The Art World’s It Boy Reveals His Creative Process

Eccentric Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin creates 3-D optical illusions that look like Body Worlds of pop culture ephemera.

Dustin Yellin, a 40-year-old Brooklyn artist who has posed naked for Vanity Fair, dated Michelle Williams, and billed as the art world’s next “it boy,” is a fun guy to interview. Over the phone, he asked me if I thought God had fuzzy bunny ears, and thought that after you died, you went to a level-select screen, like in some giant cosmic video game. Talking to him is like being dropped into a kaleidoscope where references to art, pop culture, and the metaphysical all sort of swirl in explosions together.


In other words, Yellin, the person, is a lot like the six new figures he has put on display outside of the six-building Columbia Square Compound in Hollywood, which was for decades the headquarters of CBS’s West Coast operations. He calls them Psychogeographies, and although they resemble three-dimensional figures from afar, their volume is actually an optical illusion, created by sandwiching cuttings from magazines, photographs, and books between up to 28 distinct layers of glass. Yellin thinks of them as colorful explosions of humanity, like a Body Worlds sculpture, except instead of bone, blood, and guts, he uses a person’s thoughts, emotions, fears, and pop-culture fascinations.

Yellin has made about 80 Psychogeographies to date. Helped by a team of assistants, each one starts with some almost stream-of-conscious spitballing from Yellin. “I’ll create some crazy multi-dimensional narrative that will live within the vessel,” he says. “I might say, this one’s going to have two heads, and both heads will telepathically be communicating with each other by this tendril of thought, and I want there to be a seascape inside the chest cavity, made up of Roman and pre-Columbian artifacts, and small children falling into the sea.”

To make these ideas a reality, Yellin has an extensive cutting room, with a “taxonomy of drawers” which file away pre-clipped images and photos; there are drawers for humans, mushrooms, trees, plants, African artifacts, icebergs, and so on. After finding all the proper images, Yellin and his team spend months arranging them on slides of glass, then fit them together until they create the illusion of a 3-D figure, trapped within a tank.

Although Yellin’s design process sounds scattershot, many of his Psychogeographies have focused themes. A recent installation Yellin did for The Kennedy Center contained 12 figures, originally exhibited by the New York City Ballet, all arranged in 12 poses. And for the Columbia Square Compound, all six Psychogeographies on display were all created with Tinseltown ephemera, including cutouts of the Lone Ranger, Orson Welles, and Bob Dylan, among other. “I snuck into these explosions of consciousness all these different attributes that correlate to the landscape of Hollywood, a city that’s going to eventually fall into the sea, and which is the strange environment which creates all these movies in our lives,” he says.

Yellin has no intention to stop making Psychogeographies any time soon, telling me he eventually hopes to top out at 120. Why 120? Here, the sly businessman behind the eccentric artist slips into the conversation. “It’s arbitrary,” he admits. “But I’m hedging my bets that if I make 120, I’ll get at least 48 back from installations and exhibitions at the end of the day, which will be enough to take this show on the road.”