In Justin Yoon’s Sci-Fi Suburbia, Queer Friendships Shine
Justin Yoon’s paintings and drawings of glossy figures literally sparkle. The Brooklyn-based artist adds light traces of glitter onto his surfaces, so faint that photographs of his work can’t quite capture them. “It’s almost like doing makeup,” Yoon said during a recent studio visit. “A lot of times people won’t know, and then they see it and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s glitter.’ I like the surprise.”
Yoon’s use of thin, square canvases is unique, too. It allows for his narratives to read like graphic novels, each painting like a frame pulled from a story’s page. The artistic decision traces back to childhood, when Yoon would practice drawing by copying panels from manga. While studying for his BA in illustration at Parsons, he made efforts to distance himself from the art style, especially as he felt it building into his muscle memory. Eventually, he realized that avoiding manga influences had a strange effect on his chosen subject matter.
“I was on a date with this Asian guy and I was showing him my art and he said, ‘Oh, you never paint Asian people.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is really weird,’” Yoon recalled, referring to his college paintings of white figures. “When I started drawing Asian people again, I immediately realized it kind of looks like manga; it kind of looks like a graphic novel, but at this time, I really like it and relate to it.”
If Yoon’s debut solo show at London’s Taymour Grahne Projects were a manga, it would be the first volume. On view online through June 8th, “Opening Night” is not only an opportunity to properly introduce the artist, but also the cast of characters who reappear throughout his work. Often center stage is Blue Dream, a muscular Asian man with a mustache and short-cropped hair wearing nothing but a blue Speedo just a shade darker than his light blue skin. “He represents more of a vain side of me, of just looking and yearning for queer idolatry,” Yoon said. “Growing up, gay art was always about sex or intimacy, always couples, and I want to show queer representation in a non-sexual way but using sensual imagery.”
Alongside Blue Dream is Marge: a purple woman with silky blue-purple hair dressed in a form-fitting, strapless, floor-length dress with a side slit. Yoon was working at the New York beauty store Ricky’s when he found inspiration for the character in a woman dressed as Marge Simpson for Halloween.
“I wanted to create a really glamorous, queer Asian woman. I feel like she’s a more complicated character for me. Sometimes I say Marge is me in drag, or all my girlfriends and all the women figures in my life all put together,” Yoon said, emphasizing how pivotal a role women have had in his life, from friends to family members.
The endearing shih tzu Five Poundz completes the trio. The pup is a pink version of a pet from the artist’s own life. “My first dog was originally called ‘five pounds’ in Korean. It’s like a measurement for meat,” Yoon laughed.
Whether his characters are lounging about or going for a leisurely drive, Yoon finds glamour in the mundane. It’s the intimacy of platonic relationships that shines in Yoon’s candy-colored scenes, which are set in a sci-fi version of suburbia. “Oftentimes, people disregard the importance of just hanging out and being dumb with your friends,” Yoon explained. “I wanted to create a group of friends that could represent how I think of my friends, how I think of myself.”
While preparing for “Opening Night,” and upcoming solo shows with Anat Ebgi in Los Angeles and Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami scheduled for later this year, Yoon had on his easel an in-progress painting of Blue Dream, Marge, and Five Poundz seated in a diner booth. They look out at the audience as if we’ve just interrupted their conversation. “I always want them to look at the viewer because the viewer is supposed to be part of the gang,” Yoon said. “In this one, the viewer is late and they’re like, ‘Oh, here you are.’”