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(Special Feature) Interview: Jun Yang

The artist in front of their mural-sized painting at their studio

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where are you from and what was your experience like growing up?

Growing up as a gay teenager in Korea, I faced bullying, intolerance, cruelty, and multiple attacks. I attempted suicide several times that caused serious bone fractures and muscle tissue damage to my body. I didn’t know how to accept or love myself. I left my family and friends in 2005, leaving the country where I didn’t feel that I had a sense of belonging (in any of the communities). First, I went to Ireland, France and Belgium. I wasn’t openly gay and tried to find a home, but I didn’t feel comfortable and accepted. I came to San Francisco in 2010 to live my life, and I finally felt the comfort of being accepted, and through my artmaking process I felt empowered to fully embrace who I am. I am a self taught, multifaceted and resourceful artist who uses a broad range of techniques and materials to create art pieces in a variety of sizes and locations, from intimate canvases to full scale murals. I have called San Francisco my home for 13 years.

Jun Yang - Pink Room, 70 x 55 inches, 2022. Acrylic on canvas.

2) When did you first see yourself as an artist? What is the core message of your art and painting?

When I was 5 years old, I had a goldfish named Sunny. I loved drawing fish and my friends. One day my kindergarten teacher asked me to participate in an art competition. My fish painting was selected by judges, and it appeared in a local newspaper. After that my parents thought I should take some art lessons and got me some art supplies. That’s how I started to explore art. I wanted to portray my struggles and life journey through a series of queer portraits and queer bodies. Growing up as a gay teenager, I was living and experiencing a body that is always trying to fit heteronormative expectations. I want to create a series of queer portraits as my visual love letter to queer people. This is my gratitude and the feelings of being protected and inspired by LGBTQ+ communities in the Bay, while also sharing my life story and the things that represent who I am here. I want my work to be a tool for healing and bringing hope to people.

Jun Yang - Alone In Jungle, 48 x36 inches, 2022. Acrylic on canvas.

3) Who are the historical and contemporary artists who may influence your style and inform the content of your painting?

David Hockney has been a huge advocate for the LGBTQ community in mid-20th century London and afterward, when he moved to Palm Spring and continued exploring bodies and genders. Francis Bacon and Keith Haring’s activism and legacy also encouraged my work to center on queer representation. I am also influenced by the life and legacies of many gay activists and politicians such as Marshall P. Johnson and Harvey Milk. In regard to my style and color palette, I took inspiration from Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning, Rivera and Sandro Chia.

Jun Yang - Self Cuddle, 40 x 30 inches, 2023. Canvas, thread, stuffing, acrylic, Indian inks on canvas.

4) Some of the figures in your paintings, which are also a representation of trans people, have breasts. Yet some parts of their body, including their faces, appear masculine or of sturdy build. Are you trying to dissociate the traditional association of masculinity with physical strength and sturdy body, and femininity with physical frailty and delicate body? What is the evil of imposing binary opposition onto people?

Yes, that was my main intention, and your question beautifully captures that already. I really want to challenge the binary boundary, because people look different in so many ways. Straight people are often oblivious to the evil of reinforcing binaries, because they don’t have to deal with the imminent threat of being humiliated, attacked, or stripped of human rights just because your appearance doesn’t fit into the stereotypical category of gender. We live in a time where some states are banning gay people from going to bars, where some schools are banning the use of the word “gay”. We are seeing a regression in liberty when the supreme court is ruling in favor of illegalizing LGBTQ. Hate crimes against my community are increasing in this country at a frightening rate.

Jun Yang - Swimming with Kois, 85 x 54 inches, 2023. Acrylic on paper.

5) Are race and racism also an issue that you cover in your painting practice? How does your art create a firm and sturdy safe space for people such as you who are both LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC?

Yes, race, ethnicity and the immigrant experience are inseparably intersected with gender and orientation. Individuals with intersectional identities are even more vulnerable to hate crimes, verbal and physical attacks because we have more unfamiliarity. It is not a luxury that I am painting, but I’m addressing the imminent threats and risks of being different. As an artist, I use my art as a sense of activism and expression for my emotions for outrage and sorrow. I paint to raise awareness, spark up conversation, and remind people that we are facing this issue.

Jun Yang - Transitions, 40 x 30 inches, 2023. Acrylic on canvas.

6) How do you sublimate and elevate your negative emotions that you may have built up as a gay person of color into a higher form of expression and art? What is the process like, of coming to terms/peace with your past and the enemies who disrespected you?

A keyword for me is humility. I constantly ask myself, what’s the purpose of creating? Making art to impress people or to seek validation is an act out of ego, and when I fall into that mindset, it causes stress. I think it’s important to realize that sometimes art does not need to look a certain way; if I follow my intuition and paint with what my heart tells me, that releases the stress, and I can get a sincere documentation of my mood at the moment. Some days I feel more flamboyant and feminine, some days I feel more masculine. That shifts my art as well. The process of creating is often not conscious for me, only in retrospect that I come to realize that I have reconciled with an unpleasant memory through freestyling. So, I’ll say that being true to myself and staying honest and vulnerable in the process helps me to attain calm and to heal.

Jun Yang - Blasian Portrait, 2022. Oil pastel.

7) Primitivism and Orientalism were Eurocentric art movements/styles in painting. As a painter who adopts those styles, how do you shift the perspective and the gaze away from the Eurocentric model that projected ideals and fantasies about the non-European others?

I intend to break that idea using different media— found objects, fabric cutout, rice paper, sumi ink and calligraphy— to embrace the message I want to send to the world. The more I embrace my Korean root, the more I discover the meaning of particular materials in my native culture. Through using diverse unconventional materials, I challenge the definition of “fine art” being mostly oil painting through the gaze of white male artists. Art museums and galleries historically didn’t show other kinds of portraits, and even nowadays the self-representation of more diverse communities is still severely lacking in institutions. It is a material/medium problem and also an author/subject problem. My works inspect more about myself than about others; I use myself as a muse, an example to represent one face of an Asian queer immigrant self-taught artist. I want other people to see a part of themselves when seeing my works, to resonate and get encouraged to take actions and voice for themselves. That is my activism.

Jun Yang - Alone, Loneliness, Hurts, 19 x 12 inches, 2022. Acrylic on cutout box paper.

8) Until now you have mainly relied on opaque, and bright and saturated colors to breathe life to your figures. What do you think are the merits of using opaque paint versus a more transparent/translucent painting technique? Where do you see yourself changing direction stylistically and in terms of technique in the future?

I like both opaque and transparent layers. The choice of technique essentially depends on how I feel when I paint. Sometimes I want to use rich texture (like oil paint with palette knife and big brush) to convey depth, accentuate brushstrokes and the way colors flow and blend together; other times I like to layer bright neon hues to make the color pop. Somedays I am down, I use darker tones and my work becomes heavier; on energetic days my works are brighter. My physical limits also dictate my style in certain ways. Chronic pain and discomfort prevent me from working larger works and murals. And I am very sensitive to environmental and atmospheric changes like architecture, fashion, city and people’s energy I experience. I don’t have a settled idea for my future style because I am always learning new things, unlearning from my current comfort zones and relearning from the past.

Jun Yang - Miss You, Mom, 32 x 42 inches, 2022. Acrylic on heavy watercolor paper.

9) Is accuracy in terms of anatomy of great importance to you? As a figurative painter, how do you plan to further advance your painting practice in regard to anatomical details? You never went to school, but is academic training of strong interest to you as a painter?

I don’t prioritize realistic representation. Making my figures look like “human” or portray something that’s already beautiful doesn’t mean much to me, although I respect other artists who do that. Now I primarily paint portraits, which is an interesting departure from my formal training. Although I did not go to school, I still had some training and practice in painting, even as portrait was not my favorite subject back then. I had preferred everything else—animals, flowers, skies and waters.

Jun Yang - Loving Me, 30 x 24, 2022. Acrylic, oil pastels on canvas.

10) What are your goals and dreams as an artist? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I just want to continue to create, learn, and collaborate. For the next five years I want to travel more and connect with a broader, global community of audience and creators. Have more shows, curate more shows, mingle with communities of artists and curators.

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