Imin Yeh is an artist I have long admired ever since I saw her woodblock prints at Open Studios at California College of the Arts (CCA) while she was a grad student there. I loved how her prints utilized formal imagery and technique but were also layered with inquiry and humor (Ben-Jams is a perfect example of this).
Yeh is a serious artist but doesn’t take things too seriously. This isn’t to say that her work doesn’t engage in relevant questions about labor, identity, and politics (to name a few of the themes she has explored in her work). But what makes her unique is how she manages to draw us into this world with playful curiosity and a touch of sneakiness that keeps us on our toes.
I hope you enjoy our back-and-forth on printing, craft, labor and what to do in your 30’s.
Susan O’Malley (SO): The first time I saw you work was at Open Studios while you were a grad student at CCA. It was refreshing to see a serious printer in a conceptually driven program that had recently dropped the “Crafts” from its name. What was it like to be a dedicated printer in this program?
Imin Yeh (IY): The campus being split between Oakland and San Francisco paired with an “unofficial” separation of Craft and Art are two things that did make it challenging to be an artist working in a craft-based and facility-heavy medium like printmaking. I remember endless hauls of screens and materials across the bay and also developing a practice where I prepped things for weeks and piled on projects for marathon printing days when I was actually able to make it to the studios. I was also the only printmaker in the entire program for my first year, and of course the rigor of the seminars were weighted towards theory.
Though I remember it being a stressful and challenging time, the resulting few years as a practicing artist in the Bay Area has made me think that the time at CCA was extremely fruitful. The challenges only made me a stronger printmaker. I am not above hand printing with spoons and showering with my screens. These challenges also made me a better artist, because I learned to conceptually and theoretically consider the history and potential of the medium of print far beyond the reaches of “work on paper;” it’s a medium at the intersection of popular literacy, commercialism, and social engagement. My practice now finds itself in exhibitions, residencies, and many opportunities that are not limited to the cannon of printmaking.
In the case of the Juan-Ton Project, the entire inspiration for the work was a real email I received asking me develop a campaign identity for a Latino political candidate that wished to appeal to Asian voters. Instead of taking the gig, I was serendipitously commissioned for a new work at the San Jose Museum of Art. It was one of those magical moments where the art gods smile down upon you and grant you the opportunity to use design and print for humorous and seemingly irreverent commentaries instead of “real” work. The installation included screenprinted posters, screenprinted campaign t-shirts which were sent all over the country, and a vitrine full of hand-painted fake campaign merch. It was important to me to play with the idea of what is easily reproducible vs. what is hand made. We live in a culture where any idea we have can be printed on mugs, mouse pads, and other junk that is manufactured across the world, and those cheap objects validate a real business or a real intention. So sometimes through conceptualizing the potential of the multiple inherent in printmaking, I end up painting “one of a kind” stuff.
SO: I love how you’re so present in the labor of the work. In the day of the digital image, it’s clear your hand is always involved in your prints and projects. Why are you so invested in the physical labor involved in the production and craft of the work?
IY: I really enjoy being industrious. I find repetitive tasks relaxing and I kind of strive for that moment when muscle memory matches up with using the most efficient movements and you can crank through a project. I love seeing how things are made, especially factory tours. Sometimes I go on YouTube benders watching assembly line videos. I find seeing things in rows and rows beautiful. You can psychoanalyze that as much as you want, I think I need help.
There are many reasons I’m so invested in the production and craft: for one, I love print. I love the simplicity of a woodcut, that it’s just wood, ink, paper, and a sharp knife. Doesn’t get sexier than that. People have published books in thousands for thousands of years in this simple manner. I love that I can find myself in rural India and print work to share with people. I also use design and screenprinting to mimic/copy/and counterfeit mass produced objects, and through my position of privilege as an American and educated artist, I can give heightened cultural value to work that is done by invisible labor forces. I am interested in our fascination with things that are hand-made as an analogy for “Good” and “High Quality” and “Authentic.”
Also I don’t have enough money to pay someone else to do it, I’m the cheapest labor I’ve got.
SO: Let’s talk about the various interventionist institutions you have founded – like the Art of Downloadable Craft, a website with free downloads which seem to be intended for the bored cubicle worker everywhere as well as your more recent SpaceBi, an unauthorized contemporary art center within the Asian Art Museum. Both projects play with humor but also comment on and disrupt cultural and social institutions and systems. What do you hope to instigate with these kinds of ventures?
IY: Both projects are about reclaiming time and are exercises in finding loopholes for creativity. The Art of Downloadable Craft is a way for office workers to make crafts by stealing paper and supplies from their offices. The most ambitious project, a downloadable mah-jong set, is 100% free but you have to take the time to build the set, which takes about 15 hours. Its a game from the computer that is 100% analog. I like how once you reinvest that amount of labor into something that is free (ie stolen cheap copy paper) it is suddenly worth a lot more to you. It’s very hard to throw away a mahjong set that took you 15 hours to fold. SpaceBi invited artists to think about the museum as a space to create new work. Instead of going to the museum because the exhibition on view is compelling enough for you to spend 17 dollars, artists just created new, weird, funny works using the museum and it’s collection as a backdrop. Both projects were exercises in the freedom you have when you are unofficial, tiny little acts you do that don’t break any rules, but also don’t follow rules either.
- SO: That’s awesome. You are a woman who wears many hats – you are an artist, teacher, designer… and you just turned 30 (happy birthday, btw)! I know you have many projects going on right now (which would be great to hear about…) but I’m curious, what is one thing you dream of doing in the next decade of your art making?
IY: So many things are happening right now! I have a big project coming up at the Asian Art Museum for the final installation of the Proximities series. I am doing an installation at Shotwell Paper Mill. I am helping the amazing Michael Namkung for an amazing exhibition on fatherhood. I will be in a few big exhibitions as part of the SGC International Printmaking Conference which comes to SF in March. A few more projects that aren’t ready to be discussed.
If my 30s are anything like my 20s, I hope I get a bit more sleep and find a way to prioritize the relationships I have in my life… but I know one thing I dream of doing. When I was 20, I received a fellowship to travel to China for 7 months and research contemporary Chinese Art. It was there that I first saw woodblock prints from the modern Chinese Woodcut movement and committed myself to being a practicing studio artist. I would like to return to China for work related to being an artist and not a tourist or researcher. That is what I would love to do!
SO: I’m looking forward to seeing what you do in your 30’s.