Letting Go Through Discipline

A Profile of Jade Yumang | by Kelly McCafferty

I had the undeniable privilege of meeting Jade Yumang at an artist residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts led by master artist, Pepón Osorio, in the summer of 2012. Jade and I were both New Yorkers, but met in the Atlantic coast of Florida, fresh off completing our MFAs. We were hungry, fierce, and ferocious. And I could smell the Taurus on him from a mile away. Of course, I say that now. But I made it my mission to know Jade and eat everything he cooked, and I still know him, so I must have done something right. In all honesty, Jade is one of the hardest working artists I have EVER met and I know some taskmasters. He has uniqueness, nerve and talent. He is funny with sparkly devilish eyes, really everything about him is a dream.

Ok. Fast forward to late 2015. I am coming down hard from an epic residency at the Banff Centre, which I coupled with a cross-country solo road trip from NYC. Picture this: Me, face covered in tears and snot, hair wild, listening to Sticky Fingers on repeat, a bundle of nerves and feelz with everything that matters to me crammed into my car driving from Banff to Vancouver and showing up at Jade and his partner Nick’s place. I’ve never felt more like a feral cat in all my life. And Jade and Nick were cool, so cool. They opened their home and their lives to me. I took over Jade’s studio/spare room for two days. Totally disrupting everything and it was awesome. Jade cooked an epic meal for us (homemade Indian food, y’all!) and Nick fed me beer and conversation. And it was honestly, the best place I could be and it calmed me, soothed me. You can count on a Taurus to bring you back into your body, to turn you back into a real girl. Over those two days, Jade and Nick showed me their city. Basically, we walked everywhere and ate everything and drank every cup of coffee we came across. Vancouver is gorgeous. They taught me how to play the Settlers of Catan while we ate vegan poutine!  I mean, how can you get more comforted than that?

Peppered through all of this, I, Kelly McCafferty, Ace Reporter, interviewed Jade and scribbled indecipherable notes. And while my writing can’t replicate how awesome those two days were—they were mine alone—I hope to give you some idea of the complex, magical, and truly Taurean presence that is the incomparable Jade Yumang. Enjoy.

Jade Yumang was born in Quezon City, Phillipines in 1981. He grew up in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and his family immigrated to Vancouver, BC, Canada when he was 15 years old. He attended the University of British Columbia for his BFA and Parsons in NYC for his MFA. He now lives in Vancouver with his partner Nick and two cats and he teaches at UBC.

Jade and I begin by discussing his return to Vancouver from NYC. He moved back in 2014 and is now teaching printmaking classes at his alma mater. In many ways this is a return for him not just to his own personal past, but to printmaking as well. One of his recent body of work reflect this return on the medium as he has been making large woodcuts printed onto stretched fabrics.

We start to talk about the work that Jade made while in undergrad and he pulls some work out of both physical and digital storage. He tells me that in undergrad, he didn’t have a lot exposure to queer work. And he describes his undergraduate work as typical gay man art—explicit figurative male nudes. I can’t imagine Jade ever making anything typical, but I listen. We all have hang-ups about the work we made in undergrad. Jade tells me that when showing his undergrad work in class crits, the response is primarily focused on the technique as a way to curtail away from talking about the explicit content of the work. 

Jade tells me that he was doing a lot of Chuck Close-like work in undergrad, but eventually found his own way of approaching process. He then shifted to exploring the papercut technique just before grad school.  

I see a divergence in Jade’s work. It is still there, two sides of the same coin. The work is obsessive, all of it. He is either always building up or taking away, but either way there is an obsessive action. I point this out to him and he mentions that a lot of the content in his work is about the crazy amount of handiwork in it—lots of little tiny marks or shapes making up a big one. Repetition is always part of his process.

I ask him if his work is meditative, and he reluctantly says yes, perhaps it isn’t the right word. But I want to know what his state of mind is while he is working, is he in a trance?  And he returns to the idea of repetition and wants to emphasize that he doesn’t make a plan as the process is about being free. I feel what he is saying, I think we all want to feel free in what we make, no matter the process or the outcome. From there Jade begins to talk about gay male archetypes and queer form. What is queer aesthetic?  What makes it queer?  He tells me that he is perpetually searching for queer form, but that queerness always changes. That it is freeing, that every time you try to pin down queerness or queer form it has already morphed into something else, all you can catch are paused moments of transformation.

Jade starts to talk about Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss’ interpretation of Georges Bataille’s informe in Formless: A User’s Guide as an inspiration to tackle ideas of flaccidness, looseness and trying to define something that constantly slips away. I think, damn, Jade is persistent in his work and there is evidence, yeah, of a struggle. Trying to capture something that doesn’t want to be caught must be both exhilarating and frustrating to the nth degree. 

He tells me that his work has always been about the body, but it was always someone else’s body. When he was in grad school an instructor gave him the advice of recording himself in the studio just to see what that looks like. Honestly, I can’t imagine Jade’s work without the performative aspect. It is such a strong component of his practice. During grad school, he shifted his main material from paper to fabric—dress shirts, dandy outfits, seersucker. At ACA, the residency we attended together, he used tweed and floral dress shirts in combination with hair he cut from a willing fellow artist, Alma Leiva, and activated by a performance from a poet, playwright, and actor, also in residence, Hunt Scarritt.

The next big jump in his work was at the Fire Island Artist Residency in 2012. He tells me the first week there was challenging. Usually his introductions to other artists about himself and his work are filled with preambles of queer theory, but during this residency all the artists are queer and the whole environment is queer. The way to introduce and define yourself, he says, was way harder. Everyone is stripped off of that façade. There is already a foundation and every one in the residency approached queerness in diverse ways. For him, the world was flipped and he loved it. At Fire Island, Jade was playful in his work for the first time. He has always been about discipline and repetition, about forming himself and the work into what he thinks he should be, but in this queer environment, he just was for the first time.

A lot of the time he is building up, especially for a moment. For example, during his residency at Lower Manhattan Cultural Swing Space he worked on an installation/performance piece for almost 6 months. The final performance was only 10 minutes and it is never going to be performed again. There is endurance built into his work. His smile performances, he would hold a smile for an hour. There is a decay that happens after repetition—a desire to be close to the edge, close to giving in completely. Jade tells me at one point that he has to physically work hard in order for it to be good and man, that is a very Taurean viewpoint, you can feel that in all his work.

We talk the most about his newest work—the t-shirt series. I had the feeling before I saw them that they are the most personal and vulnerable of his work yet. He tells me how these pieces evolved. When he was living in NYC, he was apart from his partner, Nick. He would ask Nick to send him remembrances—his hair, his clothes. Jade was having a hard time coping with being alone. Being alone is hell sometimes, I know. He and Nick were so used to being together everyday and now they were living in different countries. They have been together for nine years at that time. Jade was having trouble sleeping so he would dress his pillows in Nick’s used shirts. 

So fast forward, Jade comes back to Vancouver and finds old stretcher bars in storage during a cleaning frenzy and also accumulated Nick’s old shirts from when he was living in NYC. Wait, wait, I ask, when were you making paintings? And he says, it was a long time ago. He tried briefly to paint again in Provincetown and it felt bizarre. He likes to jump from medium to medium. He doesn’t want to be known for just one thing. He tells me that he makes a conscious strategy to be promiscuous about mediums and I laugh. He nailed it. I know all about that. He says painting has so much history and the only way to approach it for him was to be a trickster “in drag”. His whole practice is a constant morphing and adopting of different techniques, but refusing to be part of a linear path associated with mediums. When he was in Provincetown, his peers were dedicated to painting, this was the summer of 2014 in the Fine Arts Work Center, and he tried it again. But ultimately he couldn’t approach painting in a traditional manner. 

So he dressed up the stretcher bars with Nick’s used t-shirts and started to cut away. Just like with his paper cutting, he made cuts onto the t-shirts and it began to make sense. The canvas has been replaced with a personal item and instead of a brush he uses a blade. It’s still using the language of painting, but through a queer tactic. As he latches on an existing form, but transforms it through a corporeal metonymy. He says he is always working inside some structure, for instance, he tends to work in a series with strict parameters.

From my point of view, this is the first time I have seen Jade use a personal object in the work and it becomes much more psychological and fascinating to me. I ask him what Nick thinks of this work, of seeing his body used in the work this way?  Jade says that Nick loves the shirt pieces. And corrects me that Nick has been in his work before, primarily in his photographic works, but Nick has been a reluctant model. We talk for a bit about Felix Gonzalez-Torres and how everyone connects to the personal and emotional aspects of his work. Also in reference to this series, Jade tells me that he has been looking at Blinky Palermo and Agnes Martin and the idea of restraint and handiwork.

Jade is always giving himself rules, but through exhaustive technique something breaks. That discipline leads to some type of rupture. This push and pull of breaking and simultaneously following the rules—this gets me going. And I start to pull stuff out about Jade’s childhood. Let’s study you Jade, why is this so?

Jade’s parents were hippies (awesome.) And he describes himself as a free-range kid. He didn’t have a curfew or a lot of rules. As a way to rebel, he became an uptight square kid. I laugh out loud. I am loving this. He tells me when his family would travel, for instance to India, they would just go without a plan, but he would research and have a planned itinerary ahead of time at 9-10 years old. Adorable, kid Jade, you were adorable. His parents would always ask him, why are you so uptight?  You need to relax. 

I can remember Jade getting up and just jogging every morning as a way to start the day when we were at the residency at ACA, and me being like, really??  We are here in the swamp, in the jungle, the beach, the sunshine and you are going running. And he tells me that sports, yoga, running, training his body—he goes until he feels pain. He likes to bend himself until he begins to break apart. He lets go through discipline. Is this masochistic, I wonder?  Yes, he needs to push against something to make work, to be. He wants to push against societal expectations with his content. 

This whole tenacity and intensity is a huge part of Jade and his work. He describes himself as a terrier that won’t let go. His whole life he has been told to loosen up. Jade comes back again to when he moved to NYC and how everything fell apart when he was alone there. It was a new place and he had no control. And he is accustomed to having control. In grad school, everything he was doing was questioned. His eyes were opened to diverse artists—queer artists. He added performance into his work and it was unpredictable. He described his body going through every emotion. I can relate, I think all New Yorkers can relate. I think all artists that have experienced grad school can relate.

Jade tells me that if something is too easy, then it isn’t satisfying. It needs to be hard technically, emotionally or physically. He wants to replicate the same feeling when you exercise and give all that your body can give. In the end, you have done everything, and they can take it or leave it. This is always in Jade’s work. He tells me that as a non-conforming queer person, he initially tried to fit in, but struggled to do so. However, through that failure comes a perspective that is more open to possibilities rather than falling into proscribed roles.

Jade and I begin to recount his childhood and how it informed him as an artist. He tells me he grew up in his mother’s beauty salon in Quezon City and was named after it. They left the Philippines when Jade was seven, but has very fond memories of the environment. He would hang out in the beauty salon and watch women get their hair, make-up and nails done. He remembers organizing the acrylic nails and the nail polish bottles. He was exposed to all this maintenance to look a certain way, the goal of perfection. A lot of the women had plastic surgery; even his mom had a nose job. Everything was artificial. Constant up-keep and touch-up were necessary. 

The repetitive action of trying to make things perfect is a major component of Jade’s practice. He notes how in trying to perfect technique, things become messy, monstrous, beautiful, and violent. We begin to dissect the violence in his work. With the paper cuts and the t-shirts, Jade is always removing and making negative space. He is cutting and piercing the work. He mentions the paper cut magazine work and how he obscures the body. He uses a scalpel to cut bodies. Violence leads to beauty through controlled cutting. 

Jade tells me that when he came out he had no sense of queer history. It wasn’t taught in school. He describes feeling blindsided. Learning about the AIDS crisis in North America and the generation before him opened his eyes to the history that he missed. Jade then described perfection in the gay community by telling me about Next Magazine (a weekly gay party magazine) and his feelings about it. He tells me that in the projection of gay male culture you have to have a certain look and body. As it can be restrictive, the openness of queerness to him is more captivating as it is more inclusive of different types and more ideologically expansive. 

Gay marriage in Canada has been an option since 2005, which he thinks is great. But he is skeptical that the way to legitimize queer culture is by mimicking the mainstream. He tells me that practically in terms of rights it is key, but is that the only way to be visible? By cutting into magazines like Next, Jade is critiquing what is being advocated. Cutting is a way for him to claim his own place in between all the idealized bodies. His cuts follow the shape of the bodies and through repetition it looks like something else in the end. 

We then start to discuss Canada. Jade tells me that Vancouver is much more chill than NYC, but there is a difference in being queer between the two cities. A decade after the legalization of gay marriage in Canada means a false sense of comfort to him. The US is in a constant battle. The queer community in NYC has a world of competing ideologies. I ask him about not being in NYC and if it has changed his work. He tells me that he is still in touch and he travels back and forth as he continuously exhibits in NYC and beyond. He makes an effort to keep up with friends and other artists in NYC, but he has time to think in Vancouver and that time is luxurious. 

Jade and I end our conversation on the last morning at a neighborhood breakfast spot over cups of coffee and gigantic plates of comfort food. Wow. Two days of following Jade around and interviewing him as I experienced the wonders of Vancouver was incredible. I know whatever Jade decides to tackle next will be intense and impossible to look away from. I can’t wait. 

Additional Images:

For more on Jade check out his website or Tumblr

Upcoming artist residencies:

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE

Opossum House, Eugene, OR (as Tatlo with Sara Jimenez)

Upcoming shows:

Cock, Paper, Scissors, co-organized by David Frantz, Lucas Hilderbrand, and Kayleigh Perkov, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, NY, NY

Desire on the Edge, curated by Emma Katz, Trestle Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

Queering the BibliObject, curated by John Chaich, The Center for Book Arts, NY, NY

Cock, Paper, Scissors, co-organized by David Frantz, Lucas Hilderbrand, and Kayleigh Perkov, ONE Archives at Long Hall, Plummer Park, West Hollywood, CA