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September 29, 2023

The Interview | Grant Yun

The artist reveals how everyday life is shaping digital art to Jason Bailey
Credit: Grant Yun, En Route, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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The Interview | Grant Yun
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

As a digital illustrator who has come to prominence in the aftermath of the NFT, Grant Yun is in many ways a model of the modern crypto artist. Renowned for his striking visions of the American landscape, Yun’s scenes from everyday life express both the hermetic reality of digital experience and the longing for a natural alternative. In all their disquieting stillness, series like “California” and “Midwest” depend on the same simple geometries and smoothly polished surfaces associated with the original Precisionists. They also seamlessly absorb the visual codes of Edward Hopper and Ed Ruscha, flirting with nostalgia for heavy industry in an age of climate catastrophe.

As one of fifteen artists selected to launch the MoMA Postcard, Yun’s own brand of “outsider” art has clearly reached escape velocity. Here, he tells his story to Jason Bailey.

Grant Yun, By The Ocean., 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Jason Bailey: Could you share some detail about how your work is created, from ideation to collection? 

Grant Yun: Over the past few years, I’ve been refining how I work. I illustrate from my personal experiences. 

The art has to be “selfish” — it has to be for me first and then, if you appreciate it as a viewer, it’s fine by me. 

Much of my art is focused on my childhood experiences, places I’ve visited, or a location that has inspired me. My life’s philosophy is to appreciate every moment, which might come from this perpetual existential crisis I’m sure many artists have, especially in the 21st century. I try not to take things for granted, so I appreciate the environment that I’m in. With my art, I conceptualize things that are commonplace and that resonate with me. When creating a composition or a collection, I try to work in series. I always consider how I can fit an illustration into the context of my bigger message. 

If I drive to work or if I’m on a train or plane, I take source material on my iPhone or DSLR. I operate on a scale from the most minimal to the point where it’s almost photorealistic depending on the message I want to share with people. So, in recent works, it’s been more hyperrealistic because I want to share a more relatable message. Maybe in the past, it’s been more minimal because of how I felt or what the collection meant to me at the time. I have thousands of photos on my phone that I mash together — I think of my art as both collage and illustration at the same time.

Grant Yun, Midtown, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

As a kid, I told my parents that I wanted to be a photographer. Over the years, I’ve taken lots of photos, but I probably need to work on my photographic skills. I don’t feel comfortable sharing or selling that work, but instead use my photographs to create compositions, mixing and matching in a collage style, and then alter every part of the composition to my will. I do my pieces in Adobe Illustrator, so they’re all [built from] vector [graphics] using the “shapes” and “layers” tools, which is how old video games were created.

I also have a rudimentary understanding of Blender and Procreate, and I know how to use my hand to illustrate, but I come back to this way of illustrating over and over again. 

There are a lot of artists who illustrate in a similar way to me. [Illustrator] is a vector-based platform, and many people deploy the “shapes” tool and very similar techniques. [But] from the technique to the vision to the composition, I think I’ve created something unique and special for me. 
Grant Yun, Laundry, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

JB: I’ve read that you started with PowerPoint. Is your use of Illustrator an evolution of that?

GY: 100%. I took the “shapes” tool from PowerPoint, which involves a square, triangle, and circle whose colors you can change on a color wheel. There are no layers — you just have different slides. I would work on a single layer and stack shapes but it didn’t allow me to manipulate each corner like Adobe Illustrator. It was a puzzle trying to create interesting silhouettes and convincing shapes [but] I would never sit down for a tutorial or anything. 

JB: Osinachi, who is a well-known crypto artist, actually only had access to Microsoft Word in the beginning, but he developed a unique style because of the constraints of the program. Is your aesthetic defined by the same kinds of restrictions?

GY: I have tried to learn about art by going to museums and galleries. While I don’t have a formal education in art history, I do have my own idea of what it means to create good art and compelling compositions. It’s easy for me to say these things now that I’ve created a framework for myself and a confident style that I’m happy to share with people. 

If I’d had formal training, I probably would have been influenced to pursue a specific way of creating art. Today, I’m more resistant to that.
Grant Yun, American Grid, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Some people might get offended if you call them an illustrator. How do you think about terms like “illustrator” and “artist”? Are they interchangeable for you? Do we need to make a distinction?

GY: I have been trying not to downplay my accomplishments. If someone who is not on Twitter asks me: “what do you do?” I just tell them I draw or that I like to do art or illustrations. A while ago, Beeple said in an interview something along the lines of: “I don’t consider myself an artist; I think of that word as pretentious.” He is a big inspiration for me, both as an artist and in the way he carries himself. 

If Beeple — the poster boy of crypto art — doesn’t care about the title “artist” or “illustrator,” then I don’t really care either. I use those words interchangeably and I don’t really think too much about it. 

However, I do stay away from saying that I draw because, on one occasion, I said: “This is a drawing,” and it made the front page of Reddit. All the comments said: “this is not a drawing, this is a digital whatever.” I guess I can’t please everyone on Reddit.

Grant Yun, Truckstop Diner, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: How has it been for you as you’ve grown in popularity over the last year or two? I’m sure it’s a mix where you have far more people who really love what you do, but how do you cope with a blend of feedback?

GY: I genuinely want my colleagues to be successful, so the posts I make on Twitter and my comments supporting artists, collectors, and specific people are genuine. I am a big proponent of Art Blocks and this movement but, at the same time, I’ve done my best to refrain from arguing with people. If someone holds a different opinion than I do, it’s better to ignore negative comments for the most part. I’ve seen comments here and there that are subtly negative, but I’ve never had anyone attack me or the things I do or the way I illustrate. I’d like to keep it that way and just be a positive person. 

JB: With this new wave of artists, including the generative artists on Art Blocks, a lot of the popular work references 20th-century paintings. But I’d argue the same applies to some of your own work. Right now, it feels like there’s a desire on the part of both artists and collectors to return to painting, even though we have new tools and a new set of social circumstances for this generation.

GY: It’s simply an exposure thing — not many people know of postmodern art. It’s easier to just wrap your head around art from the turn of the 20th century than from the 21st century [when] art has become extremely esoteric, and the definition of “good” art depends on being part of a club with different tiers.

While artists of the digital age have access to new tools, they also try to recreate works from the past that people look at in museums and galleries. I appreciate industry-based digital artists coming in and having a voice of their own with NFTs, creating art that is specific to the 21st century like video game and movie art. You don’t see that in the art world. 
Grant Yun, American Gothic, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: There’s this level of excellence in your art and in your dancing, while you’re also going to med school. There’s usually a motor for someone with your accomplishments that pushes them to be above average. Where does that come from? How does it shape your conception of the kind of artist you want to be?

GY: My dad, for better or for worse, is a workaholic. I really respect what he does — he was an engineer at Intel when I was a kid, before moving into the management side of tech; so there’s a reason why I was in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. 

When I became an adult, I realized that I wanted to take my art seriously. It dawned on me that the harder you work, the more likely you are to have a chance of success. Socially, I’m fairly easy-going, but when it comes to activities, there’s this little thing in my head that tells me I have to work harder than the next person. I didn’t have good grades through elementary and middle school [but] my mom always told me to work twice as hard as the next person. Sometimes it is a competition against someone, which I’ve mostly experienced in a dance context. But, most of the time, it’s a competition against myself. My biggest fear is that I’ll become bored with whatever I do. Those are the times when I’m the most miserable. 

I would rather struggle with 3,000 deadlines than sit for a few days and do absolutely nothing. 
Grant Yun, Starry Night Over Sausalito, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: It seems like a goal of yours is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Many artists are trying to make a bold statement that, almost by necessity, offends or ostracizes some group in order to wear it as a badge of their artistry. In trying to appeal to a broad group of people, are there any trade-offs or sacrifices you have to make in terms of your artistic vision, or does your vision naturally appeal to a broad audience?

GY: I’m very opinionated as a person, and those opinions I’ll keep to myself, my family, and close friends. When it comes to speaking your mind and being opinionated about a topic, I respect the artists who can do that, whether in a Tweet or through their art. I respect those people because, frankly speaking, I’m not brave enough to do that. My goal is not to make anyone mad, even if the trade-off is that I might not make as big of an impact. And that’s completely fine. 

My art is definitely more palatable to people who know nothing about art. Someone who just walked into a museum or a gallery could totally look at my art and be more attracted to it than even a [work by Willem] de Kooning. 

You can look at my art and understand what it means, or at least think you understand what it means. That’s just part of my easy-going nature. My life, as with anyone else’s life, is pretty mundane on a day-to-day basis. You drive to work, which might take five or ten minutes. It’s probably pretty boring, and you do it daily. Those are the little moments that I want to highlight. My art can be pretty deep, but it can also be extremely matter of fact depending on who’s looking at it. I want my art to be accepted by any group of people.

Grant Yun, Fall, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What with your going into medicine, does your art have a potentially healing quality for you as well as your audience? Your color palette seems almost to invite that analysis.

GY: I minored in religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, which was eye-opening. If I went back, I would major in it. There’s a policy around here where every hospital bed has to have a window, and I think that is specifically for the sake of mental well-being. I started creating a lot of my art to donate to hospitals, which I have done over the past couple of years. I printed my digital art, framed it, and then I would make a donation to a particular hospital. 

My “Midwest” series was intentionally created because I wanted people who lived in Wisconsin to connect with their surroundings while they were in hospital. 

There’s a part of my art that is subconsciously pleasing because it is a homage to nature, and no matter how technologically evolved we get, we’ll still have this connection to vegetation and the color green. Art can attract people’s subconscious before the conscious — that’s what I want. 

Grant Yun, The Last Supper, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

JB: There’s something uniquely American about your art. And I think it goes beyond the artists that inspire you, who tend to be American painters from the 20th century. This digital NFT world is global and borderless, and you are well-traveled, both inside and outside of the US. How much of this nostalgia and Americanness is intentional? 

GY: One of my favorite authors is John Steinbeck. I grew up very close to Salinas Valley, where he resided. In the public school districts in California, you read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and East of Eden (1952). But it was his visual language that struck a chord with me. 

Growing up in California, I would drive down from San Jose to Monterey and Carmel, and then up to San Francisco and the North and West Bay. Those drives really captured my imagination as a kid — seeing the rolling hills and sunburned grass; all kinds of yellow and livestock. A lot of my art, including my “California” series, really stemmed from these ideas. Sometimes I’m very explicit with it — for instance, one of my works is titled, Salinas Valley (2021). It’s a combination of me telling you explicitly that this is America and, at the same time, highlighting my inspiration in John Steinbeck. 

Inevitably, if you are from the United States, it will draw you into looking at my art through a certain lens. But many people have messaged me that my work reminds them of someplace in Europe, France, or Italy, so it’s not exclusively reminiscent of the US. 
Grant Yun, Special Delivery, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What did NFTs do for art, digital art, and, more specifically, for you? 

GY: People are raising eyebrows and slowly looking into digital art and NFTs. [But] I don’t think that there is the huge wave of adoption or acceptance that is often highlighted or predicted by people on Twitter. We have had tunnel vision in this space, especially at times when people were doing airdrops left and right, and you could buy something and flip it the next day for 10x. People have come more down to earth since then, realizing that these things take a lot of time. 

Not everyone is willing to accept innovative technology as something we should be doing in art. It takes a really bold group of people to take that first step. I think the MoMA is doing something very special — you go there, install the Autonomy wallet, and get an NFT airdropped to you. The one thing that NFTs have going for them is that they work alongside the bigger cryptocurrency space, which is being pushed by corporations that have no interest in art. Having technology evolve alongside the art will help to accelerate the adoption of NFTs within an art context. 

I now have the possibility for a career as an artist, and I’m part of a wave of artists who will hopefully impact art history, but it’s up to us. 

I’ve made connections in the art world, and I have opportunities to take risks and try to have a career in art, but there’s no guarantee for me. I need to take that leap of faith in the same way that I minted my first NFT — I have to do my first show and work my way up from the bottom in the same way that one starts with zero Twitter followers and works one’s way up.

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Grant Yun is a digitally native artist from San Jose, California, who is currently based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is well-known for his vector works, incorporating minimal aesthetics in his depictions of landscapes, architecture, and interior design. Yun’s style pays homage to painters of the early twentieth century yet stands out as distinctly modern and contemporary. As he continues to progress as an artist, Yun hopes to contribute to the evolution of digital and blockchain art.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT, where he serves as CEO.