Artist Dustin Yellin Reimagines Amtrak’s Map
We asked the art-world phenomenon to get creative with the the national route system
Calling Dustin Yellin a sculptor is like calling Jacques Cousteau a scuba diver. The 42-year-old polymath is equal parts art-world phenomenon, incurable visionary and cultural impresario, whose category-defying work can only be properly appreciated in person. Sitting in the control-room style office on the second floor of his Red Hook, Brooklyn, studio, he’s surrounded by stray issues of National Geographic, a 19th-century hunting rifle mounted on a wall and a brown python skin unfurled above him like a scroll. “I’m always traveling,” Yellin says. “I’ve got the Magellan gene. I don’t believe in countries, though. I just believe in exploring.”
In his vast warehouse studio below, a swarm of 20 assistants busily assemble his photomontage-style sculptures, in which cutouts from books, magazines and other printed ephemera are interleaved between sheets of glass to create fantastical, three-dimensional tableaux. Those include his Psychogeographies, a series of 15 figurative silhouettes for an exhibition at New York City Ballet’s theater at Lincoln Center (he’s now made 100) and a newer “quadriptych” seascape that conjures the worlds of Bruegel and Bosch (and Monty Python). For each of these pieces, his source material comes from a library filled with eclectic visual scraps—mushrooms, icebergs, smokestacks, insects, geodes. “It’s like an internet of paper,” Yellin says. “I’m painting with the detritus of the world.”
In the building’s cavernous recesses, he reveals his interpretation of Amtrak’s route map, which an assistant is sandblasting to smooth its surface. Behind the smoky layers of thick glass is a work that’s less pastiche than his collages, apparently more straightforward. Yet by placing the route lines on different plates of glass, Yellin has lent them an unexpected depth, like the neural pathways in a CT scan of the country. “I have a thing for maps right now,” he muses. “I make maps every day in my mind.”
Next door, a hive of other creative minds are mapping pathways of their own at Pioneer Works, a multidisciplinary, nonprofit culture center Yellin founded in 2012 in a Civil War–era ironworks plant that he brought back from the dead through years of careful restoration. The colossal, 27,000-square-foot space is home to a think tank, a research lab, a recording studio, a press for Yellin’s magazine and at least 15 artists and technologists with studios in residence—not to mention a rotating cast of rock stars, collectors, downtown cognoscenti and cool kids who show up for its regular concerts, exhibitions and parties. On any given day—or night—you might glimpse Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal, Harmony Korine or Zac Posen, or art giants like Damian Loeb and Cindy Sherman in the garden courtyard with David Byrne. But the luminaries are just a by-product. At its core, Pioneer Works is a home base for Red Hook’s white-hot creative community, with Yellin as master of ceremonies. Art historians may one day look back on the whole experiment and call it the Red Hook School.
For all the activity swirling around him, Yellin remains a remarkably prolific creator of his own art. Scores of pieces line his studio walls—intricate assemblage scenes of battleships, farms in outer space, preparatory drawings for a giant panorama of parallel worlds flowing into the center like waterfalls. “I think of myself as a frozen filmmaker,” he says. “Each of these works is like a storyboard.” And most of them are are untitled for now. “If I was going to be a writer, then I’d name them,” he says, flashing a smile. “I used to want to be Pablo Neruda. I change my mind every day.”