Based in Melbourne, Sam Yong is a self-taught artist from Auckland, New Zealand. We caught up with him for a chat about his artistic background, his thoughts on the role of social media for artists, and his upcoming solo show.
To get things started, can you give us a brief rundown on how you got into art?
As a young kid, I was always easily distracted, fidgety and causing a bit of mischief as I tried to make sense of the world around me. My earliest memories of drawing were when I got a new Ninja Turtle action figure, and I would always copy the picture on the packaging before playing with the toy. As a teen I started getting into comics and I used to emulate my favourite artists that did Spider-Man or X-Men etc. It was always a hobby until a couple of years ago when I made a conscious choice to take it seriously as a career path.
Tell us about your piece 'Rush' (left).
'Rush' is a piece from my new body of work for my solo exhibition titled 'Unnatural Selection'. I really wanted to capture a sense of movement and adrenalin, something which is pretty unusual for me as most of my work seems to be quite 'still'. I guess for me, it describes that feeling that everything is moving so fast that at any moment you could lose control and f*ck everything up, but on the other hand, the ride is amazing.
The majority of your work depicts animals tangled and entwined with plants and vines. Can you talk a little about your subject matter.
I actually don't really find that the "specific" subject matter really matters that much…but the relationship between different subjects. I like to offset strong and powerful subject matter with other things that are fragile and delicate. The feeling and theme as a whole is more relevant to me and the piece is (hopefully) greater than the sum of its parts. I usually try to convey human emotions that using non-human subject. The whole intertwining aspect is me trying to find (as buddhists would call it) 'oneness' of life. Everything in nature is connected and I try to show that life cycle element in my work.
There seems to be a delicate balance of both calming and threatening elements often used. Is this deliberate?
I try to use elements of tension and unease, like a fine line between chaos and peace. I'm interested in portraying the harshness of life in the natural world but bringing some sort of human element into it. So there's always elements of predator and prey and serenity that's about to be disturbed. I'm interested the contrast of human emotion in regards to life / death vs the cruel simplicity of life / death in the animal kingdom. So I like to try and create these peaceful compositions that are just at that point where everything's just about to go wrong. But then again, it might not.
I loved the piece you did recently to celebrate Shark Week. You've got the ominous threat factor of sharks down-pat. Are there some animals you prefer to illustrate than others?
Thanks dude! It depends on my mood really. When I feel pretty peaceful and serene I'll draw 'beautiful' animals but sometimes you just have to break out and draw something badass and disgusting gorey stuff like carnivores ripping each other apart you know? Although in my lifetime I'd like to draw every animal)
You're about to head to Europe for an exhibition in France. Can you give us some more info.
It's for a group show for a music festival in Paris. It's called the Rock en Seine festival www.rockenseine.com and there will be 60 artists doing a poster for each band in the festival. I'm doing the festival poster for the American, Minnesota based band 'Polica'. Really stoked to get the opportunity to exhibit overseas in such an art orientated city and also to be in the same show as Tara McPherson - whose rock poster work I admire a lot. I still can't believe I got asked to take part in such a big event.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming debut solo show?
My debut solo show is in Melbourne, at 'Off the Kerb Gallery' in Collingwood. Opening night is on November the 1st (Friday at 6 - 9pm) and it will run til November the 15th. So I hope to see some of you locals there on opening night! It's titled 'Unnatural Selection' and it's my most recent body of work of drawings from April 2013, either pencil or color pencils. I wanted to display some paintings but because of time restraints (I still work a full time job) and going overseas I had to limit my choice in mediums. And I'm not happy enough with my skill in painting to release things for sale just yet! The themes are all based on nature, the relationship between predator and prey and exploring the natural world, but also creating moments and subject matter that don't exist in nature at all.
You live in Melbourne, but are originally from Auckland, New Zealand. How do you find the creative scene in Melbourne? What made you make the move, and what do you think are the major differences artistically between the two cities?
NZ was great growing up, but I felt if you don't make art that fits into a particular genre or theme there it goes unnoticed. In my own opinion it's still very conservative and a quite nationalistic when it comes to art. Although I realise that my work is pretty low-brow and it's not a timeless aesthetic or patriotic. Like there's a whole heap of great artists from back home that leave and find more success internationally. I feel like it should be the other way around. It's getting better back home though and it's exciting that it's still in it's infancy in terms of opportunity. I moved to Melbourne because I always said I would one day after I first visited about 6 or 7 years ago and loved that it really embraced the whole street art, contemporary art and culture. As a visual person you need to be constantly inspired and absorbing cool shit, and every day on the way to work I'm bombarded by the sweetest street art and its a constant reminder that I need to lift my game. There are plenty of artist run galleries here that will accommodate new artists which is really important.The larger populace in Melbourne is probably the key factor. A wider audience means more diverse tastes.
You touched on social media recently on your blog and you have a big social media following. What role do you see social media playing in the reach and opportunities for artists?
It's pretty crazy, I never once thought I'd be noticed by anybody let alone some of my favorite artists that I used to research back in college for assignments so I am incredibly incredibly honored and humbled by the fact that people enjoy my silly drawings.
Social media is like a double edged sword. I dislike it, but at the same time it's one of an artist's most powerful tools. I often think about giving up on it and going 'into the wild' and finding a small room with some art supplies and being isolated from the world but social media is pretty much unavoidable now so you might as well embrace it. The downside is that social media could affect what you create, because a particular subject or style gets more 'likes' and you become a one trick pony, which is something I never want to become.
The way you portray yourself and use SM is so important in getting your name and work out there these days.. There's probably millions of artists better than me that don't have any internet so are never seen by anyone and when I think about that it makes me feel like a fraud. But by using social media you have the ability to make your work seen by hundreds in an instant, and that's pretty cool. Artists are lucky to be living in this time. Also I think that networking is the worst thing ever, it seems so shallow but if you can connect with people using social media genuinely because you're both really passionate about something it's really great to build up a support crew of people you are inspired by.
You did the album artwork for Lorde's 'The Love Club EP'. Tell us how that came about.
I got the gig through my good friend Hannah that I met while we both worked at an advertising agency a long time ago. We had both since left the company for like two years and randomly bumped into each other and it reminded her that I was doing illustration and she had an exciting secret project that I would be suited for. So I walked into Universal Music and met up with the crew and went from there. It was an awesome brief actually. Best I've had. It was pretty much "we'd like to convey this sort of look but we've got faith in you, go nuts". Thats about the best a brief can get in commercial illustration so I took to it as an art piece rather than a commercial drawing. Once I saw a comment on youtube that said "that album cover is f*cked lol" and that made me laugh a lot. I screenshot it because it's some great honest feedback. Haha. Stoked that Ella is doing really well too. She's a smart talented kid!
How important is it for aspiring artists to put themselves out there?
Very damn important if you are thinking about making pictures for a job in the future! Don't spam your work around to everyone but get out there, take opportunities, but don't work for free either. Risk big, win big.
You've started painting recently, which you clearly have a natural talent for. Is this something you plan to do more of? How different do you find approaching a painting to an illustration?
Thanks! Yeah, I plan to get back to painting which I've really missed because of these few shows this year. I love it, because painting is a continuous struggle for me, I think I enjoy the frustration of not being good as I'd like to be, so it really makes me want to improve so badly I can spend hours in front of a piece at a time. One day at work I couldn't stop thinking about painting so much I couldnt sleep so I stayed up all night and painted until the next day. Colour is also something I've struggled with. The difference in painting for me is that I can't just start drawing autonomously and end up with a acceptable finished piece.. If i applied my drawing style to painting i'd just end up with mess and a shitty composition. You really have to plan a painting out more and add or remove little bits as you go.
Tell us about your personal art collection. Do you have a favourite piece?
I've got a few but not enough! My favorites are by melbourne artists actually , I've got a couple jeremy geddes prints, my fave is 'a perfect vacuum' and also have a few prints by the lovely bec winnel (awesome chick!) a signed copy of kindling by james jean, and a few books from some of my favorite painters like shawn barber and greg simkins. And I have a kozyndan wave print, and a roy lichtenstein one. Apart from that I love art resources and books for study and research!
What is your opinion on collecting artwork?
I think as an artist, it's super important to support the work of people you admire, so that they can keep creating and to keep inspiring others.
How did you first hear about Stupid Krap?
Either through Bec (Winnel), or Matthew from Analogue / Digital? I forget which now. I think it's a really cool initiative and a great way to showcase and support the local art community.
What can we expect to see from Sam Yong in the back end of 2013?
After my trip I'll be hustling to get the rest of my show sorted. November 1st, come to opening night and hopefully the past few months have been worth it! Actually I hope it's all done in time haha. Freaking out a little bit! After that I'll take a very short break and then hopefully start on a new body of work after experimenting a little bit and probably get back into painting.
~ Interview by Aaron Craig.