In poetic (and practical) terms, glass is most typically associated with delicacy and fragility—glass houses, glass castles, hearts of glass. Laura Wingfield and her glass menagerie shattering with the routine roughnesses of the world. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lament in “Adonais” that “Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity, / Until Death tramples it to fragments.” An archaic proverb: “Handle with care women and glass.”
Dustin Yellin’s glass sculptures, in contrast, appear slab-like and monolithic, powerful, like massive bricks of transparent ice—some large enough to enclose life-size humanoid figures, as in his Psychogeographies series (2015–). Yet the intricate worlds suspended in them contain all the otherworldly loveliness usually attributed to glass as an artistic medium, all the rainbow tints that might be refracted through prisms or Venetian blown glass. Combining acrylic paint with images Yellin has meticulously clipped from drawings, paintings, books, and magazines over many years, his fantastical collages teem with ordinary people—surfers, children, tribespeople, office workers, monks—and ordinary flora and fauna—hares, jellyfish, polar bears, geese, alpine forests—and the ordinary artifacts and sights of everyday life on Earth—fighter jets and recycling bins, laundry baskets and spears and statues—intermingled with chimeras and apparitions. In Migration in Four Parts (2016–17), a series of golden hands and forearms float near the ceiling of a thatched structure; monks in lotus position levitate in the sky among paper airplanes; giant purple tentacles flail from Technicolor waves; a kangaroo in a poncho rides a bicycle; an astronaut flies by straddling a giant hotdog. Nearly everyone and everything are in motion, climbing or crouching or diving or surveying. Psychedelic and surreal, Yellin’s collages juxtapose ecosystems, eras, and cultures, photojournalism and fantasy.
Like Walt Whitman, the sculptures are large and contain multitudes.
“Basically, I’m reconstructing existence out of paper,” Yellin says of these works, calling his library of collage materials “almost an internet of paper.” Describing this unusual storehouse in a July 2018 phone conversation, he told me, “I have drawers of mushrooms, and drawers of icebergs, and drawers of humans, and drawers of architecture, and drawers of plants. . . . I’ve been building up this collection as long as I can remember. Everything’s labeled. I have these beautiful brass plaques that are engraved with the names of the different subjects so when I’m building these worlds I can find them.”
These “worlds” he builds up through layers of glass panels an eighth- to a quarter-inch thick, “unstacking and restacking for eons” before binding the final composition with a glue possessing the same refractiveness as the glass, then sanding the sides to create the illusion of a single, crystalline substance. The final sculptures are often nearly six feet tall, as with the Psychogeographies pictured in this portfolio. Each of the panels that constitute Migration in Four Parts (see cover images and fold-out) are approximately 23.5 by 23 by 16.5 inches, with small variations in dimensions among them.
Some features of Yellin’s recent works evolved out of necessity. Precursors had been made with resin, a medium that excited Yellin but that he ultimately felt presented too many health risks. This concern inspired his shift to working with glass, which offered the same transparency and luminosity he valued. “It was a new way to move through a clear space,” he says. The size of his sculptures, and their weight—often many thousands of pounds—also present engineering challenges, which factor into his recurring use of “modulation,” or installations composed of several pieces. Although modulation in works such as Migration in Four Parts or the similarly structured Ten Parts contributes to suggesting a narrative or allegorical component, and to echoing religious art like Hieronymus Bosch’s wild altarpiece triptychs that David Oates memorably describes in this issue, Yellin says the decision was initially just a pragmatic one: “If I wanted to make large-scale public installations that weighed less than ten tons, I needed to break them up into pieces and create my own version of mosaic.”
The scale of the work also requires him to employ assistants. “I work in the lonely darkness of my soul—with a team of people to help me execute it,” he jokes. “It’s almost like I’m making frozen movies.”
Yellin’s career has largely developed outside the channels traditionally sanctioned by the contemporary art world. He did not attend art school, and critics have given his shows mixed reviews. But his work has garnered an impressive popular following. Works from the Psychogeographies series were exhibited at the Lincoln Center as part of the New York City Ballet’s Art Series in 2015, and later loaned to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Six Psychogeographies figures have been permanently installed on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He was among the artists granted early access to Google’s virtual-reality drawing tool, Tilt Brush. He has given TED Talks.
Along with an eclectic selection of more traditional influences (including, yes, Hieronymus Bosch), Yellin admires Art Brut (outsider art), such as “work coming out of hospitals and prisons,” and his view of whom his work might be “for” is inclusive. “I’m making things for little people, like five-year-olds and ten-year-olds, who get excited,” Yellin says. “I like to make worlds that people will get excited about.” He likes the idea that people can spend hours in front of a work, discovering new things. In a 2016 New York Times article on Yellin’s work with Google, he is quoted as saying, “I like certain art forms and music forms that are accessible, spaces that are accessible, ideas that are accessible—because I think if you can make something that resonates to everyone, then you can create a glue.”
Yellin’s communal values are notably manifested in Pioneer Works, the highly successful nonprofit interdisciplinary arts center he founded in Brooklyn in 2010, which offers classes, exhibits, and performances, as well as studio space for artists and researchers. Yellin is an enthusiastic champion of experimental works in various media, and Pioneer Works regularly hosts live music among its programming. He loves film and is also an avid reader, one who cites poets from William Carlos Williams to Pablo Neruda to Rainer Maria Rilke to Jim Carroll as among his favorites, as well as the novelist Haruki Murakami.
“I love poetry. I think everything is a poem,” he says. “ ‘Having a Coke with You’ by Frank O’Hara was my favorite poem. . . . I love Emily Dickinson, and when I was a young man, Sylvia Plath.” He says he likes some of Billy Collins’s poems. In 2015, Pioneer Works hosted a celebration of John Ashbery in honor of the poet’s ninetieth birthday, which culminated in Ashbery’s last reading in New York City before he died in 2017.
Yellin has experimented with writing himself, and his descriptions of his visual works are rather poetic. When I asked him whether Migration in Four Parts referred at all to the current global migration crisis, he said,
Well, I try not to think so topically, but certainly that work at the moment seems relevant because of what’s happening on our planet. I think our souls are constantly migrating from body to body. I think our pasts are constantly migrating into new periods and semblances of themselves. I think that we are in a constant state of migration into habits of being. That work is really just a little bit of a poem about the migration of humanity from one cave, playing a bit on the idea of Plato’s cave. All of these creatures are leaving the cave and then swimming through a body of water to the next cave.
In a 2015 interview with Helen Walters for Ideas.TED.com, Yellin said of the Psychogeographies figures that “Each one is a 3000-pound microscope slide with a human stuck inside,” and he explained the explosion of collaged materials thusly: “Each one acts as an archive in the shape of human.”
If Yellin’s sculptures are poems, they are ambitious, maximalist poems that might be discussed alongside those of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Whitman, or Allen Ginsberg, though their pop-art humor and their resistance to obvious ideological labels or moral messages make them solidly postmodern. Describing his gargantuan current project, however, Yellin seems to be moving toward the epic: “I’m building a map of the world in seven parts,” he says, “where you have the future on the left, and the past on the right.”
C. J. Bartunek
All compositions are acrylic, glass, and collage.
Copyright © 2018 Dustin Yellin. Images appear courtesy of the artist.