I first became aware of Neil Yoder’s work a few years ago, when he submitted a painting into the May Show at the Mansfield Art Center. The outer edge of the canvas had been carefully plastered with pornographic images and it caused quite a stir within that conservative venue. I took him to be a provocateur, out to shock us. I don’t disagree with this approach. In fact, in our saturated media landscape where even the most heartbreaking images of drowned Syrian refugee children are reduced to memes, flattened out into pure spectacle, hijacked and turned into shorthand used by clowns for political theater, an artist must sometimes become a visual terrorist in order to break through the digital hypnoglare of our lives. I’ve been sizing Yoder up, gauging his sincerity, and trying to get a grip on just what the fuck he is up to.
The work that Neil is displaying at Relax, It’s Just Coffee covers a broad range. There are paintings of Mansfield’s old industrial buildings, hallucinatory surrealist landscapes, dayglo gardenscapes, and brutal Baconesque figures. My review will be limited to the paintings of local industrial buildings, though the reader may find that the observations that follow are applicable to Yoder’s work in general.
The paintings of Mansfield’s industrial buildings are aglow with radioactive light, sickly and oversaturated, but beautiful in their own way. At times Yoder has even embedded glitter in the paint, which pushes the work to the edge of kitsch, but I think appropriately so considering the themes, which I will attempt to tease out in due time. The buildings are rendered convincingly and it’s against the realism of the buildings that the sky, landscape and figures take on an otherworldly quality. There is something realer-than-real about the figures in all of Yoder’s paintings. Not because they’re rendered realistically, but because they possess an irresistible palpability due to the Max Ernst-like frottage technique that Yoder has used to render them. Their reality is not the reality of our world, but of some post-nuclear world of molecular confusion.
In “Warehouse @ 200 Block E. 5th ST (facing Southeast)” there is a concentric shock wave emanating from the middle of the image. While the other industrial building paintings seem to capture what remains, quietly and peacefully, after the apocalypse, this painting captures the precise moment the bomb erupts. The precise moment of imbalance, when the atom splits and all of that potential energy, once bound by strong or weak forces (I’m no physicist), is released. In that initial flaring up, a chasm is opened and we glimpse a kind of Gnostic realm beyond the material world. Within this rift a wolf gnashes its teeth and a cloven hoofed beast seems to challenge us with its battering-ram horns. It’s the moment the cosmic egg cracks and all of our terrors and delights flicker in the white-hot magnesium light.
So what is Yoder up to? What does it mean to paint the now demolished Westinghouse building in a post nuclear setting? What does it mean to hang these paintings in a coffee shop just blocks from where these buildings stand or once stood? The correlation is simple enough to any Mansfielder who has stood on 4th and Bleckner and surveyed the wasteland of our old industrial district. We are living our own economic post-apocalypse. The nation was just waking from its Cold War fatigue when NAFTA was signed, signaling the wholesale capture of our Republic by Neo-Liberalism. And our shift from an industrial giant to a crippled service economy has a direct relation to those trade policies.
It’s for these reasons that, for me, Yoder’s work is entangled with the nuclear threat and deindustrialization. Our apocalypse hasn’t come in a white-hot instant, but has been slowly unfurling for forty years. The buildings he portrays, these husks of our once thriving industry, illustrate the genealogy of our present historical moment. This Trumpian moment, where truth has been supplanted by reality television and the kitsch simulation of truth. Yoder seems to be saying, “welcome to the post-truth, post-American moment. Welcome to the end of History. Welcome to Mansfield. She’s beautiful in her own way.”
Jason Kaufman is a proud member of Mansfield, Ohio’s artistic community. He has owned and/or been the curator of various local art galleries and is an active participant in writing groups, art critique groups, poetry readings, and many other collaborative projects.