With “sensual platonic intimacy”, Justin Yoon depicts a high school reunion like you’ve never seen before
After being disappointed by the lack of diverse representation of masc queer Asian men, the New York-based creative produced a series of paintings featuring his own “ridiculously colourful, sensual, campy characters”.
- Olivia Hingley
- 12 July 2022
Looking at Justin Yoon’s paintings, it’s probably no surprise to hear that one of his biggest inspirations is Hollywood movies. His characters’ show-stopper get-ups, and his recreation of smokey, leather-seated underground bars are all nods to a nostalgia for Hollywood charm and decadence. Watching the old-time films on TV late at night when he was younger was “formative” for the artist, a memory he still holds onto dearly today. “It was a fantasy that I’ve always had, but one that I will never be able to visit in real life as it’s all part of the long gone past,” Justin explains, “but it’s somehow all still very alive and vivid to me.”
Alongside his love of the bright lights and star-studded blockbusters, Justin also professes his love for more understated, slow moving features. One of his biggest cultural influences is the director Richard Linklater, whose works include Dazed and Confused and the Before trilogy. Justin admires his work for its ability to “capture a moment in time in one’s life, so casually and romantically without any pretence” and it’s these quiet, “coming of age” moments that Justin wants to depict. It’s these two polar cultural, filmic interests have come together to inform Justin’s ongoing series of paintings, in which his three distinctive characters – Blue Dream, Marge and Fivepoundz – make there way through life, sometimes on the dance floor, sometimes at swarve events, and sometimes simply relaxing in contemplative moments.
The merging of the two influences best comes across in his recent piece You’re Here. Whilst Marge is still in her ballgown, long cigarette in hand and Blue Dream in his muscle-man get-up, they sit atop flimsy deck chairs on a seemingly suburban roof. All turned round, looking toward the viewer head on, Justin wanted to recreate the feeling “when you’re out with friends and you go to get more drinks, or go to the bathroom or something, and you come back and they turn round to say ‘oh, you’re finally here.’” It’s this sense of weird familiarity of such a seemingly insignificant, yet poignant moment that Justin highlights so well. “I think there is something so romantic about capturing these moments with exaggerated imagery, hanging with friends, looking over the sunset, being at the beach, just at home watching TV.”
Growing up in Bundang in South Korea, Justin’s family were always supportive of his creativity. He and his brother would often draw comics inspired by manga and manhwa, as encouraged by their mother who was also an artistic person. Starting to paint when he was in middle school, it was then at high school that he started using the much more technical material of oil paints, as once again encouraged by his parents. Loving to paint as soon as he started, Justin has never stopped and now practices in New York, where he has lived since 2010.
One of the most important themes for Justin to interact with in his work is his gayness, and queerness more generally, especially in relation to Asian men. When immersing himself in visual media when he was younger, Justin recalls never encountering “an Asian gay or masc queer person depicted in an extremely masculine, and queer sensual way without the context of sex, or erotica.” Feeling such a lack of representation pushed Justin to create his own “ridiculously colourful, sensual, campy characters”, that people can resonate with and see themselves within.
Importantly, whilst having a sensual air, Justin is keen to impress that his work is not about “sex, lovers or sexual intimacy”, but is instead about “our own sensual connection and intimacy with ourselves” and “the incredibly romantic notion of platonic intimacy with friends and family that is often ignored.” This summarises the relationship between Blue Dream and Marge, a vital, sensual companionship that breaks the boundaries and perceptions of normative friendship. But, Justin adds, Fivepoundz the shih tzu (who is loosely based on his first dog), is included as the third friend, lacking any sensuality but still the same amount of important, romantic platonic intimacy. “I wanted to create a forever ongoing high school reunion of these three, like in an old TV sitcom, with an episodic series of these ambiguous characters.” And damn, we really do wish we could be part of this dream team.
Justin Yoon: Intermission/ "Lunch at Sunset" Solo show at Anat Ebgi Gallery (Copyright © Justin Yoon, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.