Whitehot Magazine


 Thea Yabut, soft scaffold, paper, pigment, glue, joint compound, graphite, clay, 34 x 4 x 35 inches, 2018 

Thea Yabut 


September 13 – December 1, 2018, Montreal

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL September, 2018

“It might be inexplicable. It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture—or my science or my intellect—but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practiced mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage.”

― Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

In the new work Thea Yabut is exhibiting here, it is as though the gallery space has been invaded. The outliers of a curious biology have taken up residence. Mutations of strange flora and fauna encroach on our path at each and every turn. They seem like some sort of living creature, and often harbour fey organic forms that the externalized vertebrae carry within them as though they needed protective shielding. The skeletal or spinal shapes seem to crawl stealthily across the floor and embed themselves in the walls or creep up and around a central structural pillar in the space. The gallery has been transformed into a forbidden zone of mutating landscapes and morphing denizens. Or are they meant to guide visitors? Are they our antennae or fingertips?

Thea Yabut, ground paper, pigment, glue, joint compound, graphite, foam, 12 x 1.5 x 17, 2018

Yabut has made the gallery space itself one of inhabitation for a compelling vision of Otherness, reminding me of the eco-scifi masterpiece Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and the subsequent film adaptation in which a team of four women cross the border into an uninhabited, quarantined area known as “Area X" to investigate the phenomenon known as “The Shimmer”, a constantly expanding iridescent electromagnetic field that exerts transformative effects on human visitors. It is as though Yabut, a gifted artist, has assumed the various identities of the members of the group: biologist, anthropologist, linguist, psychologist, and surveyor and put their respective areas of expertise to good use here.  

The anthracite organic fragments that nestle in the extrusive webs resemble organic or meteoritic fragments (with characteristic thumbprint-like impressions--or regmaglypts as scientists call them -- formed by ablation of material from the surface of a meteor as it passes through the Earth's atmosphere).  Here, they result from a feverish kneading by hand, and so they take on a tactual dimension that in no way lessens their alien mien. Indeed, Yabut is a genius at haptology. She brings the philosophical axiom that “each thing that we see is touchable” to new heights of expression. [2]

Thea Yabut, Vibrissa, paper, pigment, glue, joint compound, graphite, clay , 11.5 x 4 x 8.6 inches, 2018

As fellow artist Laurie Kang points out in her sensitive accompanying text, these strange, hand-kneaded forms are the products of an Osterizer Galaxie used by the artist in her studio when she mixes together fragments of drawing paper with water, and then blends and strains them. She then adds binding compounds like glue and joint compound, as well as powdered pigments and chalk pastel, and blends and strains them once again. This process produces a strange gel that is dried over the course of several days and flattened into web-like neuronic and spinal configurations. These otherworldly exoskeletons remind us of the plant material from the Vandermeer novel that are found growing leech-like on exterior and interior walls, transforming them beyond recognition. Here they are interior carapace or embodied cradle.  

The show’s title VIBRISSA refers, in the context of zoology, to any of the long stiff hairs growing around the mouth or elsewhere on the face of mammals, and they are often employed as organs of touch; in ornithology, they refer to coarse bristle-like feathers growing around the gape of certain insectivorous birds that catch insects in flight. Prehension, identification, apprehension: the uses are multiple and the connotations highly suggestive for Yabut’s work.

As Vandermeer wrote: "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim lit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been." [3] 

Yabut’s strange forms reference an alien organicity that somehow meaningfully segues with the human, indexing a consummately odd but intimate new membrane. The haptic rules here: in the making, in the message and in the palms of our hands by extension. Both touch and touching take on a whole new meaning. Yabut offers us new possibilities and models for the lived experience of touch, even as she adroitly caresses the inside of her viewers’ imagination. WM


1.     Annihilation is a 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It is the first in a series of three books called the Southern Reach Trilogy. The book describes a team of four women (a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor) who set out to explore an area known as Area X. The abandoned area is deadly, cut off from the rest of civilization and perhaps the result of an extraterrestrial visitation, colonisation – or infestation. 

2.     Edmund Husserl, Ideas II (Boston, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990), pp. 157-58.

3.     See Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

view all articles from this author