Seldon Yuan received a BHA at Carnegie Mellon University, his MFA at Hunter College, and studied at Beaux-arts in Paris, France. He is both a published writer and exhibiting visual artist. His art has been exhibited nationally and internationally in various galleries and venues including MoMA, Bronx Museum of Art, International Center of Photography, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Arario Gallery, Rare Gallery, La Generale in Paris, Gallerie 69 in Oslo, Norway, Around Space in Shanghai, and the Museum of New Art in Detroit. He has also completed a commission for Socrates Sculpture Park in New York City and is a recipient of a 2015 NYFA Fellowship.
Under the influence of poetry, my work is based on a personal history. Focusing on a personal poetics of multiple perspectives and mediums, the work extends across a spectrum of optical effects, absurdity, poetry, surrealism, ideas about language, familiar objects/spaces that are in service of a personal narrative. The work typically creates a filter between a common object, environment, or scene and the viewer, thereby inventing a lens to view and reinterpret the everyday metaphorically.
I strive to articulate emotional affect under a construct that steers away from sentimentality, yet still drives towards catharsis. Every piece begins with an idea that is looking for a form that can materialize that idea with an emotion or narrative created under a structure typically through formal visual plays, like a confusion of background and foreground or a contrast between the recognizable and abstract (done in part to slow down visual comprehension). These disruptions present a problem for the viewer to disassemble the work into components in order to reveal the effect that is intertwined with the content. From there, I look for a sentiment that can capitalize on this quality that dovetails form and subject matter conceptually and formally.
With the hybrid works that place poems into visual contexts, the process is extended another step. The poems are written first, then visual forms are investigated. A form must be found where each aspect expands the other conceptually without becoming an illustration, yet also activate the act of reading through physical movement, memorization, and reconfigurations of words all the while sidestepping the aesthetics of graphic design and typography. The work plays with the transitions between image/object and language, contrasts the allographic and autographic, activates the passive act of reading, contends with the expansion and contraction of language and both its ambiguities and specificities.
Q&A with Seldon Yuan
by Emily Burns
Hi Seldon! Your work is extremely varied in approach, material and method. Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you begin and how do you isolate and expand on an idea?
A lot of the work is derived from some emotional quagmire or some funny idea/juxtaposition/poetic moment or line. The more I obsess over it the more it has to come out and the more it begins to evolve and morph. Often it results in other ways to talk about the same thing and/or I begin to have greater insight into the idea.
Often times with the visual poetry stuff, I have a technique or visual play or something that I'm waiting to pair with an idea or poem. The visual poetry stuff always begins with a finalized poem.
Do you often realize that an idea requires a method or material with which you are unfamiliar? How do you approach this problem?
I am always reinventing the wheel for myself so it almost always requires a new method or material, which is a big part of the fun, but also a real bottleneck in terms of productivity. I don't really like to use the same method or technique for each work, unless it's a series or unless that is what the work calls for. New ideas and concepts require new visualizations/manifestations.
As I mentioned earlier, there are usually some material ideas or techniques that are just waiting for the right content to make them work. The real trick is how to make the form and the content go together that isn't illustrative but work together to expand the meaning and give complexity and layers of meaning. How can each activate the other? If I don't know the exact form or the material then that just comes down to research and continually looking at objects and images and talking to others and hoping it will click. I probably do at least 1-3 hours of research a day looking for this needle in the haystack.
What is your background in art? How did you become an artist?
I always drew as a kid and I guess I was above average. Skateboarding graphics and comic books were big for me as a youth. As for how I became an artist. It might be a birth defect or something akin to a STD. As Henry Rollins once said, "If your kid is an artist then you fucked up as a parent" and in my case there's some truth to that. I only recently realized that the work that really resonated with me as a youth were the things that made me feel less alone and I have forever been trying to recreate that for others and myself. I have also come to find that making my art has allowed me to really understand myself better.
To be honest I'm not sure how I became an artist. It's some combination of some conventional talent/skill, angst, solitude, and a desire to fill the void. But I think as I have grown older I have experienced more and so the impetus has morphed from being 100% an emotional outlet to some sense of empowerment, world building, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to invent things that didn't exist before.
Do you make a lot of work that is “secret” or that you don’t show with other work? Does this have a place in your process for the other work?
Nothing is really a secret but in my mind I know it is probably too self indulgent and not really good, compelling, or smart work so I don't really bother to show it to anyone. However, I have come to realize that even if it the work seemed dumb, it could after multiple iterations become useful and incorporated into new work. I have really come to believe that the artist's job is to be investing in failure. It's never about the product but about getting out the ideas in order to get to the next piece. In many ways I think I am just making a prototype for the next prototype. I believe all acts have value. Even copying.
I am often overwhelmed with how to organize and categorize work that I feel doesn’t fit in with the rest of my work, or feeling limited in what I can do as an artist, given my previous body of work. Has this ever been an issue for you?
To be honest, I don't even think about it. It's not my problem. The whole idea of art for me is about complete freedom. However, I did come to realize that when doing applications I have to simplify and almost put myself into a box for others to better comprehend what I'm doing. But I believe if you look you will find a thread that ties it all together or some umbrella that it can sit under. But again, my job is to make not to organize and categorize my own work unless held at gunpoint or tempted with a big bag of money dipped in hot sweet fame.
I also think there is a mythology to the biography of artists that makes you think it is that two-dimensional when it fact it may not truly be the case. The whole point is to experiment and try new things that you can bring in to the work later. It's the job of my personal biographer and historian to put it all together. (I don't have either.)
Looking back now I realized I was always looking for a hook/style. Maybe in part this is what an abbreviated art history had taught me up till then. You have a style that do forever or in some cases a topic or technique that forever interests you. Bacon. Pollack. Degas. And so on. But this art thing is a marathon and I have to just to do what I want to do, otherwise there's no point. For me, it is sometimes about finding weird ways to keep working while larger ideas incubate or to generate new ideas. But the heart of the matter is that art is about complete and total freedom unlike other disciplines like design. There is no audience. There is no directive. I have come to realize I don't fit neatly into the art market so I don't bother. I just do what interests me especially now that I've given up on the idea of making money at art. My ideas are so all over the place that no one medium or style could ever hope to embody them. When I entered Hunter College for my MFA I got in as a painter and I was already in crisis with painting because I felt bored with the clever style I thought I had invented and the program gave me a chance and pushed me to try other things that couldn't fit inside painting. My job is to explore and make.
Can you expand upon your interest in the transitions between image/object and language?
It all began because I felt boxed in by poetry on the page. I could pretty much just left or right align the text and I couldn't grow and expand the meaning of the words, lines, content, and poem while still have it be tempered by the content. I wanted greater complexity. Also having worked as a graphic designer, I felt there was disconnect between the content, the form of the poem, and the font used. Fonts are designed with a certain idea and aesthetic and the content doesn't always pair in a compelling or complementary way. But I also was very aware of the aesthetics of design/typography and intentionally try to veer away from that look of advertising or signage and hopefully subvert it or confuse it.
From there I started to find cracks to play in. When does language become abstract? How is language specific but also ambiguous and at times totally meaningless? When does language become illegible and thus an image and what can that mean? When does language become an object and is no longer a legible language? What happens when language becomes an object and a viewer has to navigate through the object in order to read it and how does that action and interaction work with the content and the meaning of the work? How can the normally passive act of reading be active/activated? How can a viewer have a personal and unique in-person interactive experience instead of reading the poem in a book or viewing an artwork that thwarts easy documentation? For example in Behind the Brush, the letters of the poem are printed on paper and individually cutout and then folded and set on a mirror so they have to be read in the reflection of the mirror. However, the inward folded letters obscure themselves, thus forcing the viewer to move around it to read it in the mirror that then forces them to decode the work, slow down the act of reading and comprehension, and perhaps even require some memorization.
Some of these ideas also stem from allography and autography. For those who don't know, simply put it's like an autograph of Babe Ruth vs. the Babe Ruth's name typed out. Or to put it another way… the book Huckleberry Finn is always the same story no matter what color the paper is or what size or style the font is, but the Mona Lisa is no longer the Mona Lisa when it's scale or color is changed.
What interests you most about the relationship between the allographic and autographic?
I want to create a unique personal experience where one has to be present to experience it. It's not just a book where the story is the same regardless of the design but instead it is a one of a kind authentic experience where you interact with the piece; where the form/interaction is as important as what as the content. It has to be experienced first hand. Great examples are the Op Art paintings of Bridget Riley. Those paintings do not translate at all in a book form. You have to see it in person at the actual life scale to experience the optical effects and, in my case, initiated an emotional resonance that I had not anticipated.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wish there was a typical day. There is always some fire to put it. Ideally, I wake up and write and/or draw for a bit in the morning, and then I come up for oxygen and deal with emails and my bag business or assorted other life duties. I'll usually cook lunch at home and the give my afternoon away to other real life duties and then eat dinner at home and then either go to the studio or work more at home. If I’m lucky I’ll sneak in a nap, and meet someone for coffee or some meeting so I have some in person human interaction.
What are the Brooklyn and New York art scenes and community like? Is this important to your work?
I've become jaded and my own insecurities play part of this equation and I might also be socially inept so this is part hyperbole and part for the sake of humor but I think there is also some truth to it. There is definitely a community as I have seen them and walked into and out of them with Hunter MFA being one of them. From a certain perspective it is fairly supportive but from another it's splintered and at times it can feel like those getting the most art world attention get the most attendees at their opening. There were times when it felt competitive but for no real reason as there is not much to be gained and a whole lot to be paying for. And it definitely can feel like a scene with social climbers, hangers on, and those playing the friend to someone of influence who hopes to get a crumb or a foot in the door to the bathroom in the art world basement. Sometimes it felt like the only reason people were talking to me was they were waiting for someone else better or more important to talk to, when in fact they had nothing to say at all to begin with.
All that aside though, I have been given some great opportunities thanks to the community (NYFA, Socrates Sculpture Park, Wave Hill Gardens, Center for Book Arts, Bronx Museum AIM program, Hunter College to name just a few) and am very appreciative of that, but I’m not sure how to quantify or qualify how it's affected my actual work except that I have more opportunities, meeting new people, and experiences. I will say there were times when I was part of a studio visit/crit group and it felt great to listen, talk, and think about different types artwork and art making again. I certainly feel like I work alone in a cave. At this age and having lived in NYC for 16 years, I feel like I'm a bit in my own world running my own game and trying to manage my time better.
Do you feel like it is important to get into a particular headspace when in the studio? If so how do you get there?
Yes. Definitely. The first part is to go to the studio regularly and treat it as a sacred space where I have to turn off the phone and the Internet. That stuff just shatters me and I don't have the discipline to stay off of it. The next is to just sit there. Look. Let my mind wander. Look through sketchbooks and the ideas I jot down in the back. Look at what I’m working on. Clean. Organize. Spaz out a little and let some ticks out like maybe jiggling my leg or scooting on a furniture dolly. Then usually strangely enough I feel very sleepy after about 30-60 minutes and I have to take a fairly uncomfortable nap on a folding chair with my arms crossed or my head on the table drooling. Then after about 30 minutes or so I'll wake up and be in complete outer space for another 15-30 minutes. Then I'll be able to focus or come up with some solution to a problem I had earlier. Sometimes music, podcasts, or silence helps get me there.
These days there is always some automatic writing that occurs or journaling to just get things moving and warm up or to get more ideas going.
What are the most important components of your studio?
That it is a separate space from my living space with no internet (though my phone can get on the internet) and that I'm alone in it. Everything else is ordinary and probably not even that necessary.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
It depends. Sometimes there are podcasts like WTF or This American Life or classical music or popular music. If I'm writing I could only maybe listen to classical music. Lyrics and/or repetitive choruses are too distracting. I can't tell how important or not it is.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
These days no one really. I enjoy looking at work but there's not anyone in particular that I am interested in now or revisit. I think I used to look to emulate but more and more I feel like I'm on my own trip and that path is much more about looking and going forward than looking back.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc. that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
The poem Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand. My good friend the musician Christopher Tignor introduced it to me. It was the first time I could see how science could be described in poetry and emote. I really love the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. All the analog effects in many of those surreal scenes that he does in the film are so poetic. Something about it being analog just makes it so much more visceral and authentic. I read a lot of Bukowski when I was younger and I'm sure that was an influence though I have a hard time quantifying that.
I am finally able to get into the zone of reading poetry and I am reading SNL book Live from New York. With the SNL book, It is just so amazing and inspiring to think of these guys having the time of their lives both literally and creatively, while pioneering something so new and fresh. They were inventing it all as they went along. How fun must it be to just laugh and make each other laugh all day? And then to be able to and to still want to stay up all night!
Any advice to recent grads that are interested in getting their work out there and exhibiting?
Find, build, and support your community of creatives. These are the people that will help you out and who you will help out. There isn't much point to being competitive in the art world because there really isn't that much to be gained financially or otherwise. Be a good person. Be respectful. Be resourceful. Be professional. Get a proper job and be healthy because we are running a marathon and money is a tool that you can leverage. There will be a time when money is more valuable than time and then there will be a time when time is more valuable than money.
In addition to being an artist, you also own and operate your company SSCY. How do you manage your time and balance all of these different aspects of your career? Is there an overlap in skill sets that is helpful or not so helpful?
To be honest it's a bit of a shit show. I've tried to be more disciplined by writing or making art in the morning for a set time and then dealing with "real life." There are definitely overlaps in skills. Writing has allowed me to hopefully write better and smarter copy for SSCY. Being strategic about my artwork and its intent and place has also been a part of the strategy for the bags. Both have to be smart and unique. The root of it is that as an artist I learned to make things or repair or alter things and if I didn't know how to do it, I could find someone to do it and that easily bled into making bags. I wasn't fearful or overwhelmed by the challenge of doing something I had no idea how to do. I just worked through it. With so much practice of having an idea and making it a reality this was part of that flow. Also having shot my own fine art photos I could shoot for the bag company and know what I wanted or didn't want and what I thought was good or not good. There is a strong component of pragmatism in my life which has served the bag company well, but perhaps may be a detriment to art if only because art costs money and very rarely makes money. Using that rubric can very frustrating. If the project makes money it could be art or a business, but if it doesn't make money it's definitely art.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you?
I'm not sure if I can attribute this to other people, but… Work hard. Money is a tool. You can make more money but you can't make more time. Be professional. Don't be a jerk. Invest in failure. Mostly these are things I tell myself.
What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
I can't think of anything in recent memory. One show that still stands out in my mind is a Bridget Riley retrospective back in 2008. The earlier Op Art paintings had this emotional component that I had not thought would be possible in that type of work. I had never seen the works in person and they could only be experienced in person.
Another work that blew me away that I have a seen a few times that was most recently at the MoMA was Camille Henrot's piece "Grosse Fatigue." It was so well done and so smart. It was entertaining, it had rhythm, it was poetic, and it was contemporary. It's so rare to have an art video that can not only my attention but regular people's attention and that was one.
What is your relationship with social media? Do you have a favorite or least-favorite platform?
I don't really like any of them, but I feel that I have to participate. I find them to be too much of a distraction from being present and staying focused. It adds too much to the scattered and shattered mind.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I am in the process of editing down my first novel.
Can you tell me about the novel?
Well it is a work of fiction that is about a second generation Chinese American who has never been in love and starts to figure out why that is as he travels between Paris and New York. There are underlying ideas about language and how we represent ourselves to both others and ourselves in language in addition to how we think we know what we want because we can articulate it but in fact our history and emotions drive us. The story is told in three ways. We hear his unfiltered thoughts, see his journal, and his blog. The story also touches on ideas of cultural diaspora and being stuck between two cultures.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for coming up with these great questions and giving me this opportunity! And thanks to those who have been so kind and supported me in the past. I used to think to think it was all me, but I know now that there are a lot of people involved in my good fortune. Also don't drink and drive.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!