Photo and images courtesy of Sean Yseult
Sean Yseult is best known for cofounding White Zombie in the mid-80s in New York City, but her creative pedigree began much earlier. Born in Raleigh, NC, Yseult attended North Carolina School for the Arts, and later received a scholarship to Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she lived from 1982 to 1991.
“When you grow up in North Carolina, all you do, if you’re in the arts, is dream of moving to New York City,” says Yseult. That said, she didn’t find her true home until she visited New Orleans while on tour with White Zombie. The city transfixed Yseult, who moved there permanently in 1996. Since then, she’s been very active making art and music and digging deep into the ancestry of the Crescent City.
Yseult is gearing up for her first solo photo show in New York City. Called Retrospective (the irony that her first solo show is a retrospective is not lost on her), it’s being shown at Sacred Gallery NYC from November 7 through the end of the year. The show combines pieces from Yseult’s early work, plus pieces from 2012’s Sex&Death&Rock&Roll, 2013’s Mississippi Mermaids, and a current show from this year titled Soirée D’evolution: Tableaux Vivants Et Nature Mortes.
Noisey recently spoke with Yseult about her unconventional upbringing, her love of New Orleans, and her propensity for finding beauty amid decay.
Noisey: By all accounts, you’re an art school dork. Can you recall your initial attraction to the arts as a kid?
Sean Yseult: My parents were very bohemian, hippie, art-supporting parents. My sister and I were fully immersed by the age of 4 in ballet and theater and playing musical instruments. My dad was always blasting the Stones and the Beatles. It was full immersion from the get-go. I never had any other kind of life.
There was never any urge to rebel and become a pharmacist or something like that?
No, no [laughs]. One area I was most focused on was piano. I was actually performing in nightclubs by the time I was 8 years old, playing with old bluesmen, and doing blues improv. It’s funny, it’s part of my life I forgot about until my sister found a newspaper clipping a few years ago and it was of me. I was studying ballet four times a week, piano three times a week, violin, and private tutoring a few days a week. It was pretty intensive. I was a super-nerd in school, with the big, frizzy hair. Nobody wanted to talk to me (laughs).
You got a scholarship to attend Parsons School of Design in New York City. How did the city shape you during those formative years, ’82 to ’91?
As far as my artistic influences, just being in New York City and having access to great galleries and museums, and being at Parsons and having amazing teachers and art history lessons—that really shaped me. I’m not sure if the city itself really affected my taste and style and what I do, but I’m sure it must have. I’ve always been kinda attracted to the dark side of life, and photographing things that are a little darker and eerier. You could find that back in the 80s [laughs]. I loved it.
White Zombie was obviously a huge part of your life. You made an awesome scrapbook of those years titled I’m in the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie.
Yeah, with White Zombie, I’d have some crappy little Instamatic camera on the road, taking pictures of bands we toured with and on stage and partying backstage [laughs]. That was my life!
"St. Louis Stroll"
I can’t help but notice the references to the fact that yes, you were a woman in a very prominent heavy metal band.
There’s a dichotomy there, I know! [laughs]
Did you find that you had to say that line, “I’m in the band,” more often than you would have liked?
Not a whole lot, but I did have to say it a few times. Sometimes we’d be backstage, and local crew would stop me and wouldn’t let me go onstage. And I can hear the pyro getting ready (laughs), opening tape is rolling, and I’m supposed to be up there. I was like, “Uh?” And they were like, “No, no, no.” They just couldn’t believe there was a girl in the band, so they wouldn’t let me up there. The stage manager would have to come and get me and give permission for me to get onstage. Sometimes, they’d tell me I couldn’t come in the club when we’d be trying to get in there to soundcheck. Yeah, it would happen. And yeah, we played with Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera—none of these bands had girls in the bands, and there weren’t many girls in the audience, either. It was a guy-centric world.
When you moved to New Orleans in 1996, what was the art scene like? And how has it changed since then?
It has changed a bit, but a lot of the people I first met when I moved here are still around. Quintron and Pussycat were king and queen of the whole 9th Ward Bywater scene, and they’re still amazing and doing totally insane avant-garde shows. There’s a lot of great musicians. Morning 40 Federation has kinda split up into different factions and have some great bands. I love Helen Gillet; she’s a performer here. She does kinda French cafe songs from the ’20s and plays the cello. The thing about New Orleans, it reminds me of [NYC’s] East Village and the Lower East Side back in the 80s because people can afford to live here and be artists, you know? I do miss that about New York when I go there. It seems like everything has gotten taken over by corporations. There’s not much room there for creative people anymore.
Your show at Sacred Gallery NYC is a combination of a few of your shows, but all of the work is tied to your life at home in New Orleans. What is it about that city that moves you and connects with you on a creative level as an artist?
Oh god… Everything about this city just really affects me. I love it. The architecture...there’s so many haunting, creepy old houses. Some are restored, some are still dilapidated. I love the look of that. The graveyards are crumbling and beautiful. It’s like you’re in Paris. The people, the weather, it’s just kind of sultry and dark. It’s got this amazing vibe. The city itself has been drawing artists and musicians and writers for forever. It does have this dark side, but it’s kind of a lovely dark side.
Looking at some of the picture of the pieces, I can see influence from the Old Masters and old-timey Vaudeville burlesque. But everything feels haunted, somehow supernatural.
I find a beauty in all of it. I know some of the work is pretty dark, but even though a lot of the work is dark, some of it has a dark humor. There’s a little dash of Edward Gorey in there. It’s not all dead serious. As far as the burlesque-type imagery and girls, I was obsessed with Storyville when I moved here, the red light district. All of the madams built these insanely luxurious mansions just above the French Quarter. I studied all of that, the homes and the ladies. I was in love with Ernest Bellocq’s photography of all the prostitutes that worked there. That was a big influence when I moved here, having that actually all happen here. I pay tribute to a lot of that.
I appreciate your noticing the Dutch Masters influence, too. That’s in my new show. I went on a different angle for that. That entire show will be on view at this gallery. It’s a show called Soirée D’Evolution. I went really large. I had been in the Louvre for a while looking at Dutch Masters paintings, and I was like, “I wanna do this.” So I created these tableaux vivants and still-lifes to tell a story of a secret society in New Orleans in the 1870s—because they did exist, but I made mine up. They’re called the Omniscient Oracles of the Occult. It’s so funny because so many people started Googling it, like, “Oh, I’ve never heard of this one!” [laughs] ’Cause I made it up! But it’s based on a lot of facts; I did a ton of research. Some of it took me to places where even I was like, “Oh, I better delete all this off my computer right now” [laughs].
What’s it like having this show in NYC? I’m guessing it’s a sort of like, like, “Look at me, New York, I made it!”
It’s amazing. It really feels like full-circle for me. I moved to New York to go to Parsons for photography, and I took an 11-year diversion with White Zombie, and I moved to New Orleans and got back into my photography. Now I’m coming back to New York. It really does feel like a homecoming.
Sean Yseult - Retrospective is on view at Sacred Gallery NYC from November 7 through December 31.
Jeanne Fury has a degree in art history and received an A- on her senior thesis. Follow her on Twitter.