Sam Yong is one of those artists who I have followed for a while now, but have never really had a chance to find out more about. I first came across his work back in 2014 at the Analogue/Digital conference, where he was giving a talk as a part of the “Next Gen” artists talks alongside Carla McRae and Loretta Lizzio. As his work was projected upon the massive screen, I couldn’t help but be in slight awe at all the detail and macabre beauty within them.
After that, beyond following his work on various social media, the next chance I had to see him in actual action doing some painting was at the Paterson Project, where we had a quick chat as he sat there meticulously hand painting a gorgeous piece in collaboration with Eevien Tan. So it was a few weeks ago, when I was looking throughout his work on Instagram, that I figured that there must be a lot more of a story behind what I already knew – and I wanted to know more.
There’s always something morbidly curious within Sam Yongs work. When illustrating, he often works in monotones, colour leached out, and there is a beauty in the decay and resentfulness of loss within them. Having had a chance to also see a whole bunch of his new painting works that he has been working on for an upcoming exhibition, Keepsakes, at Outré gallery, I’ve also started to see the whimsical side of his work. Introducing a lot more colour into his work, the pieces all seem to contain even deeper motifs beneath the surface; visages of death and despondency mix easily with the fantastical and sublime … it just works. Though this new body of work has its obvious roots in his illustrative work, moving towards painting has allowed the imagery to grow into something completely different altogether.
All in all, they’re strikingly beautiful and highly indicative of even more beauty to come as his work continues to progress. Since moving to Melbourne from New Zealand a handful of years ago, Sam has continued to plumb his imaginations depth for new imagery, consistently exploring the duality of expiration and fascination.
I had a chance to shoot some questions over to the man, and got a whole bunch of really great responses – so enjoy as much as I did, this journey into the world of Sam Yong …
Studio photos courtesy Loretta Lizzio.
You moved to Melbourne from New Zealand a few years ago, what prompted the changeover and what how have you found your life in Melbourne since then?
I felt a bit stagnant and uninspired being in one place for so long, so I decided to shake things up. I visited Melbourne maybe 4 or 5 years ago before I moved here and was blown away at how much appreciation there is for art and creative culture here. Melbourne has been pretty good for me, it’s really shaped my work because I feel comfortable being myself and I think that’s been coming through in my work.
I have read that you are entirely self-taught – so you never studied art or anything? What made you want to become and artist, and how did you develop your style without formal training?
One of my first clear memories I have of drawing was being really young and copying the pictures on all the packaging of the toys my parents used to get me before I opened them. Transformers, Xmen, ninja turtles. I would copy them every time, but never traced. As I got older I got more into comics, and that led me to think about a career in comic book illustration. As I got even older I found I didn’t have the attention span to draw the same character a million times over. Around 23 years old I was doing a lot of freelance illustration and I kept getting asked to replicate other styles, and realized I didn’t have my own.
So, I decided to give up freelancing and start working on my own art. I just kept drawing for at least 3 hours every day and eventually certain themes and visual elements kept popping up so I kept exploring them: and now here we are. Also being self taught doesn’t mean you aren’t learning from others, I ask my peers for help a lot. It’s important to surround yourself with Giants (not literally)
In terms of illustration work, what works and artists have you drawn upon in the past, and what keeps you inspired today? Also, what outside illustration and art helps to contribute to the work that you do?
I love the old masters of painting. I always look to the past, their technique and ability to master color and light was incredible, especially without any photography to reference. I’m kind of sad that we will never get to that level of mastery again. In terms of contemporaries, there’s a lot of artists I love. It would take me too long to list them all and not feel bad I’ve left someone out. At the moment I have a huge art crush on Keita Morimoto. The way he paints hits me on a visceral level.
You said over in another interview that “everything we do [in life] can be related to sex and death” – tell me a bit more about how you look at issues of morality and sexuality within the context of your work? Is everything really dead?
I think I read that somewhere or it was in some philosophical lecture perhaps. I find it an interesting argument, not necessarily black and white truth, but interesting to think about. I think the argument was every decision you make can be simplified to sex or death. Bucket lists are a good example. Boiling everything down to its most basic form, life will eventually end (death) and to try to ensure our survival we pass on our genetics to a new generation (sex). This latest body of work deals with the emotional aftermath of fleeting relationships and the longer lasting memories that you take away and in turn, give.
It’s funny, I’m definitely a self-confessed nihilist. So I don’t see much point in a lot of things because I know that I’m going to die. People might think that’s a negative thing but it’s a positive. I think that it’s taught me what’s important in life. I know to not waste my life sitting in a job just to gather coins for the future when you can’t take it to the grave. I have no qualms with losing a day job or how to be cool nor do I give a shit what people think about me because it doesn’t matter. I just want to live a full life and not just exist through the daily motions before I check out.
Painting and illustration – you have predominantly done a lot of illustration work, and then started delving more into painting – what do you think each medium gives, and what have been the challenges associating with focusing more on painting in recent times?
Painting has always been the end goal for me. I feel that illustration is much more easily digestible for the public and maybe it’s appreciated more but I feel like I’m starting to get to where I need to be. Painting gets me so much more excited than drawing, mainly because it’s so difficult for me. It’s a brand new challenge, very frustrating and very unpredictable. There’s a lot more facets to painting that I’m starting to discover. With drawing, there’s tone, mark making, value.
You can kind of see how the drawing will end in your mind before you finish and it’s just going through the act of doing it til it’s finished. Painting is hard, I don’t know what’s going to happen and that excites me.
You have a small exhibition coming up pretty soon at Outre gallery, can you tell us a bit about the show, what kind work you’ll be doing, and how you got involved with exhibiting with the guys at Outre?
The concept of the show “Keepsakes” are small sentimental objects kept in memory of the person who gave it or owned it. The work is an exploration of the memories or emotions that are left behind any relationship no matter how fleeting it was. I have a kind of re-occurring element of moths and butterflies which kind of symbolize the temporal beauty.
It’s the first show I’ve had since switching over to painting but I’ll still have a few drawings in the show too. I’m very anxious about showing the paintings as its a bit of a departure from what most people know me for, but maybe most of the anxiety comes from me being so honest about the concept behind it and that makes me vulnerable.
You spent a fair bit of time traveling through the United States last year – what were some of the standout moments for you, and what about the trip do you believe contributed to the artwork that you’ve done since then?
Yeah, I spent about 4 months in 2015 in the US and Canada, and then a month in Japan a few months later. It was an incredible time. I had no plan whatsoever from the day I landed, so the uncertainty of where to go or where to stay was a huge part of the fun. Along the way, I traded art for places to sleep and met some really great people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Probably the best bits were being around so much nature, driving around the country camping and hiking. And the other highlight was being fortunate enough to be able to meet and hang out with some of my favourite artists that I have looked up to for years.
The best thing was that everyone was so nice and really treated me like family even though our only previous interactions were online. The trip really changed the way I think about the world and what I want from my career rather than influencing any sort of aesthetic changes. It taught me not to worry so much or put so much pressure on my ability, and try switching off once in a while to go explore the outdoors a lot more. I used to want to just be locked in a studio painting for a million hours but I’m learning to balance it with more travel.
How do you balance out the needs and life as a creative artist, with having to also earn a living? Do you find you ever have to make any compromises for yourself creatively when doing commercial work at all, or do the two just feed off each other?
I work part time as a graphic designer. I honestly feel so detached from any work that isn’t my own personal work. I don’t put my name on anything because ultimately it’s someone else’s vision. Usually, some corporation that I give zero shits for. I am pretty much just a soulless hand moving a mouse during work hours. At the end of the day, it’s just allowing me a certain lifestyle so I can travel and paint whatever the hell I want. It’s actually not a great thing to be a full-time artist when you’re still finding your feet, the need to make money off your work is going to compromise your art because it needs to sell. Having a second source of income means you can really paint what you need to express fully.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year after this upcoming show? More travel? Or do you want to put your head down and do some projects?
I’ve already started planning out a new body of work actually. No rest for me. In October I’ll be heading over to Hawaii for a month to meet up with Meggs and Miya who are starting an awesome art project in Hilo called ‘Temple Children’ which should be super fun.