Becoming Undone: Ko Kirk Yamahira at the Frye Art Museum


Becoming Undone: Ko Kirk Yamahira at the Frye Art Museum

By Meshell Sturgis May 8, 2018

Several window panes sprinkled with colorful shreds of canvas hang along the hall leading to Ko Kirk Yamahira, a self-titled exhibition at the Frye Art Museum. Yamahira, now a Seattle–based artist, has shown work across the United States and in Japan, founded the New York–based, Japanese artist collective Art Beasties in 2013, and exhibited as a member of SOIL. The current exhibition is his first solo effort in a museum context and presents a range of deconstructed forms, some made specifically for the Frye. The square wooden frames covered in canvas confetti cast shadows onto the recessed walls of the hallway. With a quick pace, or a close enough stare, your movements and breath might even make the bits of furry thread move ever so slightly. While all of the bold rectangular pieces of the collection are made of sturdy canvas and wood materials, the exhibition instantly evokes an endearing softness. After painting the aforementioned traditional surfaces, Yamahira methodically takes these materials apart, thread by thread in various patterns, creating several designs—many that sway with the slightest environmental stimulus.

Ko Kirk Yamahira. Ko Kirk Yamahira (installation view), 2017. Courtesy of the Frye Art Museum. Photo: Mark Woods.

At the end of this hall of whimsical windows is a black, graphite canvas vertically split down the middle, creating two, long rectangles with gray canvas threads draped and connecting the two halves. At the entryway of the gallery space, wall text introduces Yamahira’s artwork as “a continuous, daily process of becoming through undoing.”1 This process of becoming undone is embodied by the meticulous deconstruction of canvas, which reveals countless threads that tediously and delicately cling to their wooden frames.

To the right of this charcoal swathe is a mauve piece that is sliced with an off-center, vertical seam. The seam is concealed by cascading loops of thread, bundled and pinched between either side of the spliced canvas. The drooping threads of undone canvas cascade neatly down the painting, overflowing the edges of the canvas by a few inches at the bottom, and spill onto the white wall. Like a suture or raised scar tissue, the deconstruction of this piece “points to a place where being undone is simultaneously a space for new forms of becoming.”2 Around the corner, the exhibition expands into a larger space where there are several more of these split mounts, all surrounding a delicate suspension in the center of the room.

Ko Kirk Yamahira. Untitled, 2017; acrylic, graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood. Courtesy of the Artist.

The central piece, untitled like the rest in the collection, is oblong and floats over a thin strip of mirror that reflects the soft ivory threads dangling from above. Bowed down in a U-shape toward the mirror, the artwork is reminiscent of the hull of a ship or a canoe. But rather than being rocked by water, the loose threads are activated by the breath and stirred air from people moving through the space. The repetitive U-shape, unthreaded on an adjacent canvas propped in the corner, creates a continuous loophole pattern that captures both movement and stasis, spiraling nowhere but everywhere on the canvas. This pattern—etched in the canvas by stripping away specific threads—is mirrored in a  grouping of frames propped in the corner and a sheet of canvas that drapes from one frame to the next, forming a similar loop. Passing as formerly completed paintings now deconstructed, Yamahira’s painstaking work resembles what scholar C. Riley Snorton describes as “maneuvering within confinement.”3 The fluid threads cleave the static wooden constructions.

Ko Kirk Yamahira. Ko Kirk Yamahira (installation view), 2017. Courtesy of the Frye Art Museum. Photo: Mark Woods.

While it is tempting to dwell on inquiries of what the paintings used to be, or how they came to be, this exhibition speaks to the “firm but transient” nature of being.4 An endless creative and conceptual endeavor, Yamahira’s work is in a constant state of collaboration with its environment. This series of works, curated by Amanda Donnan, remains flexible to alternative placements just as it remains flexible to the guests of the museum who enliven the softened structures by their presence. Yamahira explains in an artist statement that “the totality of the meaning can be found in the continuation of the process.”5 This concept centers neither the painted past of the canvases, nor the fuzzy and fragmented futures we seek. Instead, these works of art value acts of continuous remaking amidst destruction. The meticulous undoing of the painted object leads to its animated way of being. The fine threads, once concealed and limited, can now move, even while tethered to the support structures of their origin. These processes of moving within confinement, of making space in pressed places, and of becoming in spite of deconstruction suggest that subjectivity is rooted in rupture and repair. Subjectivity that arises through the careful undoing of objects requires a reconciliation of what used to be and what is now present, opening a window for what might become.

Ko Kirk Yamahira is on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle through June 3, 2018.


  1. Wall text, Ko Kirk Yamahira, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA.
  2. C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 70.
  3. Ibid., 69.
  4. Mentioned in Ko Kirk Yamahira’s online CV, accessed April 26, 2018,
  5. Ibid.

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