“The most important moment in my painting is the beginning. After that, everything flows.” - Yohei Yama
The seeds of Yohei Yama’s practice were planted when, at the age of 16, he left his home in Saitama, on the outskirts of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, for the quiet solitude of rural Finland. There, for the first time, he immersed himself in the forest and found comfort in his connection with nature. When he returned to Saitama a year later, he found himself burdened by feelings of alienation brought on by the rigid structures of modern life and the “violence” of the city’s straight lines. This formative dissonance was the fountainhead from which Yama’s most engaging questions and most affecting works have flowed.
After his return, Yama began to untether himself from the restricting cords of suburban stagnation. He traveled throughout Japan in a camper van with a potted sunflower as his primary companion, making photographs that foreshadowed his lifelong interest in connecting with natural worlds, not as an outsider looking in, but from within nature, situating himself as an emergent aspect of its entangled relationality. Yama’s itinerant flow and creative self-cultivation eventually led him to Arles, France, where he first began to paint.
Yama’s paintings explore the tension between organic structures of co-becoming in the natural world and the imposed regimes of anthropocentric order that served as the initial catalyst for his work. Following his emotional upheaval in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Yama started producing works that confront the so-called rational order of modernist urban geometry. He composes patterns that, initially, seem to simulate the neat rows and lines of contemporary cityscapes, but, instead of producing homogeneous repetition, he embraces the disruptions and distortions that naturally emerge through the flow of his creative process. Yama works with his own nature as a collaborator, co-producing motifs in which the constitutive elements share structural similarities, but each possess unique forms, like the diversity of leaves sprouting from the same tree.
This shared shaping of worlds, a thread that is woven throughout much of Yama’s oeuvre, is not limited to the visible realm, but is imbued with the agency of unseen forces that are no less implicated in its processes. His work depicts ethereal forces moving fluidly over the fixed frontiers of bounded forms—squares, diamonds, lines, and circles—changing them by traversing them; countering the stifling effects of geometric enclosure through the capacity for limitless mutability. He is interested in moving beyond the limitations of supposedly objective, positivist scientific modes of Western modernity by drawing attention to the invisible, or invisibilized, life forces that often escape the view of those who would rather see nature as a realm of passive material resources to be classified, produced, and extracted, rather than as an agentive collaborator in worldmaking.
However, responsive flow and emergent co-becoming are not distant abstractions that should only be sought ‘out there’, whether within the realm of the visible or the invisible. Yama believes that the universal must be held in balance with the personal. He uses his works to consider the fluidity of our identities and the paths we use to navigate our worlds. Yama often paints repeating patterns of geometric forms, allowing them to stretch, compress, and change color, sometimes bleeding into one another or even losing their original composition entirely. In doing so, they point to the shifting forms and permeable boundaries that constitute the self and that separate ourselves from other selves.
He builds on this self-reflection by considering how lives are shaped, in part, by the paths they follow. His paintings use entangled networks of forms and patterns that overlap and intermingle, sometimes coalescing into Deleuzian “lines of flight” that draw the viewers’ eyes down potential paths of movement. These lines might oscillate between degrees of clarity and obscurity, they may merge or intersect with other lines, or they may veer off into formlessness, simulating the way life trajectories are subjectively constructed from complex flows of time, matter, and being(s). Yama’s own journey as a painter emerged from his intuitive engagement with these fluid, shifting pathways of possibility. When navigating the flow of his work and his life he says, “I listen to the heartbeat.”
To Yama, his practice is, ultimately, a meditation. It is a personal communion with a universal, interconnected, and co-constitutive nature; a meditation that resists anthropocentric lifeways that seek to homogenize, atomize, and alienate nature from itself and subjugate it to the service of humanity. Rather, his work strives to find wonder and beauty in difference, connection, and mutual dependence—in his words, to show us how “reality is so much more fantastical than our fantasies.”