Paul Yore shows me his hearse. He always wanted to create a sculpture using a car (“they’re pretty phallic, aren’t they?”) and throughout the pandemic, like many of us, he thought of the death. So when he found a hearse, he stripped off all the paint and turned it into a mosaic. In true fashion of yesteryear, the car now has “FUCK ME DEAD” written in tiny, immaculate tiles on the trunk, over a license plate that reads NO HOMO.
How to buy a hearse? “I just found it online,” he said softly. He completed it in just three weeks. I ask to see his hands, expecting to see them mutilated by years of carving and tapestry, but all I see is neat nail polish and surprisingly normal numbers. “They’re not bad right now,” he said. “After big installations, I usually feel like I’ve worked with stray cats.”
At just 34 years old, Yore’s art has become instantly recognizable in its spectacular and colorful vulgarity, tackling gender, sexuality, politics, religion, capitalism and advertising. His latest – and biggest – exhibition has just opened: a carnivalesque investigation housed at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne.
He is perhaps best known for his massive installations built from rubbish, and this exhibit includes his largest to date: a tower and dome covered in a hodgepodge of Happy Meal toys, costume jewellery, nana squares, neon lights, fast food signs, dildos, chickpea boxes and hen night paraphernalia. (“It’s an awful subcategory,” he says at one point, while staring sadly at a line of penis straws.”)
Elsewhere in the series, its delicate tapestry relays vulgar and bolshie messages about capitalism and colonialism in vibrant rainbow tones. His huge pigtails are adorned with slogans that are both queer and homophobic, racist and anti-racist, with sequins, beads and quite a few erections. “You’re going to stare at one of them in amazement for a while,” an ACCA worker tells me, pointing to one of Yore’s more sinister tapestries, “and you suddenly realize you’ve just been staring at a penis for a very long time. long lasting.”
The spirit behind it all is a light-hearted, neat man who exudes calm and, as he shows me around, hints at a pearl necklace under his black t-shirt. The exhibition features over 100 of his works, many of which have been collected over years in galleries across Australia. Some he hasn’t seen in over a decade. “It feels like a strange family reunion, seeing old works,” he says. “They’re like little babies that have come back into my life.”
While his art is so fun on the surface, Yore himself views it as pessimistic. “My work comes from a very dark and cynical place. I don’t see it as joyful,” he says. “It’s made of plastic and it won’t degrade for a million years and it’s smelly. “
Part of the appeal is that darkness, he thinks. “We live in really troubled times and a lot of people feel it,” he says. “But as a queer person who’s been mugged or insulted on the street, I think the value of marginal voices is that we’ve learned ways to survive. A quilt, for example, a form that I use repeatedly , is, on some level, a matter of safety and comfort.
Yore was born in Melbourne and raised by his English father, a former Franciscan friar, and an Australian mother, a missionary from Gippsland. Growing up in an extremely religious household was difficult for a young queer boy; his “hellish” years at Catholic school were filled with bullying. “But there are a lot of things in Catholic art that are very camp,” he says. “The period of art that I really love, 17th century Baroque art, is drama, it’s sensual, it’s very Hollywood. Some of them are almost erotic. So there is a lot of overlap between religion and homosexuality, in terms of decoration and spectacle.
In college, he studied archeology and anthropology, which both explains and fuels his magpie’s urge to collect – or, as he calls it, “save”. It collects the detritus of capitalism from op shops and online marketplaces. When he begins to create his art, he “improvises”.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like until it’s finished,” he says; instead, his hands have intuition. “Even kids get it, when they make a collage – you take one thing and put it next to another thing, and it’s absurd and humorous when they don’t fit together.”
As for his intricate textiles, Yore took up embroidery after experiencing a mental health crisis in 2010, which had its roots, he said, in exhaustion. During this time he worked, studied, created and clubbed – and did many of the four. He was confined against his will for two weeks in a psychiatric hospital in York, England, during a family vacation. Then, while resting and weaning himself off his medication, he taught himself to sew – a craft with a long political history, embraced as it was by suffragettes and trade unionists making banners for their protests. .
“A lot of my art takes a strong stance… I’m fine with it, political art is a great tradition. But art in itself is not necessarily protest or activism,” he says. “What he does is come up with questions that allow us to think radically. For example, after being here today, you may never look at those horrible penis straws the same way again.
Its mixture of obscenity and vulgarity can annoy. In 2013 he was charged with producing and possessing child pornography, after police raided a gallery in St Kilda which displayed one of his collages which featured the faces of children superimposed on the bodies of men performing sexual acts. The charges were dismissed; the magistrate reprimanded the Victorian police for damaging Yore’s art and ordered them to pay his legal costs.
Does this experience weigh on his mind? “The older I get, the more I realize there is a tension between what society expects from art and what I do as a queer artist,” he says slowly. “It stuck with me at the time. But that was over ten years ago, so I don’t think about it much anymore.
These days, he likes to be seen as a populist: most people can enjoy a Hungry Jacks neon sign that says Horny Jocks, and not have to think about the deeper meaning behind it all. “People already have a relationship with my materials, which immediately defuses the tension you sometimes feel in contemporary art, where someone is like, ‘Oh, is this for me? Do I understand what is happening here? he says. “Instead, it’s ‘Oh, I had that toy’, ‘I know that logo’. That’s the stuff of real life.