Walking into Dustin Yellin’s 15,000 square foot Red Hook studio is a bit like walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are no Oompa-Loompas or rivers of chocolate, but there are plenty of rooms loaded with peculiar objects and remnants of unusual experiments in various states of completion. As many as a dozen assistants can be found in each of the rooms, working on projects that incorporate traditional painting techniques with elements of applied science Dustin teaches himself through trial and error.
Scattered throughout his studio-cum-laboratory are Dustin’s trademark works of biological and anatomical drawings that, when encased in multi-layers of clear resin, look like three-dimensional specimens preserved in ice. Around the studio, gigantic trees seem to float frozen in time within large glass cubes. Skeletal remains, human hearts and severed heads rest preserved in layer upon layer of resin that change in scope or simply disappear depending on the angle they’re viewed from.
An internationally-exhibiting artist represented by the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Dustin’s Tarkovskian trajectory, intent as it is on presenting things that are never quite what they appear to be, continues to gain momentum as his enthusiasm for alchemy is increasingly supported by his knowledge of science and technology. He recently invented a pixel-based rapid prototyping machine, and is currently in the research phase of developing photography and printing devices that will reinvent the way we take pictures. There’s talk of creating rooms full of clouds and a handful of clever experiments that, when realized, will likely add even more ingenuity to the fun.
MARC SANTO: How did you get started as an artist?
DUSTIN YELLIN: I grew up in Los Angeles and dropped out of high school to hitchhike through New Zealand. I was doing a lot of hallucinogens and I ended up in Thailand on a bunch of mushrooms. I was sitting on the most perfect beach eating coconuts and I thought to myself, “Why would I ever go back to civilization?” That thought scared the shit out of me because I knew I was capable of staying, but if I stayed I would burn out. So I went back to the States and began studying with a lunatic scientist who got me really into the ideas of Tesla and Bucky Fuller. I was painting on the side and came to a crossroads in my life where I thought, “Well, I have two options. I can go back to school for 10 years and become a scientist, which is really just an industry controlled by politics, or I can take my painting seriously.” I’m essentially an autodidact so I knew I could learn what I needed, and even though my paintings were shit at the time, I chose to work on them and never looked back.
MARC: Describe your work.
DUSTIN: I’m focused on building situations within clear spaces. I accidentally developed this language by covering my paintings in resin, which resulted in an optical quality that magnified aspects of the work and gave it the feeling of floating in space. A few years ago these boxes got larger and all the chemicals in the resin began to freak me out, so I figured out a way to get a similar effect with glass. Glass brought a new optical quality that opened up a new set of doors, and now I’m working strictly within that material. I’m challenging myself to push the limits of that material and working on what will be the heaviest glass objects in the world.
MARC: What else are you working on?
DUSTIN: I always have numerous projects in different stages of development. I took a short break from painting to make a film in the Amazon, and now I’m back to working with glass. I’m making a huge allegorical landscape that can be viewed from both sides, and color field forests that are finally being realized on the scale I want them to be. One of the more complex works I’m developing is a cloud room that will allow people to go inside rooms and feel as though they’re inside a cloud. It’s a work in progress because I have to teach myself the technical and engineering knowledge in order to realize it. I’m also inventing a printer that will reinvent ways to make photographs.
MARC: You were Manhattan-based for so long. What brought you to Red Hook?
DUSTIN: The work I was making in my loft in Manhattan got to be too heavy and if I continued working there, it would have caved in my floors. I needed ground space, so I moved to Brooklyn and now I love it. I don’t want to come across like a patriot for Brooklyn, because patriotism and religion are why the world is so fucked up, but to me Red Hook is the closest place I could get to feeling like I live in the country without having to live in the country. There’s a single lane main drag that ends at the water and a charming community of artists, engineers and musicians who congregate at places like Sunny’s Bar and Jalopy’s. We’re surrounded by water and I love going to sleep to the sound of birds and boats.
MARC: Your space is an enormous compound full of workshops, galleries, living quarters and science experiments. What was the idea behind it?
DUSTIN: This place is like a lab and I’m constantly working on something. I love having other artists around working on their own stuff. Ever since I came to New York I had this crazy idea to bring people together from multiple disciplines under one roof. My friend Charlotte Kidd and I got this building together and started Kidd Yellin, which is a space within this compound that shows our friends’ work who don’t have the support of bigger galleries. We set up residencies that give artists studio space to make work, which we show in our project room. We created the Kings County Biennial, which shows 44 artists from Kings County. It’s a cool event with tons of talented artists and it’s a really great way for us to give back.