Yumi Janairo Roth, an artist with an international reach, teaches sculpture and studio practice at the University of Colorado, but her own conceptual and performative work both describes and defies solid boundaries in art. In a 24-hour election-day show, gallerist Sommer Browning channeled the minimalist Sol LeWitt at Georgia Art Space by orchestrating a community project re-creating LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #797, in contrast to Roth's pandemic-era project rooted in LeWitt’s "Straight Lines in Four Directions and All Their Possible Combinations" series, to create social distancing squares leading people into local businesses.
At the same time, Roth’s "Property Rights," which documents signage representing different levels of ownership in Roosevelt National Forest, was (and still is) on view at MCA Denver as part of the current exhibition Citizenship: A Practice of Society. In other works, Roth went on an adventure in Pilsen, a city in the Czech Republic, where she asked passersby to give her directions by drawing a map on her hand and placed sign spinners on street corners to advertise art theory outside of gallery walls.
What’s next? Roth took time out from her boundary-crossing explorations to tackle the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Yumi Janairo Roth: Everyday things and experiences. I’m most drawn to the mundane and rethinking our relationship to the mundane.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
I’d love to meet John Baldessari and Sol LeWitt, because they represent East and West Coast iterations of conceptual art. Baldessari seemed pretty funny, and I imagine that LeWitt would be a good co-host. In 1976, LeWitt exhibited in the CU Art and Art History Department gallery, before it was a museum. The CU Art Museum has a small archive of ephemera from that time. I read a collection of his postcards; they were incredibly thoughtful, and just plain nice. And Eartha Kitt, since I’m intrigued by her interpretation of a classic Filipino song, “Waray Waray,” and maybe she’d perform it.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community in your field — and the worst?
It strikes me that there isn’t a lot of ego, which means folks are pretty generous with one another. Also there’s a lot of physical and metaphoric space in Colorado, meaning that it’s pretty easy to explore without a great deal of pressure.
I’d like more funding, more opportunities, more support, and more and different venues for artists. I’d like to see greater collaborations between artists and non-artists.
Denver (or Colorado), love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
I teach sculpture and post-studio practice at CU. and have since 2002, so I’m not likely to leave anytime soon. I’ve seen things change over time — for the better, for the most part. I think that I’ve become pretty sensitive to the environment and landscape in ways that I don’t think I would have anticipated. Those things have seeped into my work.
I think for a metropolitan area our size, though, I’d love to see more support for the arts.
What’s your dream project?
I don’t know if I have dream projects [as much] as I have projects that I’m really excited about. For several years, I’ve been working with sign spinners around the U.S. Working with such a diverse group of people over an extended period of time continually seeds new ideas about how to realize different aspects of the project. One thing I haven’t been able to do yet is to bring them together with professional dancers to see how each group interprets movement and how they interpret each other’s movements, etc.
Because of COVID, I don't travel. I had planned to go to the Philippines sometime this or next year to work on a new project there, but it’s tabled until I can go for an extended period of time. In the meantime, I’ll work on plans and drawings.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
What's on your agenda now and in the coming year?
Staying afloat. Under the current climate, I’m doing a lot of re-evaluation, asking myself what kind of work do I think is important, what kind of work do I want to be doing, who do I want to work with, and so on. I’m fortunate that I have projects and exhibitions planned for this and next year despite all of the disruption. In some circumstances, I’ve had opportunities emerge because I couldn’t travel, which is ironic, but it’s allowed me to test ideas that might not have been possible before.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
I think Zoe Larkins has done a great job curating smart and interesting shows in Denver. I’m curious to see what else she does.
See Yumi Janairo Roth in conversation with Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian for the U.S. Forest Service, online on MCA Denver’s YouTube channel. Learn more and register for the free event at Eventbrite.
Roth’s "Property Rights" is on view at MCA Denver as part of the exhibition Citizenship: A Practice of Society through February 14, 2021.
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