Austyn is a Los Angeles-based artist whose family has roots in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. His art practice encompasses a range of media, including collage, painting, drawing, and textiles. Much of his work is recognizable by its flamboyant use of color, as well as recurring motifs such as pansies, tropical flora, famous people, Caribbean flags, carnival masks, and drag queens. The collages often have floral patterns and fragmented images, and the results range from joyful to grotesque (sometimes at the same time).
Want to know more about Austyn's work? Scroll down to read our interview.*
What made you decide to go to art school and become an artist?
It was a process. I’ve had an interest in art forever, but it wasn’t until college that I started to think of it as a career. I went to community college and sampled a lot of different classes. I considered political science, history, and sociology, but I really fell in love with my art classes. I found a community in my painting classes that really encouraged me to pursue art. That led me to move to Chicago to study at the American Academy of Art, where I earned a degree in oil painting. Then I moved back to California and got my Master of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design.
What is something that you’ve learned either in school or in working as an artist that you think is useful to share with an audience that doesn’t engage with the art world on a regular basis?
One big revelation to me in my art education is that there really isn’t a secret code to looking at art. I think that misconception holds a lot of people back or makes them feel excluded. They walk into an art museum and look at a giant canvas with paint splatter, or a large cement block, and they think “I don’t get it” and move on, or they read the text on the wall that describes it (which is usually incomprehensible bullshit, honestly) and feel bad about themselves because that’s not how they understood the piece. When you come across artwork that looks really weird to you, or that you have no context for, just slow down. Try reading it like a book -- meaning, start at the top left corner (or your best approximation of what the ‘top left’ would be) and describe it to yourself in extreme detail. It can be very simple things: tell yourself the colors you see, the shapes, the materials. Then you can ask yourself what those shapes, colors, or materials remind you of. If you do that, you are engaging with the artwork in a meaningful way, and nine times out of 10, you will leave feeling like you understand that work a little better, even if you still don’t feel like you “get it” completely.
How would you describe your art to someone who has never seen it? In other words, please give us a very basic description of your work: what does it look like, what is it made of, what subject matter will we recognize, what shapes or colors are most noticeable, etc.
My artwork takes many forms because I find myself using different materials at different times. I was trained as a painter, but in grad school I started experimenting with other mediums: installation, textiles, and collage. At this point I consider myself a collage artist, but I still paint and draw too. I would say that what connects my work is a color sensibility, and an approach to compositions. I’m a maximalist, so my work tends to be packed with visual information; I love bright, saturated colors.
Your paintings and collages are very colorful and sometimes flashy. Why is that?
Bright colors are not often associated with “seriousness.” My color palettes are closer to those of a cartoon than a classical work of art. Bright colors are usually associated with disempowered populations: communities of color (especially those from the tropics), queer people, and even children. These are people who are constantly told that they’re being too loud or taking up too much space, or are otherwise asked to become less visible. I, therefore, view my use of loud, garish color as a political statement. Colors that are typically coded as uncritical or overly flamboyant become a celebration of otherness, in which viewers are asked to give themselves in to the overwhelming spectacle of the artwork.
How do you decide whether to make a painting, a drawing, or a collage? Does your choice of medium for a project reflect a specific intent, or is it just a matter of what mood you’re in?
I rarely go into a piece with an intent, to be honest. More often than not, I just start painting or collaging or whatever, and then I think about it when I’m done. I think when artists come up with a message and then make art to convey that message, the resulting work tends to be flat and uninteresting. I believe that everything is political, so I like to make something and then ask, “What are the politics of this thing I made?” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a passive creator, though. I just think my politics come through in the work without me forcing them.
Talk a little about your artistic process, and specifically about the evolution of your practice from mostly painting to mostly collage?
I’m very prolific. I prefer not to work on one piece for too long. Instead, I tend to work in series. I’ll make many similar works quickly to try to figure things out, rather than spending a long time on any one piece. In undergrad, one of my professors noticed that if I worked on one painting for too long, I would get bored and the painting would suffer, so she had me set up multiple canvases. While everyone else worked on one painting, I would move back and forth between three or four. It’s just how my brain works.
When I got to grad school, I started using collage instead of sketching to plan paintings. I would make a collage and then paint the collage, but eventually I stopped painting them. I found that I preferred the speed of working with collage.
Do you ever feel that you are not using the technical skills you worked so hard to develop? Do you worry that people will think you don’t know how to draw and paint?
So, you know how Dr. Seuss would just make up words? But they made sense in the context of his books, because he spoke English well and that gave him a dexterity with the language. He wasn’t concerned with proving that he had good command of the language; instead he used it as a plaything. I view my time studying realist drawing and painting like I was learning a language. Now I use that language to do things that are fun to me. This makes me think of a collage in my First Lady Fiction Series where I gave one of them a tiny head. I thought it was so funny, but the humor came from the fact that I was playing with anatomy, which I know really well -- so I could make the anatomy almost work, just enough to emphasize the absurdness of the image.
Speaking of your First Lady collages, what made you choose First Ladies as your subject, and why did you choose to make collages rather than more formal-looking portraits?
This was a series of works I made in grad school. First Ladies had always been of interest to me, ever since I was a little boy and Hillary Clinton was the First Lady. She was the first one I was really aware of, and the smear campaign against her started when I was coming into my awareness of politics at all. So, it felt like a trajectory that had come to fruition as I was making this work.
The series arose from rigorous discussions with professors and classmates about what images are and how they work. Those conversations are always relevant, especially in art school, but they took on an extra level of urgency at that time because it was 2016-2017, so we were in the middle of the election and regime change to the Trump Administration. So, my art school discussions started to take on relevance in how images function, and how news and propaganda had led to such a catastrophe.
The collages held two main ideas for me. First, I was cutting up the First Ladies and recombining them -- making them into monsters. But the second part was about the original images, which were official White House portraits. I was thinking about how the First Ladies were posed, lit, and portrayed, and what those images were meant to convey about them as people, about the Administrations they represented, and about American imperial power. One of the things I like about collage is that it is a collection of fragments that each retain some amount of information from their original source. So, these images are grotesque and glamorizing at the same time -- a juxtaposition that seems appropriate for such a strange and gendered, demanding but unpaid, ceremonial role.
More recently, you have created a lot of digital collages. Many of them use images that people might consider poor quality because they are very pixilated or blurry. Is that on purpose?
Yes and no. When making collage (digital or physical) you are limited to the images you find, especially when working with historical images. So, it really started from that. But I do sometimes punch up the pixilation in certain parts of the collages. That’s to remind the viewer that this is something created by a person. It calls attention to the process and the sources of information, and makes the reader question the reliability of what they’re looking at. When I am creating an image, I want the viewer to always be aware of how the image was created.
What contemporary or historical artists, or art movements, inspire you or influence your work?
So many. I feel like I could have a different answer to this question on any given day. The first people who come to mind are artists who have mentored me, because they are the voices in my head: Kathrin Burmester, Judie Bamber, Renee Petropoulos, Soo Kim, and Benjamin Weissman at Otis.
I’m extremely influenced by the American Pop Art Movement. (I’m less interested in the European Pop Artists who came first.) The American Pop Art movement really wanted to bash the lines between “high art” and “low art,” and that feels really relevant in my work. I used to joke that Lisa Frank was one of my favorite artists, but now I say it without joking. I don’t see any use in pretending that an artwork is more valuable because it’s in a gallery than if it were in a teeny-bopper magazine (or now-a-days on Instagram).
I’m also interested in the Pattern & Decoration Movement of the 70s and 80s, which was largely made up of women and queer men. Their works mimicked patterns on wallpapers and quilts. This was a response to the male-driven art world of the time, which valued more masculine Modernist work and advocated “purifying” artwork down to its most basic elements. The establishment considered decoration (typically associated with femininity) to be rather frivolous and not intellectually rigorous. This meant that non-Western art, which can be very decorative, was also devalued. (Think of Indian and Iranian carpets, Mexican and Roman mosaics, and Japanese woodblocks -- works often described as "primitive," "exotic," or of course "decorative.") There's a great text by Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff called “Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture” that I use in the Queer Collage class I teach. It talks about the language we use to describe “serious” vs. decorative arts, and how that upholds hierarchies of male art over women's art, and Western art over Non-Western art.
Artists I find myself coming back to over and over are Toulouse-Lautrec and his paintings of the Moulin Rouge, Austin Young’s Tranimals series of photographs, Mary Blair’s early concept art for Disney, and Suzanne Wright’s collages. I could keep going, but I think this is a pretty solid representation of my artistic DNA.
What are some of your inspirations outside of the “Fine Art World?”
Horror movies. I love how formulaic they are. It’s all spectacle. I love how they give you a chance to confront your fears of mortality by playing with the aesthetics and trappings of death. I always find myself wishing that my work took on these aesthetics more, but I do see the connections. I find myself playing with the aesthetics of my anxieties all the time.
I read a lot of queer and feminist theory, and I think that soaks into the work too. Jack Halberstam has been a big influence; he writes about feminism, art, and pop culture in a way that kind of flows effortlessly. Maggie Nelson is another one of my favorites, and she writes autobiographical works that interweave theory.
Some of your recent collages of male nudes are quite explicit. This being a website loosely constructed on the idea of "questions the artist's family might ask," it was tempting to simply avoid discussing these. However, inquiring moms want to know. What are you thinking when you make these works and post them on social media?
Yeah, these are definitely meant to be uncomfortable. They are more influenced by horror than some of the other works. They're about juxtapositions, so the subjects are sitting in between porn (they're from 90s PlayGirl magazines), horror (blood coming from their eyes, Frankenstein stitching, etc.), and trinkets associated with childhood (e.g., stickers and glitter). But I'm also thinking about censorship. So I'll cut out certain body parts but leave a hole in their exact shape, which I think is funny. It's playing with censorship in a very real way because I'm posting on Instagram and testing the boundaries of what I can get away with. It's both literal and metaphorical. On one hand, I'm literally testing the censor, but on the other hand, I'm thinking about how trying to remove something from society (such as an uncomfortable topic like sex, race, or religion) leaves a hole in its place that draws even more attention to it. I really like these works -- I think they're so stupid and funny. I crack myself up with them. I even put a baby on one. And on another one, I covered his privates with a rotten banana.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your work that our questions didn’t cover?
My teaching practice has influenced my work for the better. I work with children all day, and it forces me to really go back to the basics all the time. Kids ask great questions, and they keep you thinking. I think I would have a hard time keeping my artwork fresh if I didn’t have conversations about art every day. Your studio can be a lonely place.
I’m interested in talking to more artists who are doing exciting or relevant work right now, and I think a good way to do that is to ask artists about their friends. Whose work do you love? Who else do you think we should interview, and why?
Lana Licata (@lanalicata on Instagram) is an artist I’ve known for years. We used to take painting classes together from Deborah Davidson at Fullerton College, back when we were both interested in realist painting. Since then, Lana’s practice has evolved into this wild and colorful practice that involves large weavings of found materials, sculptures, as well as a continuation of her drawing practice making whimsical neon drawings of strawberries, gloves, and Snoop Dogg. Her work kind of floats between fine art, craft, and fan art in a really interesting way, and most importantly, it’s just fun to look at. I think humor is underrated in contemporary art.
Oscar Joyo (@oscar_joyo on Instagram) is an artist I went to college with at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. His paintings are really amazing, and I think he has really developed a unique artistic voice in his work over the last couple years. He does portraits of black people that include these really vibrant neon colors and symbols.
Another fabulous artist is my good friend Kristin Moore Nathan (@kdrawstheline_ on Instagram). She’s a landscape painter I met in grad school. She focuses on landscapes between Los Angeles and her home state of Texas, and she’s interested in signage and Americana. Her work has a sort of meditative quality, with beautiful skies that usually take up the majority of the compositions.
*All images on this page are property of the artist, unless otherwise noted.