The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Michaela Yearwood-Dan
Michaela Yearwood-Dan wants you to get close to her paintings—maybe closer than you think is allowed. Lean in if you have to. Take in the thickness of her layered strokes, the full spectrum of her pigments; her abstracted botanical motifs and fluid forms in peachy flesh tones and pops of blue, verdant greens, consuming blacks. Decipher the scrawls of cursive text. And if you’re a kid with clean hands, she may even invite you to touch it while her gallerist’s back is turned.
“I just want people to be less precious about it, really,” Yearwood-Dan said over a video call from her London studio. “I think painting gets…not a bad rap. But out of some other art forms, painting is one that people don’t consider to be as much of an experience-led practice. I think to be able to see art and look at art is an experience in itself—being able to sit with it and really get in there is really important.
“I’m making these large works, and I’m purposely making them at that size to take up space. But also command presence, to ask people to spend time with them.”
Portrait of Michaela Yearwood-Dan by Kristy Noble. Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.
Yearwood-Dan’s practice is rooted in painting. And since 2020, when she started working with clay as a way to fend off the boredom of lockdown, she’s also been producing small-scale painted ceramic sculptures and furniture that she installs at her gallery shows. With each exhibition, she strives to create a space not just for art, but for stillness, reflection, and indulgence. She softens the edges of the white cube through her unabashedly lush and tactile works—manifestations of the themes of love, vulnerability, and femmeness that inspired them.
From June to September 2022, Yearwood-Dan took that concept a step further with Let Me Hold You (2022): a 10-foot-tall curved mural installed at Queercircle, a newly opened LGBTQ+ cultural center in North Greenwich, London. The piece is covered with her signature florals and the words “I believe that there’s a big future out there with a lot of beautiful things”—a line spoken by the Harlem ballroom performer Octavia St. Laurent in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. The mural includes a sloping ledge on which visitors could walk or perch, should the mood strike. The surrounding space was dotted with colorful, usable benches and stools; and plant-filled ceramic fixtures were affixed to the pillars, too.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan, installation view of Let Me Hold You, 2022, at Queercircle, 2022. Photo by Deniz Guzel. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery.
“When I did the Queercircle mural, that was all about rest, essentially, and all about unifying together in a queer space to be able to just exist,” Yearwood-Dan said. “I think that there needs to be a little bit more of that: It takes so little to stick a bench in a space to entirely change how the non-pseudo-intellectual arty girlies will feel in that space because you made it welcoming; you’ve made it a warm space to be.”
Born in South London, Yearwood-Dan now lives east, and works from a tucked-away studio in a north-ish part of the city. One of the U.K.’s most high-profile young abstractionists, she’s participated in group shows across the U.K. and solo shows with her London gallery, Tiwani Contemporary, and Sarabande, the charity trust founded by fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
But her reach is increasingly international. Since 2021, her work has been seen in Edinburgh, Brescia, Mumbai, Dallas, and Marrakech; and last spring, she opened her first New York solo show, “Be Gentle With Me,” at Marianne Boesky Gallery. In October, her painting Coping Mechanisms (2021) sold for £239,400 ($270,600) at a Phillips auction in London—nearly 12 times the lower estimate.
Michaela Yearwood-Dan, installation view of “Be Gentle With Me” at Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2021. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.
In another timeline, Yearwood-Dan would not be an artist. A creative child with supportive parents, her first loves were drama and music—specifically singing, as well as the piano, flute, and recorder. After a shame-inducing moment as a teen watching a recording of herself acting, and a failed musical audition to a prestigious performing arts school, she decided to focus her attention on art.
“In theater and music, there is a tendency to have to literally become someone different, or play in an exact way to convey a certain genre of music, or to be the best kind of performer,” she said. “I can’t even remember what my first art-based rejection was, but I remember being like, ‘Well, it’s subjective, so I’m still going to carry on.’ I [developed] a determination to not let other people’s critiques and judgments affect me. I realized that art was the thing that made me feel the most myself.
“If you’re making a painting, it can be a floor painting, it can be a wall painting, it can be a painting stretched on canvas—there are loads of different ways that you can execute it,” she continued. “And then there’s the Duchamp of it all to just be like, ‘It is what I say it is.’ And I have always thought that art as a practice, and art as a language is the thing that gives me life. It’s what gets me up and it feels very therapeutic.”
Today, that element of personal expression is a hallmark of Yearwood-Dan’s practice. Her paintings are reflections of her mood, feelings, or thoughts in a specific moment, and the words she embeds (often borrowed from songs or literature) typically hold personal significance that viewers won’t pick up on.
“When I first really committed to an abstract way of working, it was at a time when I was working through romantic woes, and that’s been an underlying thread throughout a lot of my larger bodies of work,” she said. “And I think there’s a vulnerability and a strength to being a woman, a Black artist, and a queer artist talking about subjects like love in a very personal and diaristic form, and making that a stronger factor than all the larger political identifiers that the wider art world would probably want you to talk about—trauma porn to everyone else apart from those living it.”
For Yearwood-Dan, looking back on the works “feels a bit like clearing out a parent’s spare room and finding old diaries you wrote as a kid,” she said. “You remember exactly what that feeling was like, but you feel totally distant or removed from it at the same time.”
When we spoke, Yearwood-Dan was in the middle of preparing for a solo presentation at Frieze Los Angeles in February with Tiwani Contemporary, and another solo show in New York at Marianne Boesky Gallery. She’s thinking about new ways to bridge her painting and sculptural practices in the coming year, and is excited to continue finding her footing with ceramics. (“I am the master of my paint, and ceramic is the master of me,” she admitted. “Ceramic does what it wants to do.”) She anticipates 2023 being a busy year, but is manifesting some time for rest, too.
“I’ve very consciously planted the seed of ‘Unless it’s unmissable, you’re not getting anything from me’ [after this] with my galleries, so I can just read and experiment and hate the things I make and love new things and figure things out in my own time,” she said with a laugh. “I’m ready to take one year slowly—I say that now, but I know it’s not gonna happen!”
The Artsy Vanguard 2022
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.
Header: Michaela Yearwood-Dan, left to right: “Suadade,” “Don’t forget it,” and “No other way,” all 2021. © Michaela Yearwood-Dan. Photos by Lance Brewer. Courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen, and Tiwani Contemporary, London.