The Long and Nomadic Life of a Mythmaking Artist
by Wen Tao
A curious thing happens when an “outsider’s” artistic vision penetrates the carapace of anonymity to reach the appreciating public in the artist’s old age. In those final, brief moments of recognition, their previously isolated and largely unrecorded lives become an infinitely fetishized object. We, the audience, look back to their pre-artmaking periods through the optics of their eventual production, against the grain of time. We investigate, authenticate, and exaggerate, furbishing the particularly ravishing facets like cutting gems, looking for a particular shape of reality for whom the art can seem both a logical extension and a pre-historical motive. Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis is a stunning example. Joseph Elmer Yoakum is another. And in his case, the exigency of such retroactive narration is bolstered, as his landscape drawings often spring directly from his long and nomadic life: places been, sights seen, stories and spirits unfolded. Adding to that, Yoakum is himself a tireless mythmaker whose animated recollections about his adventurous life, like the different circuses he traveled with as a boy, move the spirit through an aggrandized sense of illusion and wonder. A current show at Venus over Manhattan of 62 drawings offers a beautiful view of Yoakum’s oeuvre, where mountains heave in gracile, rhythmic curves; clouds scatter along surreal, sinuous contours; and supernatural creatures lurk in the stately structuralism of remembrance.
Yoakum was of African American and Native American descent and born in Ash Grove, Missouri in 1888. Although he claims to belong to Navajo heritage, his biographer Derrel B. Depasse tells us in her book Traveling the Rainbow that his ancestry is Cherokee, traced through both of his parents. At around nine years old, he left home to join the Great Wallace Circus, working at first as a general helper and later as a billposter. Until 1908, he traveled around North America with several major circuses as billposter for the advance department, which immersed him in the study of places: geography, routes, and locales. Yoakum subsequently traveled to Europe with the US Army and continued his world travels alone thereafter until settling in Chicago in the late 1920s. He started making drawings in the 1960s, which were not discovered until fellow artist John Hopgood spotted them in Yoakum’s storefront studio. They became subjects of multiple exhibitions that stirred enthusiasm in Chicago’s art community and had a great influence in the Imagists group.
The present show exhibits drawings that depict scenes around the world, punctuated by Yoakum’s signature curvilinear language and in variously muted or vivid palettes. Many of them, such as “Mt. Wilhelemina of Nassau Range Near Carstenez New Guinea asia” (c.1970s), synthesize a wide array of marks and patterns: fine, dark edges by ballpoint pen next to the soft, diffused edges by colored pencil (or sometimes, delicate patches of watercolor); serpentine fracturing of sky, water, and hills against the straight, ruled lines of house and well. The urgent, linear momentum directs the eye along fluctuations of space, while mountain facades are smoothed and combed with superimposed flourishes and rhythm. Tightly bundled trees congregate in matchbox-like alcoves, carving out moments of quick recession in these ambiguously sprawled out masses. Complex enfoldment of space happens in a compacted area. A triangular wedge centered on the bottom edge provides an inviting entry into the surging landscape.
The most striking thing about Yoakum’s drawings is their visionary quality: the all-over transformation of sight with patterns and visual rhymes. In “Grand Prairie Cherryale Kans” (nd), gently shaded M shapes and S shapes repeat like echoes scudding through the valley, while emerald patches of water rivet the eye against the peachy sky. The petal-like contours of the mountain, leaning flowers, and the winding path all converge to one point on the center-left, anchoring the composition.
On top of Yoakum’s idiosyncratic syntax of abstraction, the drawings are as suffused with visual referents to his life and beliefs. Symbols such as steam trains, the English Channel, and oil refineries refer both to Yoakum’s personal histories and a larger historical backdrop. Animals (horses in particular) imply spiritual meanings that resonate with his Native American Heritage. Depasse suggests that the facets of some mountains resemble Native American tribal masks.
The drawings were first sketched with ballpoint pen, and titles representing names of the places were added after their completion. These names, simultaneously specific and possibly arbitrary, harken back to Yoakum’s previous life of travels, which is an overpowering and unstable referent. Has Yoakum really visited these places in his drawings? According to Depasse’s research, Yoakum has likely visited most of the American places that he depicted, but the ones outside of the US are more often drawn with imagination and references that do not overlap with the actual itineraries of his travels. The artist is known to have used maps, books, and atlases as aids. Yoakum’s is an art that’s endlessly corroborated by an unfixed narrative which is also fissuring and derailing. Nevertheless, his stubborn insistence on having “seen things firsthand” undergirds these fantastical visions with a lifelong lust for sights, places, and reality itself.