Psychogeography: An Interview with Dustin Yellin
Dustin Yellin is a pioneer of cross-disciplinary practice and social sculpture. His work is phantasmagorical and optically rich, effectively transcending traditional categories of painting, collage, and sculpture. Yellin and his team use slices of glass to layer paint, magazine clippings, and other ephemera to build up three dimensional anthropomorphic forms. In Yellin’s words, these works—often referred to as sculptural paintings—will serve as “roadmaps” for future generations.
Yellin and his assistants work out of a converted brick warehouse space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a studio linked intimately with its collective-cum-institute neighbor, Pioneer Works. While he cites Joseph Beuys, Black Mountain College, and MoMA PS1 as major influencers, it is clear that Yellin’s creations are their own beasts. In an age in which visual culture has become increasingly compartmentalized and communities ever more digital, Pioneer Works is a refreshing respite from the Internet-centric art scene, a model for experimental and collaborative creative practices.
How do you see Pioneer Works’ position in a changing art landscape like Brooklyn, and how is it moving the art world forward?
I think we’re trying to break the mold of what would conventionally be called a museum to create an almost school laboratory-like environment that still functions as a museum but also exposes process to an audience. Imagine someone coming to Pioneer Works. They can see a show like the Dale Henry one that’s up now, then from there they can go upstairs and walk into a physics lab and talk to a physicist at work, or encounter a neuroscientist, a material scientist, or a geneticist. We’re putting an observatory in, so maybe this person will come across an astronomy lecture and look out of a massive telescope. What we’re creating isn’t a new model; I mean, in the 1500s, the idea of the interdisciplinary foundation was quite relevant. Just in the last 50 years everything has become much more specialized—in academia, in the institutional world—where you have a painting museum or a sculpture museum or a photo museum. We’re trying to break down these barriers because we don’t really feel like there’s a difference, or that there should be a difference.
As an artist, I really want to get into a room and talk to a scientist who inspires me, and most of the scientists I know are musicians because of the math, and most of the musicians I know want to be making paintings when they’re not making music because it’s cathartic. This is the mission, to break down these walls, but it’s very difficult because there’s a lot of simultaneous programming. But that’s the idea, that at any given moment within our residency program you have many of the disciplines of the arts represented simultaneously and many disciplines of the sciences represented simultaneously.
Community is a whole other thing. Communities have become so virtual, everything seems to be not quite in front of you and not quite real, people are finding their communities online. We’re trying to build that in real life, so people are actually talking to each other.
How did you come to value creative communities and social spaces for art-making?
The idea for Pioneer Works has been in my heart since I was in my late teens, so it’s been gestating for a long time. I always had art studios wherever my friends were playing music and writing poetry. Everyone was hanging out, it was a sort of embryonic version [of Pioneer Works], I guess. Obviously I was hugely inspired by Black Mountain [College], by Bauhaus, by Cooper Union’s development. There is no model like Pioneer Works that really exists, that we know of. We definitely could learn a lot from people that came before us. At one point I went to Alanna Heiss, because she started such a great alternative space with [MoMA] PS1, so she could teach me, and now she’s actually doing an institutional residency as part of her Clocktower Gallery and “Art on Air” radio station.
Tell me about your publication INTERCOURSE.
We just finished our 2nd issue and I’m so excited to start giving it away. That’s why we make a magazine, we love to give them away, that’s my favorite thing. The third one is coming out in September. It’s published by Pioneer Works so it’s a non-profit, and it’ll become a book at some point. This one is 160 pages with no ads. It’s amazing. We have this lovely drawing by Louise Despont on the cover, and then a piece called Going For Gold, which is Roselee Goldberg talking to Kenny Goldsmith. For music, Ariel Pink talks to Geologist from Animal Collective.
I read that PW got hit by Hurricane Sandy and that you were here during the storm. What was the damage like and how did you guys resurrect the space?
Yes, I was here. Yes, it was one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life. We were here, we sat and watched the water hit street level, and then start to make a stream, and then start filling up the streets. The water is seeping through the door and I’m thinking we’re going to get a foot, so I start packing things up. And then I start moving really fast, and the next thing you know the refrigerator is floating on its back, the drum kit is like carrots in chicken soup, the water’s hitting the picture frames on the walls, and the whole time it was happening I was just so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and the power of nature that I wasn’t even comprehending the damage. It was just this incredible, visceral experience.
How do you balance your own practice with operating PW?
Well, I’m learning every day. It’s very overwhelming. It makes me want to cry. It’s what I’ve dreamed of doing my whole life so I’m just grateful that it’s working, but I’m navigating how to deal with these two things, which are in some ways very connected. I look at [Pioneer Works] like a Beuysian social sculpture next door—it’s like this living organism that we’re creating as a village. But my practice, which also involves working with a lot of people, can also be very personal when I’m on my own.
I’ve been making these paintings on wood. I want to just be making these new works, but it’s very difficult—I have to plan. I’ve become older in my years and so I partly want to be this reclusive hermit and just be making my art and never leaving my studio, but then I have to sort of be this statesman, representing this large public organization that I’m trying to get off the ground. I’m just navigating the amount of socialization that comes with building PW and then also the time to be in my studio. I think the key to this is all just incredible people. To have incredible, incredible people working with us, on everything.
No one can do this alone, it really takes a village. It’s not easy but it’s going to work, and once it works it’s going to be this self- sustaining organism that’s on its own, and then, you know, I’ll be able to retreat even more into my practice.
In terms of materials, how did you begin working with resin?
I don’t use resin anymore but I did for years. It was really just a series of accidents. I was making paintings, collages on canvas—I love collage—and I was pouring resin over the collages, to sort of homogenize and seal them and I saw an optical quality in it. I built these Joseph Cornell-type boxes and I made these 3D collages with resin and then I was drawing inside the layers and around the objects. I realized I could draw in space and then all of a sudden I was drawing in layers of resin without the objects and I took off the wood boxes. I created my own taxonomy of specimens, starting with botanicals, inventing botanical specimens, and then insects, and then the human form. They were becoming larger and more life-sized, but I was getting allergic to the resin and I didn’t want to use it because it was very toxic for me, for the environment, for people helping me. I was freaking out because people liked what I was doing and I was making a living but at the same time I was going to die and I was scared. So I switched to glass because I didn’t want to die, and that was the only reason I did that. But it turned out much better because it’s more optical and archival, but more importantly, it’s not toxic.
How has working with glass allowed you to develop your vision?
What really changed the work—and changed my life in relation to my work—was that now I could go backwards. When I was using resin I’d pour, it would cure, I’d draw, pour, draw, cure, pour, draw, cure, never could go backwards. You could never edit, never change your mind. And now, with layers of glass, I go back and forth and I get everything done perfectly before I put it together, so I can edit, I can build with perspective. My assistants and I work very collectively and they can come up with ideas and I can say, “What do you think?” And they can say something like, “Oh, that’s fucking amazing,” and I can kiss them, or something like, “That’s terrible, no!” and I can say “Try this” and just erase it with a razor blade. So it gives me all this crazy flexibility.
Can you describe the process involved with making a Psychogeography, one of your composite glass sculptures? Are the pieces autobiographical or do they relate to people in your own life?
I look at those hundred humans as one work. Unfortunately, they’re getting separated, but they’ll come back together and I’m showing groups of them right now. But I look at them as one work—I never see them as singularities. I think of it as a gloss, as a poem, a very heavy, four million pound poem. I like to write. But it’s hard for me to talk about the work. I let other people do that. They are not autobiographical—they’re more about the collective unconscious of our species. They are these sort of 3,000-pound microscope slides that will make roadmaps to our culture and its development, to our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children.
You wrote: “The universe and the mind are shadowy places seething with dark magic, seas of boundless depth and possibility, seething with joy and disaster.” I wonder, as you explore these sorts of metaphysical themes, if you have a meditation practice or hold a certain spirituality.
I had a conversation about this with a friend recently. I feel like we carry sadness and joy simultaneously. Maybe, as we get older and more experiences accumulate, we carry more sadness and more joy because more people have died in our lives and have gotten sick but there’s also been more time for joy. We’ve visited more places or watched our children grow up or our parents die or watched ourselves get older and slower—you learn how to carry all this with you. I am always working with so many different people—on my sculptures, at Pioneer Works—that I sometimes make these paintings on wood. And I write poetry. That’s how I meditate.
What is your WILD Wish?
My wildest wish is that all the people around me are content and peaceful and die in love.