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Artistic Activism & Self-Expression: An Interview With Lauren YS

Powerful, otherworldly feelings emanate from every painting lovingly crafted by Lauren YS. Their work transports you into the far reaches of the cosmos, thrusting you into ethereal worlds filled to the brim with bright florescent colours and filling your senses with a sensual, psychedelic experience. Although their work often feels alien and far removed from our little blue planet, Lauren YS connects viewers with this world, especially when exploring the female form and experience. Their art radiates strength, beauty and is unafraid to show its true self, creating a sacred experience meant for the female gaze.

Lauren-YS-Stop-Asian-Hate-Crimes

Lauren YS (they/them) is a Los Angeles-based queer artist whose work is heavily influenced by a variety of subjects including sex, dreams, mythology, death, animation, comics, psychedelia, and their Asian American heritage. In 2013, Lauren graduated with a BA in English and Art Practice at Stanford University and has worked with a wide range of clients over the years including Magic: The Gathering, Mighty Jaxx, Budweiser, Midori, and KAABOO Music Festival. They are a jack of all trades with their creativity and have dabbled in every creative endeavor from writing and academics to tattooing and animation. However, their main specialty is mural and fine art work as they often find themselves gravitating towards mediums including spray paint, acrylic, gouache, pen and ink to create their next piece.

There are a lot of things I can’t say, express or even feel in everyday life, and the challenge of translating these ideas into paint is always deeply intimidating and rewarding.

Interview with Lauren YS

How would you describe your work in three words?

Fluid.
Narrative.
Otherworldly.

Your work is absolutely brilliant; one of the pieces that has really stuck with me is your “SanXing” installation, which is so visually rich and stimulating. I’d love to hear more about the development of this piece and how it came to fruition.   

Thank you so much! Since this piece is particularly heavy on subtext, I’m going to share here my artist statement, then discuss more about the development aspect below.

Entitled “SanXing,” this sculpture is the artist’s triplicate homage to ancestors; layered identities; cycles of being and the feminine narrative.

Traditionally, Fu, Lu and Sau, the “SanXing” or “three stars” deities are a trio of philosophers representing the three attributes of a good life – namely Prosperity, Influence and Longevity. Traditionally depicted as robed, bearded men toting indicia of their respective realms, the SanXing can often be found as ceramic sculptures perched on the mantel of traditional Chinese households – the artist’s grandmother’s home included. With the intent to subvert somewhat antiquated ideals, Lauren reimagines the SanXing as femme-presenting proprietors of updated contemporary values: namely, Knowledge, Self-Actualization and Passion.

Crowned by a three-faced head, the sculptures also profess references to triple-goddess iconography (Maiden, Mother and Crone) – an archetype of Neopagan traditions – and the three realms of being (Heaven, Earth and the Underworld) typified by Bosch’s renowned triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

The plinths supporting each rotating wheel are reminiscent of Chinese ancestral altars, traditionally installed in the homes of the living for families to commune with their forebears. Each wheel is comprised of two moving parts, layered to move in tandem or in opposition. Designed to model the dual energies of each of the SanXing, these rotating layers also evoke the idea of multiple souls, known as Hun and Po, commonly associated with yang and yin. Upon death, Hun and Po are said to separate – Hun ascending, and Po remaining on earth with the families of the dead. “SanXing” was fabricated by Louis Jensen (@sprayingbricks), Lauren’s collaborator.

Making this piece was an interesting challenge; we basically ideated the concept at an artist residency in Hilo, Hawaii, run by the Temple Children collective. I was playing with ways to try to make my paintings move, as my characters often intertwine in static space, and I wanted them to somehow overlap and weave together in a more literal bid to create writhing narrative. I had already been working on circular layouts, so when I described this idea to Louis, he worked out a way to physically layer the pieces so that they would peek in and out of each other. We made the prototype over 3 days with entirely reclaimed wood, and then a year later when the pandemic hit, decided to try building new pieces with the same layout, but with a lot more finish. I would not have been able to create this piece without Louis’ technical brilliance and creative ingenuity.

You utilise and experiment with various art mediums, do you have a favourite that you find yourself always going back to? 

My main love will always be painting murals. There’s something really intoxicating about being outside in a new location, on the streets, listening to your favourite music in a massive machine making art on a large scale. Navigating visual space at scale is an extremely challenging and powerful process, and I find it allows me to synthesize all of my senses at the same time – colour, calculation, technique, improvisation, responses to weather and wind, world-building, colour theory, physical stamina, light, style, all of it – feels like a form of meditation that is bold and loud and deeply personal all at the same time. Whatever they call the “flow state” that’s what I tap into when I’m painting murals. It’s really a full body kind of experience, and when tied in with travel and getting to bond with a new community and leave something big behind is really powerful and fulfilling for me. I am known for dancing while I paint, which is dangerous and fun. I hope I can continue painting murals my entire life.

Are there any art mediums you haven’t tried out yet that you’d like to explore in the future?

I have a ton of hobbies I’ve started to learn but never find time to get deeper into. I’d really love to get into silversmithing so I can make my own jewellery! I’ve started tattooing as well, which I really enjoy but need to eke out some more time to practice. I also started getting into Chinese knot-tying (enough to run a workshop), and I was really into printmaking during college – specifically lithography. I suppose I have this dream of finding a space in the forest where I can pursue all these other crafts and become an old Asian man, haha. Aside from that, sewing, welding, wheatpasting, sculpting, ceramics, woodworking, animation, and my first true love – writing.

Before the “Stop Asian Hate” mural, I rarely painted such direct messages, as I generally like to suggest meaning in more subtle ways, but the advent of the shooting in Atlanta made me feel as though I needed to shout with every tool available to me – to send a message that is as pointed and intentional as I could possibly muster.

Who are some of your favourite brands when it comes to art supplies? 

I’m a big fan of the Japanese Holbein gouache line, as the colours are excellent and I have a real lust for super opaque paint (I suppose that comes from working with spray paint and wanting to replicate its properties on canvas.) My preferred spray paint is German Montana (Montana black) and Astro fat caps combined with banana caps. For drawing, I generally just use soft mechanical pencils, Microns and when I’m feeling fancy, the Pentel pocket brush pen. I have used Moleskine notebooks for most of my life and have a huge stack of them in my studio, which are the first things I’d grab if my house were on fire.

Do you have any particular pieces which you are most proud of? If so, which ones are they and why? 

I’m the kind of artist who is sort of always unhappy with my work, which some say is a sign of self-torture, and others say is a sign of a good artist. Generally, it means that I always obsess over how I could’ve done something better, which does keep me motivated in a masochistic kind of way. It does make it easier to work in a medium that is ephemeral in a way. But I do have some favourites that I am still very happy with, whether it’s because I managed to communicate my intention with the right amount of restraint, or I used the wall space in a way that I found effective, or the memory of that piece is still so powerful in my mind. In terms of murals, I’m very fond of “Swamp Baby” in Long Beach, the portrait of my grandparents in Chinatown, Honolulu, the “Witch Doctor” mural that I painted at the Bishop Museum, and the “Finding Home” mural I completed at the Yale Asian American Center last year. All pieces carry very important messages and memories for me, and I hope the communities surrounding them love them like I do.

In terms of paintings, I’m very proud of the large painting “Lisi from Sau Lan” from my last show at Heron Arts, as it was an homage to my late grandmother and a real challenge. I love the latest paintings I’ve been making too, as I’ve been experimenting with monochrome and feel I’ve been able to hone back into light, atmosphere and world-building by limiting my colour palette. But every time I make a painting that I feel I wish I could hold onto, I just tell myself – gotta make something better.

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of making art?

I just think it’s really cathartic to constantly try communicating these internal stories in visual form. There are a lot of things I can’t say, express or even feel in everyday life, and the challenge of translating these ideas into paint is always deeply intimidating and rewarding. For example, the concept for “Witch Doctor” came to me about 6 years ago – I had this sort of vision come to me of a mythic femme-sage archetype sitting deep in the back of a magic marketplace, some sort of Asian village filled with items designed for witchcraft and wisdom, and the character was just surrounded by all these cabinet-of-curiosities items that you could go deeper and deeper into and never see the same thing twice. For many years, I had this image in my head and I believe I was processing this love and memory and veneration for matriarchs in my culture, which became even more intense after I lost my grandmother. I was always afraid to try to create this image as it seemed so challenging, but finally during the pandemic I sat down to try to make it a reality, and I don’t know if I did it justice, but just the process of trying to finally create that image was so fulfilling for me. So many memories and symbols from the past years surfaced during that process to remind me of their importance and contribute richness to the composition. I felt I was reaching back into myself. I think that’s the real reason I create.

My main love will always be painting murals. There’s something really intoxicating about being outside in a new location, on the streets, listening to your favourite music in a massive machine making art on a large scale.

What is the most challenging part of your creative process?

I think expanding into new mediums always has a level of intimidation to it. Sometimes it can be painful to feel like you’ve mastered something, only to take on a new medium and then feel like you’re completely back at square one. But that’s the fun of it. For example, I’m currently developing a proposal for an installation that would fill an entire room, and there’s full freedom for all kinds of work – sound, light, interactivity, smell, touch, etc. As someone whose approach has only consisted of flat, contained 2D spaces, I’m feeling a little insecure about my ability to expand into the third dimension, and I have to try to talk myself down from feeling insecure and instead lean into the excitement of a new challenge. We are all our worst enemies when it comes to these stages of ideation, but it feels even better when you’re able to pull something off because you put yourself
somewhere out of comfort.

You use art to help spread awareness on important topics such as fighting hate and prejudice but your work also feels like a reflection of yourself. Would you say your art is both a form of self-expression as well as a message for others? 

Yes, I would definitely say so – I think it’s so important for an artist who wants to make political statements to also have a deeply invested stake in the matter. For me, of course, I speak the loudest about matters that affect my kin and communities, so when I’m shouting and fighting it is also from a deep, blood-red part of my soul. I imagine my family and friends, my queer kin, and my BIPOC community, because what affects them also affects me. So much of mutual aid and advocacy means that you see the community as a part of you, and vice versa, so we are all reflecting off of each other.

Before the “Stop Asian Hate” mural, I rarely painted such direct messages, as I generally like to suggest meaning in more subtle ways, but the advent of the shooting in Atlanta made me feel as though I needed to shout with every tool available to me – to send a message that is as pointed and intentional as I could possibly muster. It’s such an inexplicably painful feeling, to see videos of people who look like you or your family members being hurt; and so hard to feel so helpless to do anything. I truly hope that my murals that carry more direct messages will both inspire onlookers to think twice about their roles as allies and protectors, and to never, ever fail to take action if they witness injustices being committed – or anyone being hurt, at that. In my vision of the future there are no bystanders.

We are all our worst enemies when it comes to these stages of ideation, but it feels even better when you’re able to pull something off because you put yourself somewhere out of comfort.

Lauren-YS-Mona

I have always loved murals and street art and find it a captivating art form but the sheer scale of them seems so intimidating, how do you go about planning your work on such large canvases? 

I always start with a sketch, just line art to get the general concept down. Sometimes these can honestly just be scribbles, just to work out what kind of composition will work with the wall space and the messaging I’m trying to get at. I will rework the sketch until it feels like it’s working, and then depending on how much time I have, I will either do a coloured render on my iPad or work out a general colour scheme that I can then submit as a paint order. In situ, I will always freehand an outdoor mural (with the exemption of the mural at Yale, which required a projector to allow the brick underlayer to come through perfectly). I usually try to pick a colour I won’t be painting much with to paint the sketch, and refine the sketch on the wall until it looks right, just like sketching on a page. This part is the most fun as trying to capture your sketch on a large scale presents such a fun challenge every single time. I will then start laying colours in, and basically just battle it out from then on – I tend to jump around a lot, working whatever part of the piece feels most fun at the time, and I will often improvise elements or add details as the piece speaks to me. I have learned to start with faces, though, as that requires the most focus (if a face feels off the whole piece will fail) and you want to tackle that when you have the most energy. Generally a mural will take me 2-5 days, after that, I am probably dragging it out a bit too long. I like to work hard, fast, long days, and I don’t like coming down from the lift. It is my happy place. :)

Have you had any particularly powerful feedback or reactions from the people who’ve seen your murals? 

I’ve had some really beautiful responses from individuals and community about murals like the “Stop Asian Hate” (Chinatown LA) and Yale murals. I had an amazing group reach out to preserve the Chinatown mural and plan a lion dance to celebrate the piece, which was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had. I also think I had some pretty strong responses from people in Santa Cruz, I think because I painted a gimp-suit mermaid wrapped in chains. My original mural design evolved a lot while I was painting – sometimes that happens – as I was responding to a lot of the visual culture I encountered while there, and had a lot of interesting chats with locals who told me about how Santa Cruz used to be more punk and subculture. I was definitely encouraged to get more weird, and you know me, I am literally just waiting for permission like that. I think a lot of people there appreciated these nods to subculture while still making political statements about ocean issues. There was also
the piece I painted in St. Petersburg Florida for a reggae festival, where I painted a character with burning cop cars for earrings. That was when I found out that somehow most of the people in Florida still do not know what ACAB means. The cops did not like that one.

Chinese mythology is a big part of your work, do you have any particular stories, characters or mythological creatures that you are especially drawn to? 

I’ve been having the best time researching Chinese mythology – there is just an endless wealth of material to mine. I am generally drawn to narratives that involve monsters and some kind of moral that I feel resonance with, it has to feel like a story I can climb into and tell in my own words. Generally, I like to look at ways myths will present stories of gender and power – I love for example the mythology of Xiwangmu, or Queen Mother of the West, who was born in a cave with tiger teeth, then rose ranks to be rule of her realm, and retained more power than her male counterparts. Throughout her life, she always promoted women, which is rare in Chinese history, and acted as a sort of protectorate of the femme. I love this mythology as it has both ideological resonance as well as a ton of rich visual information to translate through my style. There are also myths that are just really fun to take on, like the “Jiangshi,” or Chinese hopping vampire. I have a list of Chinese deities and entities that I hope to continue illustrating in my next body of work.

Bold and vivid colours are also a huge theme in your work, how do you approach your colour palettes when starting a new piece?

I have a sort of “home” palette that is a field of colours that I’ve gravitated towards and gotten to know very intimately over the years. I think they come from my love of animation, desert and seascapes, psychedelic art and sort of neo-futuristic Asian art (in a super generalized sense: blue, pink, green, and all of their off-tones.) For some reason, I usually avoid super primary versions of colours, and orange. Lately, I have been trying to limit my palettes in order to let certain colours tell a story and not suffocate each other. When planning a piece I will often try to hone into the visual personality of whatever city I’m painting in – for example painting a piece in Santa Cruz brought me a lot of surf-punk vibes, a lot of pinks and turquoises – and then build a palette off of that. But to be honest a lot of times I will order a palette and then improvise the piece with what I have on the spot. I really love the excitement of developing a piece in situ and working with colour theory within the
restrains of what I have.

You’re given the opportunity to collaborate with any creative mind, living or dead, who would you collaborate with and why?

I’m gonna have to say Bjork. Not only to engage with one of the most pioneering and brilliant female artists alive, but also just to hug her.

When you’re not working on art, what do you get up to?

Ah man, this is assuming I’m ever not working on art, haha. I really love wandering around Chinatown and exploring weird parts of LA. Like have you ever been to the Museum of Jurassic Technology? If not, go. Otherwise I am trying to write more, or get into bizarre projects with my roommates. I also dedicate a lot of time to a project I run with my girlfriend, it’s an Instagram platform featuring artists who are both Queer and BIPOC, and we often give out microgrants. I really believe in mutual aid and trying to take up space as intersectionally disadvantaged folk in a world that is so predominantly white/cis/male, so we felt creating a space for these creators was a good first step. The account is @squidtropica, if you want to check it out and/or send us recommendations!

I’ve heard that you love travelling, what’s your dream destination?

I really want to go to Mongolia. I have a deep desire to hold a golden eagle on my arm while riding a horse. Other than that: Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bali, Korea, The Philippines, Tahiti, and Area 51, and anywhere else full of moss and mushrooms.

Are there any exciting projects lined up for 2022 that you can share with our readers?

I’m currently at work on my next big solo show, which will be at Mirus Gallery in Denver, my hometown. I am also planning a big installation at a special location in Santa Fe, so keep your eyes out!

Lauren YS Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | Facebook

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