At Play at Art

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

“I saw people looking at me and my art – adults and young people being happy, and that felt so good,” says Yuka Yamaguchi. Happiness and playfulness are certainly at the centre of her artwork. For example, in February she showed a series that might be called self-portraits at Phonographique (the hip-hop boutique on Pacific Avenue in Saskatoon, run by Troy Gronsdahl, also known as Soso on hip-hop his recordings.)

Yamaguchi’s portraits, rendered in coloured pencil and ball-point pen, are light-hearted, almost cartoon-like but grippingly surrealistic. They show strangely configured wildlife, humans with disconnected parts, and human/animal/fish hybrids. A notable drawing “New Me’s Being Born” shows many little ‘Yuka’ faces rising like bubbles from a cup-shaped womb in ‘Yuka’ herself. And there are three-headed ducks, a chicken stepping on Yuka’s toe and Yuka retaliating. I’m referring to these ‘Yukas’, but they are not true likenesses. They can be seen on her website – – where there’s much more, and always a touch of fun.

The website represents Yamaguchi’s work and life. It is a journal, but one that rises above the ‘I did this, I did that’ mode. Since her primary role daily is to make art, or turn her life into an artistic concept, her website reflects this. “My interest changes everyday. My skin changes every night.” She updates the website at least three times a week – writing posts and uploading images.

While Yuka is dedicated to her work, she is also loath to elevate it too much. She says, “When I say it’s art I feel very itchy. I don’t like to call it art. I’m really an open box. People can reach in and take whatever they like. I just do what I do.”

Yuka is more than a visual artist who draws. She is a conceptual artist, blogger, and new media artist. An example of her quirky diversity is “Big Jell-O”, which Yuka did not create as a work of art. She just wanted to make a huge Jell-O. She says, “I had time so I made it.”

The Jell-O can be seen on her website. It takes on amorphous or life-like shapes. It is funny, strange, and obviously created with a laugh. Yuka disclaims any artistic or political intention with Big Jell-O, but its appearance on her website along with her artwork does contextualize it. Yuka says, “When I didn’t have big Jell-O I wanted it. I just wanted to make a huge Jell-O before I die. But then when I had big Jell-O, I didn’t want it. Then I started thinking about abundance and poverty.” To me her statement gives her Jell-O a political slant – embracing issues of consumerism, desire, and ambivalence.

Her irreverent approach may be a result of her lack of formal art training. Yamaguchi began sketching at three years of age, when she was growing up in the port city of Kobe in Japan where she was born. There, her grandmother would save all kinds of paper for Yuka to draw on. She kept drawing in art classes in elementary school and showed her drawings to friends and classmates. The drawings were very popular.

After high school she didn’t take art classes. At university she majored and graduated in social work. “I didn’t want to go to art school to learn art,” she says. “I wanted to learn it from my everyday life.” She continued to draw.

Yamaguchi usually draws on art paper but has also used newsprint, recycled paper, construction paper, manila envelopes, just about anything that will take her pen and pencil strokes. When asked about the surrealistic appearance of her drawings, she says, “Twisted images pop up in my mind naturally. When I draw realistically, irony pops up. I don’t try to create an image – images just come. When I try too hard I screw up. I just want to draw well.”

Her intuitive approach also appears in other tasks. “When I’m knitting I don’t follow instruction. When I cook, I don’t want to follow a recipe. I like to improvise.”

Of her influences she says, “I never try to imitate somebody, I look at their technique though. I’ve taught myself to look.” Her favourite artist is Rene Magritte, the famous Belgian surrealist painter.

In 2000 Yuka came to Canada with her partner Paul Masiowski to live in Winnipeg. In 2001 they married and moved to Kingston. There in 2004 she decided it was time to show her work, so she exhibited drawings at a Women’s Art Festival. “People kept coming to see my work. It was encouraging.” In 2005 Yuka and Paul moved to Saskatoon.

Like many people of the Internet generation, Yuka is a blogger, but her blog, which is part of her website, is not a run-on self-absorbed narrative. It is one of her artistic media, and so she can be considered a new media artist. Her blog is an entry into her psyche. “It’s like opening my brain and looking in,” she says.

On her site, the viewer will find not only documentation of Yuka’s work – artistic and culinary – but also links to a myriad of sites that fall within her interests. There are her recipes for such exotic delights as takoyaki, salads made according to colours, and bucket pudding; there are also quasi-calligraphy lessons, links to her favourite films and videos, and much more. She wants the site to be dynamic and engaging, instantaneous and changing. As the site shows, she sees herself as a hub. “I want to connect people. I’ve been helped by so many people. Plastique Monkey provides people with a way to get connected.”

Also viewable on her site is her series of books – which exist as well as a tangible object – The Boring Life of Spencer the Ennui Dog. Spencer, an amigurumi knitted dog, appears in these books, which look like childrens’ picture books, and use quirky photo narratives to depict Spencer’s life. Kids enjoy them, but so do adults. And again there is that sense of playfulness.

Yuka also creates photographic narratives using found figures and objects, which she locates at Value Village, Home Depot and the Dollar Store – in fact the name of her website comes from a Dollar Store plastic ape. She photographs these found figures in ‘situations.’ She says: “There's no scenario or narrative sequences before taking photos. In fact the objects tell their hidden emotions as I take photos. I just wait for the moment when the emotion appears.” One such sequence is a Nurse and Doctor episode called “Loud Silence.”

Since coming to Saskatoon Yuka has connected readily with the artistic community. “It’s so welcoming. I’ve never felt as supported as here. The art community is so good. People here are fascinated by the local artists.”

Yuka will show her drawings this summer in Regina in a group exhibition called “Room for Changing” at Art Projects Gallery, 1217 15th Avenue. Her solo work in this context will show from August 13th to 19th, with a reception on the 19th.

Meanwhile her website really is worth a long visit. Earlier versions are archived, so all the idiosyncratic channels of Yuka’s imagination can be visited. And if a journey inside her head does seem strange, Yuka is the first to acknowledge this.

Where she fits in the art world, is not her primary concern. “People are welcome to categorize what I do. But that's not my job. I'm not interested in categorizing. I'm busy doing my work.”

For Yuka, art-making is her primary job. She sells her work at exhibitions and takes occasional commission work. She’d like to find a gallery to represent her. But she’s not sitting still. She’s about to open an online shop called Plastique Monkey Shop. “People will be able to access it from my website home page. They can buy my work from anywhere in the world using a credit card and I'll ship their order to them. I'll be selling my drawings, as well as useless toys, photos, prints, calligraphy or whatever I come up with.”

To these possibilities Yuka Yamaguchi adds one qualifier – “So long as it's fun.”


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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