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Dustin Yellin adds his mark in L.A. with art that's a 'missile for social change'

Dustin Yellin adds his mark in L.A. with art that's a 'missile for social change'
"I'm all about public art, bringing it to the streets, social sculpture," Dustin Yellin says. "I like the bottom-up approach." (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Dustin Yellin is an artist who comes in many guises.

In Vanity Fair last month, Yellin, posing naked but for mismatched socks and eyeglasses at his Brooklyn studio, was presented as the art world's "it boy."

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Other images in the media collage that is his public history: Yellin break-dancing in Jay Z's 2013 performance art video, "Picasso Baby"; the sky-high dollar amounts that his elaborate sculptures command (one installation went for $1.7 million in a private sale at Sotheby's last year); Yellin's romance with actress Michelle Williams; the time in the late '90s when he was accidentally stabbed in the leg by model-actress Bijou Phillips; and the artist's 1999 mental breakdown, which landed him in a psych ward — but not before he recorded the entire episode, ultimately turning it into a performance art video called "The Crack-Up."

Then there's Yellin the nice Jewish mensch, who has brought his 87-year-old Nanna to the Hollywood construction site where his newest sculptural installation will be unveiled on Thursday.

Wearing a faded Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and black jeans, the scruffy-haired 40-year-old takes his Nanna's hand, leans in and asks with a sheepish smile, "What ya think?" Just for today, the brown butcher paper covering the artworks has been removed for a private viewing.

"Oh, it's awesome. I was blown away," Anita Kaplan tells her grandson, before heading home with her caretaker to Westwood.

"OK, bye, Nanna. I'll see you later," Yellin calls after her, waving.

Six Yellin sculptures — towering glass and stainless-steel encasements housing elaborate collages that from afar look like 3-D human forms — were commissioned by Kilroy Realty Corp. for a Hollywood redevelopment project on Sunset Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. The company says that the installation is valued at $1.5 million. The six-building Columbia Square compound, opened in 1938, was for decades the site of CBS' West Coast radio and TV operations. It's now being turned into a $450-million "mixed-use creative campus" with workspaces, retail stores and restaurants. Yellin's towering sculptures occupy the central courtyard facing Sunset.

Each of Yellin's glass monuments — he calls them "psychogeographies" — contains thousands of intricate cutouts from magazines and books, an explosion of cultural, visual detritus arranged on 28 sheets of glass, on which Yellin draws and paints. He then stacks the glass-backed, laminated collages like pancakes, then stands the 16-inch-thick block of glass vertically.

The multicolored cutouts — a pocket watch, a UFO, a Coors beer, a Viking in warrior gear, all orbiting around one another at different depths in the glass — form dystopian human figures that appear to be floating inside tanks of water or frozen in blocks of ice.

"Imagine if I put you between microscope slides and I slowly cranked the vice until you just exploded," Yellin says. "And instead of seeing blood and bones and guts and entrails, I would see your memories, your experiences, your thoughts, your history, your future. All those things would come out in this sort of visual DNA, this roadmap, this architecture of space and matter. That's what these are."

A self-taught artist and high school dropout who grew up in L.A. with his dad and Aspen, Colo., with his mom, Yellin moved to New York in the early 1990s to pursue art. He cites Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Jean Dubuffet, Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst and Hieronymus Bosch as influences, as well as Henry Darger and Robert Rauschenberg. He's also inspired by ancient ruins in far-flung locations such as Machu Picchu, Petra and Angkor Wat.

So it makes sense that his psychogeographies — which when grouped together he hopes conjure the Qin Tomb terra-cotta warriors and horses in Xian, China — are blissfully shot through with contradictions. Depending on the light, they're either shadowy and opaque or translucent and dappled with warm yellows, deep blues and fiery reds. They're both realistic in form and abstract at once, simultaneously conjuring the corporeal human body and a cerebral prism of history and pop culture.

The psychogeographies are part of a series of 120 — he's currently "in the 80-area right now," production-wise. Some are already in the hands of collectors; others have been promised to individuals or institutions but haven't been created yet. The six works on Sunset, which took about a year and a half to create, are different from others in the series because they are site-specific.

Yellin says he responded to the mass media and pop cultural legacy of the site, where the inaugural 1938 broadcast starred Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Cecil B. DeMille. The collages include pictures of Jack Benny, Orson Welles and Bob Dylan, all of whom recorded there, as well as Lucille Ball, who filmed the pilot episode of "I Love Lucy" at Columbia Square in 1951, and James Dean, who once worked there as an usher.

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He also included imagery that evokes the city of Los Angeles. There's a frenetic, almost apocalyptic feel to the collages, with cars racing down crowded freeways, random fires, iconic Hollywood buildings, spindly palm trees and other dry, brittle foliage.

"I paid homage to the site," Yellin says. "But also to L.A. I like the idea that you can keep coming back and finding things in them, a thousand times. This is supposed to be your unconscious. Everyone sees something different."

A big part of what drew CEO John Kilroy to Yellin was the artist's Pioneer Works, which Yellin founded in 2012. Located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Pioneer Works is part exhibition space, part community center where neighborhood kids take classes, part artists' colony offering residencies, and part research hub for art, science and technology.

"We like to think of it as a museum of process," Yellin says. "It's Black Mountain meets MIT Media Lab meets the YMCA" — with parties. Making art accessible and fostering cross-pollination between disciplines are key to Pioneer Works' vision, as is building community. Kilroy says he chose Yellin as much for how he works as for the sculptures themselves.

"I visited him in his studio in Brooklyn, and he had several pieces being assembled for a major showing at Lincoln Center, and it was just so inspiring," Kilroy says. "Dustin's originally from L.A. He's such a young, smart, gifted artist, and I was so impressed with how he nurtures others in the art field and how that really creates a community at his Brooklyn space. His vision was in sync with our project, which has a truly collaborative spirit."

Yellin, who's represented by the Richard Heller Gallery in L.A., says public art is close to his heart, his preferred exhibition arena. "I'm all about public art, bringing it to the streets, social sculpture," Yellin says. "I like the bottom-up approach."

Earlier this year he exhibited 15 of his psychogeographies on the promenade at New York's Lincoln Center as well as 12 sculptures at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center for its annual Art Series. The new L.A. work, however, will be Yellin's first ever permanent — and first outdoor — public installation. Which presented challenges. To protect the outdoor sculptures, they were coated with a material making them resistant to graffiti, scratches and other vandalism, says Deanna Postil Krawczyk of DPA Fine Art Consulting, which connected Yellin and Kilroy.

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The idea of permanence may have been even more daunting to Yellin.

"In the studio, you can change everything; once they're installed, you can't be like, 'Let's move that over to the left or the right,'" Yellin says. "I'm neurotic; so I was like: 'I should have done this bigger or started this higher.' I drove myself crazy."

As the sun begins to fade, and the green canvas construction fence goes back up, hiding the sculptures from view, the psychogeographies — once alive with color — morph into shadowy, sci-fi-like creatures, the human shapes now resembling fossilized forms.

The artist's dad, Ben Yellin, who has also stopped by to view the work, gives him a vigorous rub on the head.

"Who woulda known? That's all I can say," he says of his son's success. "You make papa proud!"

"Bye, Dad. I'll call you later," Yellin says, before adding that much as he's close to his family and likes Los Angeles, he doesn't envision ever returning here to live. "I have genetic interference in L.A.," he jokes.

For a second, waving off his dad, Yellin appears more the 12-year-old kid who was obsessed with geology and found objects and worked in a rock shop called the Crystal Kingdom rather than a celebrity artist.

"This is all pretty natural, though," he says. "I'm still obsessed with found objects, found imagery."

As for the whole "fame thing," Yellin says it's toward a greater cause.

"I'm one of those weird, hippie-bearded-freakazoids who believes my work is a missile for social change," he says. "Part of the draw for me — and I don't know if anyone knows me or what I do, but if they did — is to change things."

He presses his nose up against the glass on one of his sculptures, peering into the explosion of imagery.

"Art brings people together to see the same thing," he says. "And then maybe you can help them sort of galvanize and rally in concert around things like climate change, HIV awareness at the level of the street, the water issue. You can't change the world unless you have a voice."

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