The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Yuli Yamagata

Ela Bittencourt
Dec 1, 2021 1:00PM

The Brazilian artist Yuli Yamagata has a true knack for the uncanny. Her nightmarish yet eerily alluring installations are playful stage sets of the unconscious. Yamagata gives form to cyborgs, twisted human body parts, horror tales, and other phantasmagoria.

In “Insomnia,” Yamagata’s recent solo show at Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel in her native São Paulo, one such piece was displayed on the floor of the gallery: the 2021 work Chorume, the Portuguese word for “leachate,” as in the liquid resulting from composting. The mixed-media, fiberglass, and resin work resembles a bloodied cesspool with eyeballs, bones, everyday objects, and food floating within it. Yolk-yellow with crimson splatters, this viscous flotsam suggests decomposed human remains, but also an environmental disaster. It is perturbing, yet also flaunts delicate hues of lavender, green, and rose, as if Yamagata took a cue from Claude Monet’s sumptuous “Water Lilies.” Yamagata even inserted within this inlet of yuck a white flower—its pristineness as if to stress that the abject also engenders beauty.


Yamagata’s unabashed, tongue-in-cheek take on the macabre has been consistent since 2015, when she emerged on the Brazilian art scene. She has since participated in numerous exhibitions in Brazil and abroad, with solo shows at SESC Niterói, MAC Niterói – Museu de Arte Contemporânea, and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, plus a group show at Kunsthalle Lissabon in Lisbon, and a solo show at Anton Kern Gallery in New York this past September. That last show, “Sweet Dreams, Nosferatu,” was a two-part project, which also included a site-specific installation in Art Basel Parcours.

In all of Yamagata’s work, one senses her sardonic view of consumerism—particularly as someone hailing from a country as economically and socially unequal as Brazil. Yet what makes her such a vibrant and exciting young artist to watch is her lack of didacticism and, instead, her acknowledgment that consumerism and commerce—very much like art—are often rooted in fantasy and seduction.

“More and more, the material world and the dream world are merging in consumerism,” Yamagata wrote via email. “This is partly because of the visual power and the invasion of the consumer’s subconscious that happens when the classification of a consumer product is removed. The fashion industry does this very well. I think, in general, the weirdness comes from something that we’re already familiar with, but that suddenly feels a little different, like a fingernail made of pickles (that’s why the Surrealists were so great!).”

Yamagata’s own grotesque, surrealistic sculptures are wonderfully sly—their jokiness reveals itself in a flash of recognition, like one of Magritte’s visual puns. For example, in her recent solo show “Nervo” (“Nerve”) at MAC Niterói in Rio de Janeiro, Yamagata rendered a male athlete’s sleek body in a fabric sculpture made of a narrow, flesh-toned tubular shape, in which two legs flow into each other—with no hips or torso to impede their merger. The stumps, one patched with a bandage, taper into thin wires, fitted with blue soccer socks and a single red sneaker. A twisted bulge in the limb’s middle evokes squeezed testicles or a sausage, with a red-nailed finger poking out of it (a recurring, vampiric element in Yamagata’s sculptures). The work echoes the Futurist and Cubist bodies in motion, yet the central, sinewy stump (another frequent motif), is robbed of vitality or strength, commenting on virile masculinity. The yellowish translucent resin at the base of the piece reveals dentures and cigarette butts: an image of a cyborg-like, mechanically retrofitted yet ailing human body that takes its vices into its old age.

Born in 1989 in Florianópolis, Brazil, Yamagata moved to São Paulo in 2008 to enroll in the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). While studying painting, she started to incorporate textiles into her work. She credits her family for her interest in fabrics: Her grandmother was a seamstress and her mother owned a clothing store. Today, Yamagata moves fluidly between painting and mixed media, though sewing remains her signature. She often stuffs fabrics like plush toys and exhibits them as free-standing sculptures, or produces “canvases” by stitching together various materials.

Yuli Yamagata
Caipira l, 2020

Yamagata’s nuanced tensions, between structure and pliability, abstraction and representation, make her in some ways an heir to the Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists such Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, who sought to make painting three-dimensional and to move sculpture into a more everyday urban environment. In this sense, it’s apt that the Art Basel portion of Yamagata’s show “Sweet Dreams, Nosferatu” took place at a furniture store in Basel called Passion for Beds. Installed amid actual bedding for sale, Yamagata’s bright renderings seemed less about intimate, secret terrors, and more like an evocation of material culture at large—the secret lives of objects.

Yamagata’s fascination with commodities—their consumption and representation in media and advertising—is another recurring motif. Some of her pieces are outrageous takes on functional objects such as furniture, clothing, and footwear, at times resembling haute couture. Yamagata understands the desire to consume as a way of forming one’s self-image: “I love seeing how this urge can be both grotesque and beautiful, as seen in the work of Claes Oldenburg and Mike Kelly, or both aseptic and melancholy, as in the works of Roy Lichtenstein, or even sublime, as in Alex Katz,” she said. Indeed, Pop art, with its link to material culture and consumption, has been formative for Yamagata. Equally important is her fascination with American B movies (John Carpenter’s Christine and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof are among her favorites). Not surprisingly, Yamagata’s recent show “Insomnia” was inspired as much by the American horror masters David Lynch and Tim Burton as by manga comics.

Yuli Yamagata
Sangrento, 2020

Sexual fantasies and urges also percolate in Yamagata’s recent work. At Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, her mixed-media piece Noite no Hotel (Vigília)—translating to “Night at the Hotel (Vigil)” and combining velour, silk, polyester, and silicon fibers—renders a female nude in a green wig, standing with her back to the viewers. Her buttocks pulled back, the figure’s pose suggests sexual play. Meanwhile, her exposed vagina contains a piece of stuffed oblong material emulating a tampon, with a string dangling from it. Provocative yet disarmingly domestic, the work is also quite melancholy.

The show’s title, “Insomnia,” conveys not only widespread anxiety, so acute during the pandemic, but also the notion of desire as a double-edged fantasy, a revelry that trumps rationality and ravages the ego (as in Lynch’s sexual, hallucinatory films). Meanwhile, the depiction of female menstruation hasn’t been shown as bluntly perhaps since Catherine Breillat’s 2004 film Anatomy of Hell. With the explicit frankness of artists such as Sarah Lucas and Cindy Sherman, while also offering her take on Tarsila do Amaral’s modernist distortions of a female form, Yamagata reveals a transgressive edge.

The Artsy Vanguard 2021

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.

Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2021 and collect works by the artists.

Ela Bittencourt

Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Yuli Yamagata. Courtesy of Yuli Yamagata.