Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy
If you consider yourself prolific or a jack of all trades, you’ve never met Carrie Yury.
The California-based artist’s work is the definition of inter-disciplinary expression and feels unrivaled in underground circles. An MFA student at UC Irvine, she’s staged powerful photographic exhibits tackling subjects as seemingly disparate as love and obsession, social diseases, and ideals of perfection in a surgery-fixated society. She’s painted and worked to draw empathy to the forefront of viewer’s minds while documenting antique human medical specimens at a Pennsylvania physician’s college. And did we mention she released a six-song EP in 2005 that was one of the finest and frighteningly pristine solo debuts of the year?
But what truly separates Yury from her peers is the incredible degree of attention she lends to her work, from concept through initiation, from personal reflection through public consumption. For evidence, you don’t need to look further than Yury’s insights into projects like Mutter, which included a photographic exploration, a publicly staged exhibit and an EP featuring collaborators Will and Paul Oldham, Colin Gagon, and Richard Schuler.
“Mutter investigates the contemporary desire for and impossibility of empathy, in both senses of the word,” Yury recently wrote. “The work is really comprised of two distinct, yet related projects: a body of photographs, and a body of music. The photographs are gorgeous, glossy, specimen-like images of liminal spaces and of diseased or malformed human specimens from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The music is a song-cycle of poems set to music. The songs are sad-sentimental ballads or dark pop songs that attempt to invoke in the listener a sense of the loss that pervades the museum.”
“Both the photographs and the music address this sense of loss: loss of life, the recent loss of the museum’s long-time director, Gretchen Worden, loss of interest, as the museum becomes more a curiosity than a teaching museum, but most importantly, the loss of empathy, or the loss of the ability or desire to understand the feelings or experiences of other people,” she added. “The work is both a commentary on the place of emotion in the art world as well as social critique of our relationship to pathological and congenital betrayals of the body.”
And you thought your musings had depth.
Delusions of Adequacy recently welcomed the opportunity to speak with Yury by e-mail, talking as 2005 faded into 2006 about photography, independent music, and the complicated identities of multi-faceted artists.
Delusions of Adequacy: When the curious Google “Carrie Yury,” they’ll find references to your self-released solo record, Mutter, as well as images from your recent photography exhibit, “Untitled Work,” asides about your studies at UC Irvine, and an old Esquire clip in which a bartender of same name talks about alcoholic consumption. Who is Carrie Yury and what kind of artist is she?
Carrie Yury: Richard (Schuler, my husband) and I were just laughing about that the other day. He was trying to reassure me that people would think the bartender, academic, business consultant, sound artist and visual artist were all different people. But they’re all me.
At one point about six or seven years ago, I was simultaneously working on a big photo project, trying to write my PhD dissertation proposal, playing in a band, and working full-time as a research consultant. I was having a fantastic time doing everything at once, having all parts of my brain and body so completely engaged. But at the same time I would look at friends of mine in each of those worlds who had really focused on just one thing � academia, art, music, or business � and they were getting so much further by focusing. It took me a long time but I finally made the decision to pare down and focus on one thing: art. That’s essentially what brought me to art school: the desire to pick just one thing and really commit myself to it.
Ironically I chose a multi-disciplinary MFA program: UC Irvine. At first I was really dogmatic about sticking to photography, but eventually I became a disciple of the practice of the medium following the idea. Now I paint, make photographs, do sound and installation work, whatever makes sense relative to the set of ideas I’m working on for any given project. So it’s worked out really well: I still get to engage in a peripatetic practice, but at the same time I’m completely involved and focused on one thing, making art.
DOA: That addressed, how does your work in one artistic or creative discipline bleed into another? I’ve read about your role in Fashion Island, the group of Orange County, Ca. musicians whose assemblage seemed more like an art installation than an organic, hammering-it-out-in-the-studio collaboration. Are multi-media/interdisciplinary projects like this, which seem to toy with notions of songwriting, audience, and performance art, the exception or the rule?
CY: You know, I don’t think of myself as a performance artist or as a multi-media artist. But I guess you are what you do, so it’s possible I need to rethink my self-conception a bit. Ultimately I think it makes more sense to think of myself simply as an artist, and let the medium follow the idea. If I do that then there are no rules or exceptions, just projects.
But, it’s easier said than done. Right now I’m working on two projects, a painting project and a photo project. It took a lot to allow myself to paint. I practically needed art psychotherapy to get to the point where I felt like I could legitimately paint, which is stupid because I’ve been painting all my life (that’s what my undergrad degree is in, along with literature). But, I hadn’t done it yet in grad school, so it was scary to come out as someone who painted. And the reaction I got was very similar to the reaction I got last year when people found out I was making music: surprise/disbelief. I don’t know why. Most people I know have lots of different skills and talents. But the academy, the music world, and the art world seem to be used to specialization. I’m lucky because my thesis committee is all very supportive of whatever I want to do, which has been very liberating, and allowed me to think about switching between different media.
DOA: Tell me a little about Mutter. What prompted you to write the songs on the EP or consider assembling musicians from the Palace stable and beyond for the project?
CY: Mutter was written about the Mutter Museum at the Philadelphia College of Physicians in Pennsylvania. I’d heard about the museum’s collection of 19th-century human medical specimens. I wanted to take photographs of the collection because I was interested in the idea or possibility of an artwork producing empathy in the viewer. I was hoping if I took pictures of dead things, it would make people think about mortality, war, and hopefully make people feel something about it rather than being so cut-off and complacent. I was allowed to photograph at the museum by Gretchen Worden, the museum’s long-time director and a real supporter of the arts. I took several hundred photographs in June of 2004.
After working with the photographs for about six months I decided I wanted to go back and re-shoot, focusing more on the spaces of the museum than on the specimens themselves. I realized that pictures of dead things actually distance viewers from an empathic response, making them desensitized. The photographs that really pulled at the heartstrings for me were the photos of the kind of sad and institutionally neglected spaces of the offices where the museum employees worked, in a kind of sub-basement off the museum. I wrote to Gretchen and Margaret Lyman, her assistant director, to ask permission to go back to the museum. But I got an e-mail back from Margaret informing me that Gretchen had died shortly after my first visit to the museum.
I had already been thinking about what I perceived as a lack of place for emotion in visual art, and had therefore started writing (hopefully) emotive songs about the museum. In fact, I wrote two of the songs in Mads Lynnerup’s Fashion Island band, which you mention above. I think music is the last place in art where eliciting an emotional response to the work is not just sanctioned but actually lauded. Since my initial idea with the Mutter project was to think about empathy, I followed the idea to its logical conclusion by writing music. Hearing about Gretchen Worden’s death just took the project to another level emotionally. She was such an amazing woman who did so much for the arts, particularly photographers, granting full access to the museum’s collection, putting out calendars and even a book of photographic work on the museum. She died way too young. So I didn’t have to manufacture emotion when I was writing the rest of the songs. It was already there.
As far as why I asked Colin, Will, Paul, and Rich to play on the album, I wanted the music to be as bitter-sweet as possible, to really go as far as it could in evoking emotion. Every time I hear Will sing or Colin’s keyboards, I feel that kind of almost unbearable pulling in my chest, that painful sweetness that I was hoping to evoke on the album. I was thrilled when they agreed. I asked Colin to produce because I really love his EZ-T stuff, and I love the work he did on Sara Beth Tucek’s album, so I knew he would know what to do with me. Paul and Richard were obvious choices because they’ve played a lot with Colin and Will, and they’re both kick-ass musicians. The fact that they’re all friends of mine and incredibly nice people was obviously a factor, too.
DOA: Did the writing or recording of Mutter differ from other musical projects in which you’ve been involved? While you’ve been involved in collaborative projects under various monikers and banners, did having your name on the CD face change your approach to the project?
CY: Absolutely. I loved the intensely collaborative nature of Dolce Volante, but had wanted to do a project that was self-directed for a long time. I write, sing, and play music, but I’m not a musician, I’m an artist, so it was a little scary stepping out on my own. But it was so fantastic to have a vision of what I wanted the music to be like and to have those guys be there to make it happen. I wrote most of the music at home on an old organ, and even though I sent the guys demos, when we got into the studio all they really had was my voice, chord progressions, and my verbal descriptions of how I wanted the songs to feel. But they’ve all worked together so much that it was easy.
Colin was the perfect producer, and an out-of-this-world keyboard player, Will’s voice and guitar were sublime, Paul’s bass and recording/mixing inspired, and Rich’s drumming fantastic. It was the most incredible high to have this idea of these songs floating around in my head for six months, and then in one weekend to have them embodied by these fabulous musicians. It was pure joy. I don’t feel unequivocal love for all of my work, but with the Mutter EP, I absolutely do. Sometimes I can’t listen to it because it hurts in just the right place in my chest. The experience was kind of addictive, actually. I can’t wait to make another album.
DOA: Was the decision to record Mutter outside southern California, home to a good deal of your work, a conscious one? If so, what role did location play in the tone of the record or the overall project?
CY: Before Will had signed on, Colin and I had talked briefly of recording up in northern California where his sister and brother’s band The Heavenly States has recorded. But after Will said he’d do it, it made so much sense to go to Kentucky. Richard and I could see family and friends, including a newborn nephew. Paul could record and play bass. It was relatively cheap to fly Colin in from New Orleans. It just worked. Plus we love Paul and his wife Krista and their dogs, and relished the idea of a bucolic weekend recording on the farm in Shelbyville. The mood out there was perfect. It was cold and kind of creepy/foggy at times, with an ominously dark sky. Other times it was clear, beautiful and crisp. We all huddled in the recording studio next to the enormous old gas heater. The only downside to the whole thing was that I got attacked by a rooster. (Don’t wear red sneakers around roosters. It ticks them off.)
DOA: Tell me about the exhibit timed with the release of Mutter. Was the disc an element or aesthetic detail of the exhibit, or was the exhibit more a way to showcase the musical work itself?
CY: Definitely the latter. In fact, I wanted to do a kind of take-away piece with just the CDs on the floor. I had already had an exhibit of the photographs in late winter, so I figured that I would use Supersonic to show the EP. But my thesis advisor, Catherine Lord, and my husband convinced me that I should use the photographs somehow. So I came up with the idea of the equalizer-bar-like light boxes that would hold the CDs, only revealing the photos underneath as the CDs were taken away. Richard then designed and built the light boxes. Ultimately I think Catherine and Richard were right to push me into thinking about a more sculptural presentation for the CDs. It kind of finished the piece and brought everything together nicely. And it gave the installation a presence and gravity it wouldn’t have had if the CDs were just on the floor.
DOA: For a disc that you describe as being cast in such emotionally resonant terms, Mutter‘s cover art and packaging � the minimalist approach, the slate-gray foundations � can feel cold and distant, far removed from the Kentucky scenes you describe of its recording. Was this a conscious decision regarding visual aesthetics? And, if so, how do you think these elements in general interact with the sounds contained within?
CY: Oh yes, it was definitely a conscious decision. I laughed when I read that question, only because every single element of the design of the CD was so incredibly belabored and loaded with meaning.
Overall the cold, distant feeling of the CD was meant to be a commentary on the fact that I think that emotion is really denigrated and/or mocked in contemporary visual art. So the idea was to make the CDs look like little monochrome paintings, or little conceptual sculptures, to cloak the CDs in a veneer of what’s been lauded in contemporary art: thought before emotion, brain before body. Dan Macadam at Crosshair in Chicago designed and silk-screened the inside of the CD, which uses the arc as a metaphor for light, playing with the luminosity of the silver paper, and referencing the integral part that light played in the project, both literally because photographs are made from light, as well as metaphorically, referencing death, both Gretchen Worden’s as well as that of the specimens themselves.
As far as how the design interacts with the music, it’s meant to be a process of initial contrast (front cover) and then illumination (inside cover). The CDs are cold little modernist paintings/sculptures/specimens when you first pick them up. But when you open them up, you understand that it’s music, you see who’s playing on it, you see the dedication, and hopefully that begins to set the mood for the music.
DOA: What’s next for you, both in terms of your academic studies and photographic/artistic work? And, also, do you plan on acting any time soon on that urge to record another disc? If so, do you think it will be another project- or concept-driven affair or a collection of songs with less-defined contexts?
CY: What’s next is my MFA thesis show. The thesis show is May 25, and then I’ll be in the SOCASS LA MFA show sometime this summer. I’m working on two projects right now. One is a photo project, and another is a painting project. The photos will probably be the MFA show, and the paintings will be in the SOCASS show.
I would really like to do another album. I have some ideas and some people in mind. It will probably be another concept album. I’ll start working on the album full-force after the SOCASS show is up.
DOA: Let’s end where we began. Google has that fancy “I’m feeling lucky” function on its search engine. If someone wanted the low-down on Carrie Yury, and you had your druthers about controlling what they’d learn first, what do you want them to know about you as a person, a musician or an artist?
CY: I actually just tried it, and it came up with my website (www.carrieyury.com). I think that’s perfect, because it shows all my recent work, tells people how to buy Mutter, and has my cv. That kind of says it all.