Kennedy Yanko, the Brooklyn-based multimedia artist, challenges traditional notions of identity and beauty through her captivating sculptural works, delving into the heart of the discourse on gender equality. In their solo exhibition titled HANNAH at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, Yanko skillfully employs repurposed metal and paint skins to navigate the intricate relationships between representation and gender identity, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Gender Equality as well as Responsible Consumption and Production through the materials used on their artwork. 

Kennedy Yanko in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist and Vice.

Yanko's artistic process involves integrating found industrial materials, such as metals sourced from various junkyards, into large-scale sculptures. The artist forges a physical connection with these abandoned materials, using a torch to shape and attach them to sheet metal. Through a meticulous deconstructive process, Yanko crushes and pounds each found object until satisfied with the result, transforming traditionally masculine and rigid materials like metal into visually striking organic sculptures that look more feminine.

Installation view of HANNAH by Kennedy Yanko. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery.

The title of the exhibition, HANNAH, reflects Yanko's journey with identity. Originally named Hannah at birth, they changed their name to Kennedy, seeking to detach themselves from gender associations. The artworks showcased in HANNAH serve as a visual exploration of the ambiguity of gender perception, employing abstraction as an intuitive tool. Yanko masterfully evokes gender neutrality while playing with the physicality of their materials, inviting viewers to challenge preconceived conclusions of gender drawn from their sculptures.

Installation view of Agate by Kennedy Yanko at HANNAH. Image courtesy of Cultbytes. 

Yanko's sculpture, Agate, serves as a poignant example of this approach. The interlacing pieces of metal within the artwork oscillate between "masculine" and "feminine," challenging the conventional categorization of materials. By cleverly dispelling gendered associations with heavy metals, Yanko's sculptures become a testament to breaking down societal norms.

The labour-intensive nature of working with heavy metals and paints becomes a symbolic act of resistance, particularly in an industry historically dominated by men. Yanko's presence in the steel and construction world challenges stereotypes that deem women as less valuable or unsuitable for physically demanding work. Through their art, they assert that women have a rightful place in wielding powerful materials and reshaping societal perceptions.

Before embracing sculptural practice, Yanko had a diverse background as a competitive bodybuilder, personal trainer, and yoga teacher. Their upbringing, which included visits to construction sites with their architect father, provided them with a unique perspective on both the gritty reality of building materials and reinforced gender norms within those spaces.

Identifying as a "sensory artist," Yanko describes their work as conceptual yet experiential. They blend paints with ultraviolet ray protection, creating new colours with a sheen that serves as veils to the dried auto body paints on the scrap metal. The combination of metal and paints in a collage form adds a multi-dimensional and layered quality to their sculptures, prompting viewers to physically react to the labour required to shape the steel.

Installation view of Steeled (right) by Kennedy Yanko at HANNAH. Image courtesy of Cultbytes.

Another of Yanko's notable works, Steeled, exemplifies the juxtaposition of softness and hardness. The lower sheet metal half in Steeled seems to drip from a wall-mounted piece as if it were something more fluid and soft. This piece no longer looks like metal, contrasting sharply with the harsh angular shapes of the wall-mounted piece it is flowing out of, which looks like a badly cut soda can. Steeled’s characteristics: weight, flexibility, and texture come into question, challenging viewers to reconsider their understanding of materials. They become unsure whether they are looking at hard metal or soft fabric. 

Yanko's work invites viewers to appreciate the beauty within the amalgamation of seemingly opposing attributes. Each sculpture is not just a product but a reflection of their evolutionary process. They echo the fluidity and transformative power inherent in the materials she uses in nature since metal is malleable not just by human hand but also by natural phenomenon.

In their artistic journey, Yanko draws inspiration from a diverse array of influences, including theologian and philosopher Linnart Mäll and saint, writer, composer, and philosopher Hildegard von Bingen. These figures envision their practice as a form of dialogue, allowing Yanko to use their understanding and their voice to explore their viewer’s consciousness and inception of thoughts within the realm of art history.

HaK 031 by Hilma af Klint. Image courtesy of the Hilma af Klint Foundation.

Yanko also delves into the work of Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint's work and incorporates similar elements of spirituality into their practice. By doing this, Yanko aims to open up dialogues about gender, race, and equality, emphasizing the importance of reciprocity in fostering understanding. Yanko's commitment to exploring diverse perspectives and weaving them into their art reflects their dedication to pushing boundaries and challenging societal norms around gender roles.

Through the innovative use of repurposed metal and paint skins, Yanko creates beauty that transcends conventional expectations, inviting viewers to reconsider the intersections of identity, perception, and representation. As Kennedy Yanko continues to evolve their practice, they not only contribute to the realm of contemporary art but also advocate for a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of gender.

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