"It's 1979 and we're all getting stoned in Donna's house." So begins Robert Yoder's artist statement for his new joint show with Michelle Kloehn at Platform Gallery, called Dark Entries. They're journal entries, maybe—the narrator is unidentified. The short slice of life that follows that sentence involves wrestling with another boy who, like the unknown voice, also gets a hard-on, "but we didn't do anything."
A thought comes to mind about the game of hide-and-seek that's instigated by this "artist's statement" and the show of enigmatic abstract paintings and photographs it accompanies: Now, here, in this city where Yoder lives and made this art earlier this year, smoking pot is legal, something you can do in your kitchen, still wearing your Oxford shirt after a long day at the office. Similarly, these days you can not only acknowledge your mutual hard-ons, but take them all the way to the chapel and gay-marry. If anything in officially liberalized urbanity is frowned upon, it's secrecy. Hiding is verboten. Why aren't you out? Yoder's works feel nostalgic for some good old-fashioned shame.
What's a man to do when his oppressors abandon him? Given the nature of memory, he can't abandon them back.
Yoder is a loner in many ways. But he's also an engaged and sharp-tongued observer of and participant in art and politics. His work has not so far been overtly political, but Yoder is dealing with identity indirectly, by shifting his process of coding. He would probably be mortified to hear himself described this way. After he taped an interview for the Neddy Awards last year—he was a finalist—he immediately regretted sharing that he associates his works with drug addicts and gravestones, a whole underworld, although you might have guessed by looking at this newest work, some of which sits on the floor and rests against the wall like a headstone awaiting installation. These pieces are his hottest, most intimate, and throbbingly saddest works so far in a career that once was marked by tightness and geometry. These paintings are surprisingly soft, with frayed and uneven edges. They bleed and cry. For the first time, Yoder is making paintings on T-shirts, bandannas, and torn scraps of fabric. The top layer on each painting is a mask. It's rough, like a field of static from which something audible might rise at any moment, each surface either dirty-black or dirty-white. But there's screaming color underneath, smothered. It pops up in spots or radiates out at an edge. In the center of each piece is a putative focal subject. The subjects are mysterious symbols. They look like phrases in a made-up language, something cultish and desperate, scribbled like dodgy graffiti.
Several of Yoder's titles refer to the story of the artist statement, like Teenage Donna. Overall, the aesthetic is goth-glam-punk, but there's a pastel side, too, and Teenage Donna (Hobby Lantern) is a large, almost pastoral piece, with pear greens, smoky grays, and salmon pinks rising from the bog of oil and acrylic on a cotton T-shirt. I looked up "hobby lantern," and it's the phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, also called the "will-o'-the-wisp" ("Medieval Latin: 'foolish fire'"). In English folk tradition, hobby lanterns are said to be "ghost lights seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps, or marshes." Yoder's paintings equate the traveler with the ghost. They're both.
"Lately, I have been thinking about... the difference between what we think we see and what we want to see." That's the statement by Michelle Kloehn, the other artist showing at Platform, whose works are mixed in among Yoder's paintings. Platform asked him to do a solo show, but he pulled in Kloehn, who lives in New York and makes black-and-white photographs that are like somebody you're chasing who disappears around a corner every time you get them in view. To get her feathery, eerie effects, she uses a process that was popular in the 1800s and has gained traction recently among photographers increasingly interested in the tension between objects and images. Kloehn's main subject is light—she's fascinated with the way it falls, reveals, obscures, forms into shapes. To make her photographs, she exposes objects she assembles using simple materials (paper, tape, mirrors) or light itself onto glass or metal plates poured with collodion; the plates are then immersed in a solution of silver nitrate and an image appears, still wet. Over the years, Kloehn has been more and less geometric-modern, foggy-pictorialist, X-ray tech, and dirty punk. Here she mixes styles, and—when they're not so dark you can almost make out nothing at all—the photographs feel like fresh secrets in a foreign language. Kloehn's art raises the hairs on the neck of Yoder's art, and vice versa.
Another monochrome history of hiding has to be mentioned here: It's at SOIL this month, right next door to Platform, and it's by another Seattle artist, Christopher Buening. In a glass case, he displays—splayed open—his seventh-grade diary, along with an exact copy he's handwritten as a grown-up gay man. (He was born in 1973.) The book is open to an anxious page scribbled after a wet dream about a boy, followed by an urgent denial that he's gay. The copy is a precise and determined reenactment, as clear and clean and reassuring as unconditional acceptance. Like Robert Rauschenberg's hand copy of an expressionist painting or Felix Gonzalez-Torres's pairs of clocks, it's a lover who's a mirror, a private past reconstituted in public.