Known for his sculptural paintings and collages encased in resin and glass, Brooklyn-based artist Dustin Yellin first made a splash on the New York art scene with his gigantic abstract canvases at SoHo hotspot Cipriani Downtown. Fast-forward to 2005 and Yellin was painting imaginary plant-life on layer upon layer of clear resin to simulate 3D effects. Shifting in recent years to working with mixed-media collage on multi-panels of glass, Yellin creates surreal figures and landscapes from an immense archive of found materials. In 2011, Yellin made his world even bigger by founding Pioneer Works, a multi-disciplinary art center, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster recently sat down with the artist at his expansive Red Hook studio to discuss his engaging art and experimental institution.
PAUL LASTER: When we first met in the late-1990s, you had a couple of massive, abstract paintings at Cipriani Downtown in SoHo. How did that happen?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Wow, you’re going way back! I was fresh off the boat and living in a loft of a guy that I met through Craigslist—practically sleeping in a closet while making those paintings in the next room. I had just arrived from Colorado and I met people quickly. I was introduced to Giuseppe Cipriani, who showed me the restaurant while it was still under construction. He said that he needed paintings and commissioned me. I had never even heard of Cipriani and practically knew nothing about SoHo. I was a babe in the woods, but I said yes. People told him that he was crazy because this kid has done nothing. He said, “I don’t care if the kid gets on the table and pisses on canvas, I’m hanging his paintings right there!” He told me that he would pay me and give me food forever. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
PAUL LASTER: How long did they remain hanging?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Years, for years…
PAUL LASTER: How did you get from there to making the sculptural pieces for which you have become best known?
DUSTIN YELLIN: That’s a huge, multi-year jump!
PAUL LASTER: Collage it together for me in words.
DUSTIN YELLIN: OK, let me try to abbreviate it. Cipriani was around 1996 or ’97. Afterward I kept making paintings and struggling. I started making collages coated with resin in 2001 and ’02. At some point I saw an optical quality in the resin and built little, Cornell-esque boxes to make 3D collages—putting found junk in layers and layers of clear resin. Then I began exploring further by drawing around the objects in the boxes with India ink and Whiteout. I realized that I could draw in space and make marks that were disconnected. I slowly started to take the objects out of the process and replace it with marks that built biological structures—repeating codes and marks that would make these structures look like they were animate and alive. Some of them were botanical looking, almost by accident.
PAUL LASTER: How did you get to the thick, clear, rectangular paintings in resin?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I stripped away the boxes and made them in Pyrex cooking dishes in layers of resin and popped them out and sanded them. I ended up with these drawings that looked like specimens. My OCD got really activated and I kept making them. I made wooden boxes to make larger molds and kept making them bigger and bigger. I started coming out with my own taxonomy of invented specimens and added insects into the fold. I made fictitious trees that looked like they came from other planets. I made my own forests and then eventually the human form. I was completely obsessed. As I made them life-size I really didn’t want to be using the resin anymore.
PAUL LASTER: Why did you shift from resin to glass?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Right off the bat, I started to show these works at group exhibitions and then in solo shows at Robert Miller Gallery. I was starting to make a living as an artist, but at the same time that was happening I couldn’t get near the work. I was freaking out because people started telling me about the health problems Eva Hesse had from using resin and said that I really shouldn’t be working with this material. After finally figuring out a visual language that I felt connected to as an artist—and struggling to find it—now I was to struggling to get near this key ingredient. Eventually, I experimented with glass. At first I was skeptical: what if the glass doesn’t have the same metaphysical properties? What if there are engineering problems? What if it
fucks with the way these feel? Everything was going through my mind, but I had to do it because it was clean.
PAUL LASTER: Did you start using cut paper collage elements when you switched to using layers of glass?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I had used paper collage in earlier works and even early on in the resin pieces that were in the boxes. Besides being clean, switching to glass changed the practice more than anything did because I could go backwards. Suddenly I could change my mind and edit. I could build with perspective and I could build narratively. I could do anything. It became an even more optical object and I started to look at the work as 3,000-pound microscope slides. At that moment my love of collage flared up again.
PAUL LASTER: What are the sources for the collage materials?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Nothing in particular: LIFE magazines, art history books, encyclopedias, old dictionaries, people’s notebooks that I find in the street, things that I’ve picked up during my travels. They’re things from everywhere. It’s almost like I’m building an archive of all of this stuff and then that archive is slowly being whittled away and put into the sculptures. I think of them as road maps. The books that I’m using won’t exist in two hundred years; they’ll be gone. And a lot of the illustrations and photographs that I’m cutting out and putting in the work will be only remaining examples of those images. They’re remnants of souls. They’ll be lost inside of the abdomen of an exploding supernova and crumbling in a black sea of guitar strings.
PAUL LASTER: What came first, the Psychogeographies or The Triptych?
DUSTIN YELLIN: The Triptych.
PAUL LASTER: What was the inspiration for The Triptych?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I can’t pinpoint just one inspiration for The Triptych—I never like to precisely define it. I could say it was a Harry Nilsson song or it’s a Tarkovsky film or it was like one moment when I took a girl to a small museum in Belgium the first time. That being said, The Triptych was a way to tie a quilt together from stuff that I had been working on for several years. I wanted to tie all of this work together and supersede the object and make an experience. I was so sick of the object that the rich person could covet. The Triptych was an attempt to build a performative experience out of the work.
I was thinking about the way that I felt upon seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights for the first time at the Prado, as well as my conversations about that painting with others as a young man. It’s a touchstone for so many artists.
DUSTIN YELLIN: It’s a painting that was ahead of its time. It has so many early- and mid-20th century moments—500 years in advance. It blew my mind. And I was also thinking about Rauschenberg’s Combines, and Rauschenberg in general and Cornell in general, and Duchamp, obviously, when you consider transparency.
PAUL LASTER: Like The Large Glass?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Yeah, I was thinking about a lot of different things.It was a challenge. I didn’t know if it would work. It was like jumping off a cliff. It was like making a movie that doesn’t move. I feel that experience with most of the sculptures—they’re either short movies or feature films that don’t move.
PAUL LASTER: Can you tell me how the Psychogeographies relate?
DUSTIN YELLIN: For me everything relates because everything is the same. It’s one collective experience, one work. There is no difference between a work on paper or The Triptych or Pioneer Works or a love song that I’m going to listen to tonight while I’m drinking tea and musing over the pleasant surface of the water.
Obviously, Psychogeographies is a term that I borrowed from the Situationists, from Guy Debord, because I liked it as a way to encapsulate the feeling of this work. There will be an arbitrary number, between 75 and 200, of these life-size figures that stand together. The work is loosely inspired by the terracotta warriors, which I’ve spent time with, and also inspired by this collective unconsciousness. The human form is a vessel—something that I can’t get away from, no matter how hard I try.
This installation is taking years to complete; but I want it to be one piece. The Psychogeographies represent a way to catalog the human experience. In four or five hundred years people will look at it and understand a lot about the past thousand years—from art history and the history of our species to concepts of time and death and the cognizant experience that we try to assimilate, explain, and rationalize, but never can.
PAUL LASTER: What about the new paintings, which look to be pure abstractions on wood panels? What was the point of departure for these works?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I’ve been working my tail off on my sculptures and I was fucking around with some paint on a wood panel and I pulled out my…and peed on it for like three minutes, all over the floor. Of course, I thought about Warhol and all of the people that have pissed on paintings—probably every artist has pissed on a painting at some point in their life. It was fun and I kept moving the colors around, but I thought this might stink if you bring it home, so I’ll use water. Then I just started painting on wood and pouring water into it to not think. Everything I do involves so much thinking—so much thinking to make the sculptures, so much thinking for Pioneer Works, so many people to consider. To do something that wasn’t thinking, that was more like meditation or therapy, even like the paintings that started our conversation, it was fun. I didn’t think that I would like them or that anyone would like them. I just wasn’t thinking—even to this day that’s the idea with these paintings. I just kept making them and then one day someone walked intothe studio and said can I buy that? I was likewhat do you mean? Suddenly, people want them, which just blows my mind! Making them is like my yoga—they’re like uh-huh.
PAUL LASTER: At this point you’re simultaneously working on your art and Pioneer Works, but what was it like when you first started Pioneer Works, while trying to maintain your own practice?
DUSTIN YELLIN: Pioneer Works was something that I’ve wanted to do and it happened really fast because this incredible structure was suddenly in the conversation and there was some real potential. It’s always been kind of fermenting and incarnating in fetal positions; whether it was Kidd Yellin or this place in Tribeca or the stable in the ‘90s. It’s all of these different communal environments where I’ve worked. It’s been 34 months since we got the keys to what is now Pioneer Works. It’s been non-stop activity, seven days a week.
There is no difference between Pioneer Works and my practice. It’s all sort of ebb and flow. It’s all encompassing. The first year I had to attend to PW more, but now I’m back in my studio making the glass works and new paintings that directly come from me, which feels good. I’ve been making art my whole life and I’m getting older and I feel like I have 700 years or 7,000 years of stuff that I want to make. No matter what I do I’ll only capture the thumbnail of it. I want to keep trying new things, whereas Pioneer Works is a challenge, it’s new. It’s not just me making a static object. It’s a living organism that’s supposed to live beyond me.
PAUL LASTER: What is the philosophy behind the founding of Pioneer Works?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I’ll rattle off a few things: a Beuysian social sculpture; PS1 is an inspiration as an alternative space; Black Mountain is an inspiration as a school; so is Bauhaus; some of the ideas behind the beginnings years of Cooper Union; early MIT Media Lab. It’s a university, but it’s a museum and a publishing house and a stage. It’s everything in one. It’s the idea of taking everything and putting it in one place—hardcore science and hardcore art and all of the disciplines that full under them: neuroscience and genetics and physics and you also have dance and sculpture and painting and film. You put them in a vessel with beautiful gardens and beautiful food and great thinkers and you can create something that really has the ability to change people’s minds.
We need to bring back some of the philosophies of the 1500s or thinking like Bucky Fuller, where we look at the global existence of our species as a holistic equation. Whatever humans think we can do we do and whatever we think we can make we make. Pioneer Works is creating a meeting ground for those ideas to flourish and thrive. It’s the most formative season we’ve had and we’re achieving that with an interdisciplinary residency program. The people that are doing residencies are also teaching classes. We’re having performances. We’re creating an archive with our journal, Intercourse, and the books we publish.
Everything is becoming so virtual. People are finding community on computers, whereas the Ab-Ex guys or Breton and the Surrealist group were meeting and talking and cooking and eating. That’s starting to get lost with population explosion, with urban sprawl, with the economics of cities, and all of these different things. To be able to take a place—in what I believe to be a real cultural hotbed, like Brooklyn—and create a lens, which can cook, is key!