Robert Yoder on slowing down the process

Robert Yoder, Untitled, 2018, embroidery on cotton towel, 28 x 46 inches

Contributed by Sharon Butler / I met Robert Yoder at a fair in Miami a few years back, and, since we have a similar aesthetic, he invited me to show some work at SEASON, the gallery he runs out of his beautiful mid-century modern home in Seattle. This month Yoder has a solo at frosch & portmann, on view through April 7, so we had a chance to catch up, talk about his new work, gripe (and then rave) about recent trends in the art world.  

Sharon Butler:  You had mentioned in a post (on Instagram?) a while back that you were working very slowly, having trouble moving forward. Maybe some kind of painter’s block.
Robert Yoder: It was less from painter’s block and more from a sense of hopelessness.  Seeing so much art just sitting around getting “likes” only to go back into a studio or rack and never having the chance to go out into the world was frustrating and got me wondering “do I really need to make one more painting? do I really need to add to this pile?”  The whole production tier of art (make it, show it, put it in storage, repeat) just got me feeling indifferent to it all.  Being on the west coast, I’m not involved in the hype that major art cities can put on a mediocre painting and seeing the daily love towards some uninteresting artwork was just adding to my desire to step away for a while.  I was making unnecessary comparisons to others and until I realized that, I really didn’t feel any need to paint.

SB: Yeah, I get it. So many paintings in the world already. In past exhibitions your paintings and drawings have been related to a short story or a poem. Some kind of text, often diaristic, created a narrative and inspired the work. The process seems different for this new body of work.
RY: The imagery now is more akin to a monogram, so the core idea of identity and personalization remains. The process wasn’t very different at all from earlier work. I took the images and symbols from previous paintings and put them into a new medium and worked so that this transcription made sense with the towels. 

Robert Yoder, Untitled, 2019, acrylic and ink on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

SB: When I saw the show, I loved the use of sewing, which didn’t translate for me in the jpegs. I completely missed the fact that they are sewn!
RY: I really enjoy the tediousness of it, and the hand sewing and embroidery produce a look that I prefer. I like how sewing slows the construction and provides opportunities to just walk away at any time (something I did a lot). Plus my decisions become more deliberate — something that is less likely with paint. My graduate degree is in Fibers, and the attention to detail it taught me is something I find myself trying to embrace and ignore simultaneously.  

SB:  Can you talk a little about your use of fabrics, towels, t-shirts, and dish rags? When did you first start incorporating scraps of domestic textiles and how has the practice evolved.
RY: I’ve always been attracted to working with material that is readily available and that also has a history of its own. I started out making paintings on t-shirts because I kept finding them. They seemed to be everywhere, and they carried backstories that helped to push the paintings. Towels were just there one day, and I was thinking of how to use some of the t-shirt scraps and things just got lucky. 

Robert Yoder, Untitled, 2018, graphite and ink on paper, 18 x 8 inches

SB: Your work is both earnest and wiseass. Do you have any thoughts about earnestness? Do you think younger artists are becoming less experimental, less cynical, as they return to older ideas about narrative and image? We’ve been surrounded by progressive abstraction for the past ten years and I’m wondering if interest in that kind of approach is waning.
RY: I feel like a lot of the abstract artists today are even less experimental than the retro figurative painters as they ape a previous generation of Neo-Geo-ers. So many random shapes in bright colors with a variety of textures and all on a 30 x 40 canvas so it will fit on an apartment wall is definitely not experimental — it’s painting for the market.  Younger artists can’t afford to make a big epic failure, get back up, and keep on working; the rent is too high to just dick around in the studio like that and really learn from the work. As to the traditional figurative paintings, I’m not very interested. I really like some of the portrait paintings, but they tend to be of a random posed figure, not paintings with narrative content.

SB: Sometimes it seems like Instagram is to blame for the lack of adventurous painting. As if getting “likes” and nurturing a broad audience has become more important than moving ideas forward.
RY: Instagram has opened up so many images and snapshots and memes and food pics that it is difficult to jump from topic to topic so everything ends up looking pretty good. Photography can make bad work look great and great work look just okay.  It’s a great place to broadcast and to promote and even get some feedback but if I’m questioning what I’m doing I’d prefer to follow up that conversation in a more private format, but maybe some people use the DM for that.  Having said all that, I love Instagram. I’m on it too much and I love seeing everybody’s new work. But I’m also pretty indifferent, I can be just as uninterested in your Caturday as I am in your visit to some world class museum. It’s a tool and it’s a pass-time. I follow a few people that put out interesting questions and post the replies but in general I’m there to see and meet people. It’s invaluable for the gallery as a way to sell work. I’m always surprised when someone buys something because of a post. 

Robert Yoder, Untitled, 2018, applique on cotton towel, 49 x 26 inches
Robert Yoder, Untitled, 2018, ink on cardboard(the end piece of a drawing pad), 12 x 9 inches

SB:. You’re working on some new projects. Maybe you’d like to share.
RY: I’m very excited for the current show at SEASON of Dubai artist Rami Farook and for the upcoming show of Russian painter Ilya Okazis.  For both of them, it’s their first solo show in an American gallery.  Language barriers, time zones, and shipping arrangements have been tricky but well worth it.  I’m ever so tentatively looking for storefront space for SEASON but that has so much to do with the cost of rent and whether or not I get frustrated and give up. But for now, since space is an issue, I’ve started a new exhibition/promotion space that really only exists to promote work.  The first show at Tela Real (@tela.real) will be Olympia artist Nicole Guerrera.  For my own painting, I have nothing scheduled for the future after this show at frosch&portmann.  When I was younger I think this prospect would have bugged me but now I just figure something will happen sometime and that’s fine, I’m not in a race.

Robert Yoder: MY MOUTH FULLY DRY,” frosch & portmann, 53 Stanton St, New York, NY. Through April 7, 2019.

Related posts:
Effects of chance: A conversation with Emily Berger
Interview: Magalie Guerin’s multiple endings
Matt Bollinger’s fictional universe
Robert Yoder: How stories became paintings



  1. Thanks so much for introducing me to Robert Yoder. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of his work and his comments on the differences between painting to learn and painting for the market. Perhaps at least some of the recent figurative and representational painting is an attempt to examine and relearn what’s gone missing, and move forward from there. I hope so anyway.

  2. Refreshing and honest piece. Thank you to both of you for sharing your conversation.

  3. This is such a great interview . A breath of fresh air …both the work and the conversation.

  4. �earnest and wiseass�… so nice.

    I�ve never commented on a post of yours before, but now that I�ve met you it feels real enough….
    I�m loving this guys work so I�m grateful to have been introduced, thank you for that… and have just generally really loved your interviews and POV.
    Hope to see you again soon Sharon (!)

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