Paul Yore shows me his hearse. He’s always wanted to create a sculpture featuring a car (“they’re pretty phallic, aren’t they?”) and during the pandemic, like many of us, he’s been contemplating death. So when he found a hearse, he removed all the paint and turned it into a mosaic. In true Yore fashion, the car now has “FUCK ME DEAD” in pristine tiny tiles on the trunk above a license plate that reads NO HOMO.
How do you buy just a hearse? “I just found it online,” he says mildly. He finished it in just three weeks. I ask about his hands, expecting to see them shredded from years of sculpting and needlepoint, but all I see is clean nail polish and a pair of surprisingly normal-looking fingers. “They’re not bad at the moment,” he says. “After large installations, I usually look like I’ve worked with stray cats.”
At just 34 years old, Yore’s art is instantly recognizable in its spectacular, colorful vulgarity, which explores gender, sexuality, politics, religion, capitalism and advertising. His latest – and largest – exhibition of all time has just opened: a carnivalesque overview at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne.
He is perhaps best known for his huge installations built from rubble, and this exhibition includes his largest yet: a tower and dome decorated with a mishmash of Happy Meal toys, costume jewellery, Nana squares, neon lights, fast- Food signs, dildos and chickpeas are covered tins and paraphernalia for the hen party. (“It’s a horrible subcategory,” he says at one point, while sadly looking down at a row of penis straws.)
Elsewhere in the show, its dainty needlepoint delivers vulgar, bolshy messages about capitalism and colonialism in vibrant rainbow colors. Its huge quilts are adorned with slogans that are both queer and homophobic, racist and anti-racist, with sequins, beads and plenty of erections. “You get dizzy staring at one like that for a while,” an ACCA staffer tells me, pointing to one of Yore’s more garish tapestries, “and suddenly you realize you’ve just been looking at a penis for a very, very long time.”
The head behind it is a slim, well-groomed man who exudes calmness and who, as he shows me around, reveals a pearl necklace under his black T-shirt. The exhibition features more than 100 of his works, many of which have been reunited after years in galleries across Australia. Some he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. “It feels like a weird family reunion to see old works,” he says. “They are like little babies that have come back into my life.”
While his art is so funny on the surface, Yore sees both it and himself as pessimistic. “My work comes from a very dark and cynical place. I don’t see it as cheerful,” he says. “It’s plastic and it won’t decompose for a million years and it’s gross.”
Part of the appeal lies in that darkness, he thinks. “We live in really turbulent times, and a lot of people feel that,” he says. “But as a queer person who’s been attacked or verbally abused on the street, I think the value of marginal voices is that we’ve learned how to survive. For example, a quilt, which is a shape I use over and over again, is in a way about safety and comfort.”
Born in Melbourne, Yore was 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 fraught with bullying. “But there’s a lot of Catholic art that’s very campy,” he says. “The art era that I really love, 17th-century Baroque art, is highly dramatic, it’s sensual, it’s very Hollywood. Some things are almost erotic. So there’s a lot of overlap between religion and queerness in terms of decoration and spectacle.”
He studied archeology and anthropology at university, which explains and feeds his magpie instinct to collect – or as he calls it, “save”. He collects the waste of capitalism in op shops and online marketplaces. When he starts creating his art, he “improvises”.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like until it’s done,” he says; instead intuitively his hands. “Even kids understand when they make a collage – you take one thing and put it next to another thing and it’s absurd and humorous when it doesn’t go together.”
As for his intricate textiles, Yore began embroidering after suffering a mental breakdown in 2010, which he says was the result of exhaustion. During that time, he’s worked, studied, created, and partied — and done plenty of all four. During a family holiday, he was committed against his will to a psychiatric hospital in York, England, for two weeks. Afterwards, while resting and weaning off his medication, he taught himself to sew – a craft with a long political history that was adopted by suffragettes and unionists who made banners for their protests.
“A lot of my art takes a strong position… That’s fine with me, political art has a lot of tradition. But art itself is not necessarily protest or activism,” he says. “It proposes 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 mix of profanity and vulgarity can be annoying. In 2013 he was accused of producing and possessing child pornography after police raided a St Kilda gallery which was displaying one of his collages, which featured children’s faces on the bodies of men engaging in sexual acts . The charges were dismissed; The judge reprimanded the Victorian police for damaging Yore’s art and ordered them to pay his legal fees.
Does this experience burden him? “The older I get, the more I realize there’s a tension between what society expects of art and what I do as a queer artist,” he says slowly. “That shaped me at the time. But that was over a decade ago, so I don’t think about it much anymore.”
These days he enjoys being 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 de-escalates the tension you sometimes get in contemporary art when someone says, ‘Oh, is this for me? Do I understand what’s happening here?’” he says. “Instead it’s like, ‘Oh, I used to have that toy,’ ‘I know the logo.’ It’s the stuff of real life.”