Born in 1994, Michaela Yearwood-Dan is on the cusp of the Millennial years. She embraces the label, which manifests in her practice. Certain aspects of the artist’s aesthetic choices lean into this idea of the millennial—looking at a painting leaning against a wall of her Finsbury Park studio, she smiles. “We joke about millennials being into that soft, bubblegum-y pink, and plants—full stop—bubblegum pink and ferns.” Both of which proliferate Yearwood-Dan’s pieces. “They’re here, there, and everywhere throughout the practice,” she laughs. But, she flags, they’re not integral to the reading of the work.
With a solo booth with Tiwani Contemporary at Frieze Los Angeles coming up fast, and a solo show at Marianne Boesky in Chelsea, New York to follow, Yearwood-Dan has been busy. Her works are layered and nuanced, and they take time to create. And it’s that time that she enjoys taking.
There’s a high-brow/low-brow interplay within much of Yearwood-Dan’s work. “It’s intentionally challenging, but also quite light. Which I think is quite like me,” she says with a knowing smirk. The artist leans into both directions, creating work that fits in one mold only to, very intentionally, break it.
Though her artwork is often pretty in pink, the pieces are challenging to look at, and become increasingly so the more time one spends with them. They’re full of layers—literally (she’s a “heavy-handed” painter) and metaphorically. Zoomed out, the complete work is harmonious. But the composition pulls the viewer in different directions; they’re gifts that keep on giving. They’re not meant to look the same each time you see them, revealing a little more with each viewing. It’s a product of Yearwood-Dan’s inward-looking practice.
“I identify with millennial ideologies,” she says. One of which she sees as being introspective. “I think introspection has been kind of forced upon us through generational trauma,” she says, deadpan. “So many topical movements happened in our lifetime, from the collapse of so many governments, to queer rights, Black rights, human rights being brought to the forefront of the conversation.” Millennials also just so happen to be at “that stage of humanhood,” where they’re in a space of reflection, as their twenties or early thirties come to an end and they embark on the rest of their lives.
The “little tidbits of text” that Yearwood-Dan sneaks into, or splashes across, her work (depending on the piece) tend to be reflective. Sometimes they’re humorous. Oftentimes they’re song lyrics—and when they are, they’re pointed at a millennial audience. She recalls a piece she made at university in Brighton that she named after a lyric from Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Her tutor told her it was provocative. “I was dead,” Yearwood-Dan laughs. “I was like, wow, it doesn’t resonate with you at all.”
Other times, they’re personal thoughts of Yearwood-Dan’s, jotted down in her studio notebook or on a Post-it note—or, more frequently, the iPhone’s trusty notes app (“as I am a millennial,” she says, a wink in her tone). They’re often inspired by music, be it a lyric jotted down, or one she expands on or reflects upon. For Frieze last year with Tiwani Contemporary, she paired an Oscar Wilde sentence with a Missy Elliott lyric. Guests sat on a bench with Ja Rule scrawled across it. “Baby put it on me.” (“Which is funny. Sit down,” she giggles.) As for Yearwood-Dan’s current playlist?
Rosalía. “Because of the vibe. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish.”
Shygirl. “Actually, these are quite modern!”
A very distinctive Britney [Spears]. “When I need a lot of motivation.”
A lot of Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse. “When I’m feeling moody.”
Lots of UK garage and grime.
Stormzy. “His new album is definitely gonna be on my little Spotify wrapped.”
“A little bit of everything.”
That the text comes to fruition in a variety of ways is fitting, for its inclusion in the artwork is also multi-layered. “There’s this thing around abstract art where it feels like a very high form of art from a cultural understanding perspective,” Yearwood-Dan reflects. It’s not something that can be quickly understood. By including textual excerpts, the artist works toward cultural, class-related accessibility. “Having the text in there gives the viewer a sense of where I was coming from,” she explains. “It invites them to be able to be present in my humanness.” Sure, one might miss the reference entirely, but it offers a jumping-off point that much abstract art lacks.
The text also plays into ideas of revealing and concealing. Some text is bold, other scribbles are more hidden. “Sometimes I’ll write in black Sharpie on top of shiny black, so you can only see it if you walk past the painting in a certain light that’s hitting it in a certain way,” she says.
Yearwood-Dan questions the idea that the work has to literally say something. Her practice is rooted solely in her individual experience, subverting expectations of those who wish for her to “speak for” a larger group. “I think people—ethnic, cultural, sexuality minority people—are often expected to speak on behalf of their whole community. Which is wildly unhelpful,” she says. It’s already heavy existing in a world wherein Yearwood-Dan’s blackness, queerness, and femininity are defining factors, she laments. “And I’m meant to be making work that is the spokesmodel for [these]?”
Instead, the artist creates work from her sense of self. And this often winds up relating to broader and more collective narratives. “Often by being my authentic self, I am still talking about all that shit,” she says with a dry laugh. “It’s not going anywhere.” But the artist doesn’t want to feel held accountable for being the voice of a community. She attributes this approach, in part, to growing up surrounded by so much Blackness. “It was never necessary for me to speak on that,” she says of growing up in noughties London.
The Sunday after we speak, Yearwood-Dan is hopping on a flight to Los Angeles to exhibit at Frieze Art Fair. The pieces she’s showing are intentionally joyous and sensual: an act of resistance. “With the Black Lives Matter movement and all of that, my act of resistance is that the stressing and the marching is not my job. I’m Black, I’ve been Black, I’m going to continue being Black. It’s not my job.” She nods to poet Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry, which encourages people—especially Black women—to take a nap.
“Choosing not to predominantly engage with the trauma I face directly in my work is a very conscious choice.” It’s not a nap, but it is an intentional escape. “To sit with a work for however long it takes to make in that energy of feeling mad isn’t going to serve me.” For that, she’s got a therapist. In her art, she chooses to engage with joy, love, self-actualization and self-historicization—this is her act of resistance. “Everyone takes things way too seriously in the art world. We need some more enjoyment. Like, guys, the world is literally falling apart. So have a giggle.”
At Frieze LA, Yearwood-Dan is creating space. The seven works are large, for one thing. She’s got a bench, for another. “I want people to take their time with the work,” she says. She describes it as “gentle trickery.” The choice to engage with a painting—to sit and enjoy its aesthetic—is a choice to take the time, to stay in that space.
She’s taking up space in an environment that often excludes work like hers. “There’s not a lot of space given to overtly feminine abstract painting,” she muses. At Frieze LA, she’s got a solo booth. There’s a mix of paper and canvas pieces. “Paper gets a bad rap,” she says. But in working with the acrylics and pastels that she does on the medium, it’s “a bit blocky—there’s a bit more vigor to it because it dries super-fast.” In turn, Yearwood-Dan moves quicker painting these pieces, her energy less constrained.
She has a favorite Frieze piece—but she won’t share which. Only the collector —“if they’re really nice”—gets to know. It’s like a gift, she says. A slight nod; a little extra clout, perhaps.
Frieze LA is somewhat of a prelude, or sample, of what’s to come at Yearwood-Dan’s spring solo show at Marianne Boesky. If Frieze is a supermarket, she says (a high-end one, mind you, likening art fairs to Harrod’s Food Hall), her booth is a pop-up stand with samples—that one then must head to New York to buy.
Opening in April, it’s more experimental and largescale; a planned production in itself. There’s a five-panel piece that’ll be about eight meters long. “No one asked for it,” Yearwood-Dan says dryly. “But I saw the dimensions on the wall and thought, I’m gonna do it. And I will find enjoyment in making it.” Making such large work is a kind of personal performance, she says. “You put your whole body in it.” There’ll also be ceramics, paper works, canvas works and a mural.
The mural installation is twenty minutes long—it’s accompanied by a sound piece, composed by a friend, featuring more friends, her dad, her partner, and Yearwood-Dan herself. It’s a reversal in process; so often, the artist takes inspiration from music. Here, she helped create her own sound informed by the work. “It feels really necessary,” she says. She always plays music at her shows, so to do this in such an intentional way, filling the space with the sounds of her loved ones, marks a progression in Yearwood-Dan’s practice.
Phrases hidden (sometimes in plain sight) in Yearwood-Dan’s Frieze pieces include:
I pray my soul will be eternal
If loving u is wrong, I don’t wanna be right
Please spare me a thought
THERE’S MAGIC HERE IN MY CALM
And as much calm—or unsettlement—as the viewer finds in Yearwood-Dan’s works, in her process of creating the pieces, and the joy that ensues, there does seem to be a calmness. The end results are bright, they’re beautiful, they’re somewhat serendipitous. And their creation is playful. The conversations between her thick, bold lines are intentional and joyous. The movements and passages of color are Rococo-esque. It’s what the artist describes as her “distinctive painterly language.”
But she doesn’t always know what she’s going to say. “I never have any idea about how anything is going to turn out,” she says, aside from the colors she wants to use, perhaps a motif she wants to explore. The seven Frieze LA pieces are set in the books, but the final Boesky show is anyone’s guess—Yearwood-Dan’s included. And that’s all part of the magic.