll ruin a painting. I’ve got all these ideas all going on at the same time, and if I put them all into the same painting, it’s just overkill. But when I paint on the street, I do that, I overkill, because it’s big. But you know this time around, I was more interested again in coming back to that impact, but thinking about how I approach it… In the past the works were big, but what’s going on inside of them was a big amount of work too, this time it’s the same sort of concept but I’ve slowed it down. There is, I think, more of a mystery to them, as opposed to zoning into these other works and getting lost in them, you can still do that with these, but there’s a bit more mystery…

Mixed media on paper, 2018

These works have a dynamic energy that breaks up the focus and sharpness of some of your previous works, there is still a suggestive sense of action going on, but it isn’t as definitive or finite as previous works might have been. That dynamism adds a personal quality, because they are reflections of your physical movements, which are of course relative to your personal state at the time you executed them…

Absolutely man, I think they are the most real paintings I’ve ever made. I’m not really the type of person in the past that would address a lot of things that are in these paintings, you know, and I haven’t, I’ve let it control my life, and I got really unwell with it, so I had to let it out. In a sense I’m kind of showing my demons in a way, but not in a way that is trying to make anyone concerned, it’s a healthy thing for me. It’s a way of me dealing with twenty something years of bullshit, so I really think that these works have their own story behind them. They are a body of work but each one is an individual reference to me. Being that they are a bigger scale too, I don’t know why, it just feels like I couldn’t get that same effect if I didn’t do them on this scale. Even with the paper ones, if they got any bigger it would’ve been too much and any smaller and it wouldn’t have worked. For a while I went through a period, for a good few months, where I was not able to paint anything, to draw anything, I literally reclused and stopped, and then kind of came out of that and this is what came from that. I guess too, there is a very different process to how I’ve worked in the past, where I would just go, go, go, go, non-stop, no sleep, I just went for it. There was a lot of work that came out of it, but a lot of it, man, I was in autopilot for a lot of it. I look at them and I know what they’re about, what’s going on, but I’m like, when did this even happen? But with these ones, they are all so much more relevant and they are all so much more decisive too. There’s no work where I’m like, that one probably shouldn’t be like that. Now there’s a whole different process…

Do you think that’s a combination of the timing being right in terms of what you are expressing, but also of how you are able to express it, through your actual practice? In a way, nothing is wasted if it has led you to a certain point, right?

Definitely.

Do you feel that these works represent an arrival point at how you are able to express these ideas visually?

I kind of have the mind set that things happen for a reason, that you experience things for a reason, like whether you know that when it’s happening, or you know it later on down the line. But I definitely think I’ve always found myself at the right place at the right time, especially with how my career has started to shape itself. At the same time, it hasn’t all been roses, you know, there has been a lot of bullshit as well. But if there wasn’t that bullshit, there wouldn’t be any success. I think it gives me ammunition to actually paint these works like I do. It’s how I process these things, I have certain kind of conclusions with my life and predominantly my art, because my life is my art and that is probably more apparent in these works than I think it ever has been. Again, the subject matter is a more refined me, rather than processes made by me or just stuff. Past shows have talked about stuff, they have been derived from me, but they’ve never really been about me, so it’s sort of narrowed in, and I guess that’s happening now because that’s what was meant to happen. To be honest, painting them is a way for me to try to figure a lot of that out, you know; why? why everything? So, the two work pretty well together, but I think you know, that’s the thing with progression, too, with anything you’ve got to take whatever comes, because you won’t progress. You can’t have it all good and progress to something better, without downfall, because there is no balance…

Yikes in his studio, 2018

That’s an important skill, the ability to understand what is happening, and to figure out that path. If your work is the same for twenty years, then something is probably going wrong under the surface…

Good luck to you, if that’s what you are up to! Because I think as humans, you all deal with things in different ways, based on personality, based on past experiences, based on how you’ve been brought up, based on however. Maybe it’s part of getting older and having kids, but I find myself having to really create my own path, you know, what I mean is, it’s a hard thing, because as an artist it’s quite difficult to live in this day and age, there’s a lot of pressures, financially, whatever, but…

Particularly somewhere the size of Christchurch…

That’s it man, it’s not massive and you know, I think I’ve always known that I don’t want to follow suit, it’s just not me. I just can’t do it. I think too, to be honest, that’s where the studio stuff has become more dominant, because this is truly where I’m supposed to be too. Before I was into doing graffiti or before I was painting large scale works, I was always into drawing, always into making art, so it’s like literally from an early age, it’s kind of my been my forte. But you know, it’s still a battle to make that an everyday thing, to make that a reality, it’s still really difficult. So I think taking a step back from doing walls puts a bit of pressure on things like that, because at the end of the day, painting large scale works is how I make my living, how I’ve made my living, selling paintings and doing commission works as well, it all fits in, but predominantly, the walls like I have always said, they are advertising for me as an artist, so it’s difficult to really put one to a side and then focus on one other thing because at the end of the day I’ve got bills!

Yeah, but that challenge is important to take on as well, right?

Yeah, and again it comes back to the fact that there is nothing to do but roll with it. I can create my path, and I know where I want to go, I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I know what way I want to go…

Which is as important as anything right? People talk about it’s not the destination, it’s the journey…

Absolutely, because I’m kind of too afraid to arrive at a destination! (Laughs) I’m in no hurry to get there! And I think when you get there, if you get there, good and bad creates where you arrive, it’s all about how you deal with it in that process, and I think for me as an artist, the best way is to just literally keep doing what I feel is best. I have to get it out, because if it’s not true to me, at that point, whatever comes after doesn’t matter because I’ve put something out that’s not fully me, and that’s the battle of being an artist too, you want to produce what you feel is right and where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to make money and things too…

It’s a reality…

Yeah, it’s that reality. But again, in the past I’ve sacrificed sleep to do both, so it’s definitely all learning, every painting I do I learn something from it.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

Featured image photo credit: three-six-six media

Author: Reuben Woods

Reuben is an art historian and writer. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on street art and graffiti in post-earthquake Christchurch. He also leads Watch This Space tours.

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