Joyce Yamada: Contemplating the Human Species

Joyce Yamada, Portrait, 2019, photo courtesy of Nila Onda

Painter Joyce Yamada grew up on the west coast. She spent her childhood vacations in the beautiful national parks of the US and Canada where pristine forests and the Pacific coast were imprinted in her visual memory. She recalls that although as a teenager she realized that art is her task in life, struggling to survive by minimum wage work led her to medical school which she completed and then subsequently became a diagnostic radiologist. This science background has fed her mind and artwork ever since. Yamada says she is a painter because she conceptualizes in images rather than in words — “when puzzled, my mind juxtaposes or fuses unexpected images, often leading to new work,” she says. For instance, an early series, Body, Earth, came to her in art school — while looking at the hills across the bay from San Francisco she saw the low rounded hills as the reclining body of a woman. The juxtaposed imagery meant to her that we are intimately and indivisibly part of earth and of nature, that what we do to the earth we do to ourselves. She has subsequently seen this idea expressed in indigenous cultures, and it became central in her work.

Let’s start with the impact of science on your artwork. What drew you there and how is it reflected in your process and imagery?

Science is a way of understanding how the physical world actually works. Its methods of review and verification appeal to me strongly. I also love the exploration of the natural world that science spearheads; I am inspired by imagery from space and from the deep oceans. My interest in ecology and the environment began in earnest in the early 1990’s after pivotal trips to the temperate rainforests of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Flying over Oregon on the approach to Seattle, and then driving from there to the rainforests revealed how utterly rapaciously we are destroying our forests. From that experience came the first body of work, Truncated Landscapes, that truly felt deeply personal. The process that birthed that series is typical of how I work. I was struck by the geometric patterns of logging— huge rectangles of forest had been cut out of still intact forest growing on steep hillsides. The first painting in the series was Shado-nine forest, which closely mirrored the actual landscape. This evolved into cubical cut-outs of forests that were deracinated, literally cut off from their roots, floating in a human-induced wasteland and dripping blood while at it. This was from my Cassandra period of quiet environmental protest.

Shado-9 forest Detail

Shado-nine forest, detail

Images of trees are recurrent throughout your work. Let’s take a look at 2 images, one from 2003, Rainforest – Green Stream, and the more recent one, from 2018, Green Burial. Can you tell me about the genesis of each, what were your ideas and how do they differ?

Green Stream came directly from a visit to the Hoh National Forest in Washington. A beautiful, complex stream meandered through old growth forest, the entire scene a beautiful green, the air clean and enlivening. This painting was a straightforward celebration of a specific place, though the details were entirely invented. After being inspired to read about temperate rainforest ecology I also understood it as a demonstration of how old growth forests filter water through intact fallen tree branches, which also provide excellent nurseries for baby fish. Green Burial had a longer conceptual genesis that includes numerous recent drawings and paintings; it was inspired by a photograph of a huge tree in Ireland that toppled over, revealing a human skeleton embedded in its enormous roots. This felt mythological to me, an image of the human animal entwined in the roots and the very substance of the World Tree, a contemplation of the human in relation to nature. Recent related paintings include Yorick Root, Communicant, and Wood-wide Web.

Joyce Yamada, Rainforest Green Stream, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 36×24”

Joyce Yamada, Green Burial, 2018, oil on Yupo, 9×12”

Joyce Yamada, Communicant, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 51×68”

It seems that your paintings can be read as landscapes. How do you see it in context of art history?

I made a decision during art school to stop conceptualizing my work in terms of art history because doing so was messing up my art-making process. This enabled me to stand outside of current trends without caring too much. I can’t therefore speak very knowledgably about art history. I rarely paint actual locations. I often paint trees because they are the non-human, non-animal life form to which I relate most strongly. Trees and forests tend to be my shorthand for Nature. For many years I also played with tree and human anatomy—trunks and limbs—to make our interconnections literal. I also use landscapes as evidence of human misuse, abuse, and ignorance of how to survive sustainably. Every place on Earth is a current or near-future ruin though if we act quickly enough, much can still recover. I have been contemplating the place of humans within nature, and therefore within the landscape.

AS: Tell me about your series Hominidae.

Over the past 15 years I have invented two different symbolic humans. The first was Waterhuman, a human made entirely of water, prone to evaporation and shimmering as it walks through the world; examples include Heaven’s Net and W.H with Furfish. My current version is Yorick, a living skeleton who will journey through natural scenes on Earth as well as through imaginary scenes in the wider cosmos. A symbolic human is a storytelling stratagem — a way of contemplating the human species in the wider world. Hominidae is the scientific nomenclature for the family that contains us humans — Homo Sapiens. Using the term emphasizes our intimate connection with other creatures. Science reveals that we are a very young species evolved from related animals, not de novo Masters of the Universe. The family Hominidae includes the Great Apes and the various ancient hominids, of which only our species now survives. The other members of the family include orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

A close up of a tree

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Joyce Yamada, Yorick_Root, 2018, oil on linen

Joyce Yamada, Waterhuman in Truncated Landscape, 2006, oil on canvas, 44×68”

Your palette ranges from bold contrasting colors to monochromes. What is your approach to color and how do you choose is for a specific painting?

I use color intuitively, for emotional tone and mood, guided by whatever imagery I’m working on. I am a paint fanatic. I love to play with unusual pigments and colors, both natural and manufactured. We live in an era that is full of wonderful paint.

We have been facing a rough time-period on a global scale. How has this affected your work during the quarantine?

Early on I did several pandemic paintings—APRIL 2020 and Corona—by way of coping. Since then I have been painting favorite animals for solace. The pandemic’s associated social unrest, our weird violent weather and melting polar icecaps indicate that human civilization and climate will be changing ever more cataclysmically on a global scale. I am inspired to forge ahead with new work while I still can.

What are you working on now?

I am curating an environmental group show for January 2022, as well as preparing a solo show to follow immediately in February, both at the Amos Eno Gallery in NYC. I have been wanting to paint Yorick wandering about like a character in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mostly on Earth (which is truly wondrous and odd if you look closely at its creatures), but possibly also in outrageous outer space scenarios. It should be fun.

Joyce Yamada, Real Good Power of Nature, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 32×20”, photo courtesy of Grant Johnson

All photo courtesy of the artist unless otherwise indicated

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: