Artist uses Wile E. Coyote to explore the notion of 'fanatical pursuit'
Melissa Yes has run so far, so fast, in a singular pursuit, that she has lost track of where she is. She stops, reaches down beneath the dust her frantic activity has kicked up, and realizes she has run off the edge of a cliff, and there is nothing below her save for air.
No, wait. That's actually Wile E. Coyote who did that. You know, from the Warner Brothers cartoons in which he is perpetually chasing the Road Runner, resulting in all manner of comedy.
“I found myself using Wile E. Coyote as a metaphor in trying to describe to people how I was feeling. It kept happening and happening in different scenarios, so I thought maybe there's something worth investigating there,” Melissa Yes said in an interview at Sean Christopher Gallery, where her “Relay” exhibition – in which the catastrophic canine is a recurring character and theme – runs through the end of January. (An artist's reception will be held from 6-10 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 6, at the gallery.)
Yes described a kind of tunnel vision that focused her on a specific task or pursuit, “and then realizing there's this whole other world around you, and you look down and you see where you are,” Yes said. “There is something about this fanatical pursuit of a thing. … In these Warner Brothers cartoons … it's a joke that Wile calls himself a genius, because he's obviously a fool. But he is kind of a genius. I think that the brilliant thing about Wile is the constant pursuit of this unattainable thing. … Even if all evidence points to the fact that … you're not going to catch the Road Runner, you still pursue it. You push it down the road and that pushes the limit out, pushes the limit elsewhere.
“And if you think about that a little more heavily, that can [imply] political limits, that can be personal limits. Wile presents really funny and pathetic on the nose, but when I spend more time and think about it, there's actually something really meaningful and true about the pursuit.”
Which brings us back to the part about Yes (not really) running off a cliff. “I realized in myself that I was very much like Wile E. Coyote by accident. This show is the first time I give myself a chance to dig into [a] character,” she said.
Yes accomplishes this in a collection of assemblages combined with digital and video work. Yes, who investigated dance, biology and architecture before finding her best expression through art, nonetheless makes room for those disparate pursuits in each of her projects. The sculpture work, in particular, follows a theme that becomes immediately recognizable when considering the metaphor Yes is investigating.
“I'm always ordering things from Amazon and cobbling things together,” Yes said, more than hinting at the notion that the online retail giant is her version of Wile's ACME. Materials available from any home improvement store and/or that Yes simply had available on-hand are featured alongside the Amazon orders. Large-scale pieces include a “glitched-out” image of Wile, backlit on a pegboard; a festive rendering of the (edited) Warner Brothers cartoon-ender “That's all” that bears a secret all its own; and a looped GIF constructed from images borrowed from Warner Brothers and NASA and a Yes self-portrait.
“Relay” also includes video projects – one based on a performance piece that Yes presented as part of the December opening at the gallery, as well as an 11-minute exposition on the notion of the coyote as a “trickster” figure found in folk traditions around the globe. The recurring mythical character often uses its uncanny wit and intelligence to poke, prod, confound and challenge.
“I'm interested in the phenomenon of the behavior of Wile E. Coyote and the trickster in folklore, and what is significant about that trickster,” Yes said. “At the same time, I'm looking also very much at the role of artists as digital tricksters [and] culture makers. … There's a lot of art out there that will make people angry or confuse people or that doesn't operate within expected parameters — that disrupts the way a system is supposed to work.”
Uncertain of this characteristic in her own work, Yes confessed she is interested in the notion of disruption, acknowledging that she is pursuing something like this when she explores such themes via a long-suffering cartoon character.
“One sort of disruption I would like to make is what we take seriously, which might resonate with the work in the show, which is very playful on the nose but there's something else going on,” she said. “I want my work one day to flip that switch, to suggest that the things we don't take seriously are the things we take seriously. And there are two kinds of seriousness – that heaviness, but also whose voices are heard, who do we brush off and ignore and who do we listen to.”
“It's maybe a weird conversation to have while we're watching cartoons,” she said.