Jun Yang is a queer, self-taught artist originally from Seoul, South Korea. Jun moved to San Francisco 11 years ago as an aspiring full-time artist. His work has been shown in numerous national and international exhibitions in Taipei, Seoul, Graz, and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Most recently, he held a solo exhibition at the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea, which was well received by attendees. Jun’s art often portrays the struggles that he faced throughout his life. He hopes that his art will be able to uplift and inspire other emerging LGBTQ+ artists.
Jun’s next solo show will be held at the Schlomer Haus Gallery (2128 Market St., San Francisco), starting July 2022.
When did you start doing art?
I started it at a really young age. I was always painting. When I was five, my teacher submitted my painting to a national art competition and it was in the newspaper. My parents realized that I liked doing art. They sent me to art classes. Then I went to design school for college but my professor would call me “homo” and “gay” in front of my classmates, so I dropped out.
Being queer is still not accepted in Korea so I imagine it must’ve been difficult.
Things are changing. A lot of Asians Americans are not very vocal. They still struggle to come out because our culture is all about family and parents. We grew up seeing hard working parents sacrifice so much for their kids, so they don’t want to disappoint their parents.
It unfortunately can be a difficult topic to talk about with family.
It’s the culture. We don’t talk about it. A lot of people here don’t talk about it. I was a little nervous actually, having a show at the Consulate of the Republic of Korea. I didn’t know what they were going to think about my artist bio and statement because I stated that I’m queer. And I want my art to inspire LGBTQIA+ communities, but I was also very grateful and thankful to have a voice and that they let me show my art.
How does being queer influence your artwork?
I lived in Europe for three years. I tried to fit the European gay scene and be western, gay male, very cisgender, male dominant. Now because of social media, more young people are more comfortable with their sexual orientation. But back then, it was like gays are male. Lesbians are women. There was no non-binary, non-conforming, no in-between, so it was really hard. I came to SF. The city really inspired me to be me. I felt protected. I could be who I am. So I was gay, but I’m more queer now because I feel like I’m discovering myself. It’s like peeling an onion. I didn’t know who I was so I started to call myself queer because I’m human. I can change. I can do whatever I want. So the city really inspired me and the community inspired me. The more I become who I am, the more I love who I am, that really helps me embrace my art-making practice.
So does the environment influence your artwork? Is your art different here than in when you were Korea?
I wanted to be a nurse when I got here. My mom had cancer and then she passed away. Then my dad passed away three years after that. He was brokenhearted. He was grieving and he couldn’t help himself. When I got back after my dad’s funeral, I really felt that life doesn’t wait for us. It was so sudden. I lost both parents and now I have nothing to be afraid of. My art practice back then, it was more of a therapeutic healing process. I tried to heal myself so it was more abstract, a lot of blues, a lot of colors that I felt like cleanse my body. Later on, I started to embrace my sexual orientation, my gender, race, and just be who I am. Then, the Black Lives Matter movement happened. That was a revolution that happened. I started to create more figures to support the Black community and people of color, queer communtities. And then my work evolved, so now I’m doing more figurative work, mostly black and brown figures, or Asians.
When you see my portraits, it’s kind of unconventional so anybody can relate. Fine art in general is dominated by western, white males. When I lived in Europe, when I go to museums here, even at the Legion of Honor, I don’t see a lot of people of color portraits or Asian portraits. Because representation is so important, we need more examples. We didn’t see them when we were growing up. But I want more people around me, teenagers or kids, to be able to see their faces. Black skin is beautiful. I think Asian skin is beautiful. Any skin. So in my art, I mix and use all colors. It doesn’t have to be one type of race or one type of body shape or gender or age. I’m combining everything in my series.
What do you want people to take from your art?
I want to help others save the time that I wasted in my teenage life being always fearful. I was bullied a lot. People would physically hurt me. I’m still struggling. I jumped into the car. I tried to kill myself. I had a lot of surgeries and back problems. So I want to tell my life story. I want to share my journey with parents who have queer teenagers and with people who are struggling. I want them to know that there are always people there. They can be loved and feel safe. They have to love who they are and that’s the only way they can really get out of that miserable situation, but that’s not the end.
Is there any advice you want to give to young, queer artists in the Korean or even broader Asian American community?
I hear that LGBTQ teenagers actually commit suicide four times more than straight teenagers because they don’t feel worthiness. They are just constantly battling with their self worth and their identity, so I think it is so important, me as an artist, to build a bridge and a good example. I’m not perfect, but starting and doing it is important. So for them, I want to just show that even though I’m not perfect, I do it so you can do it too. Anybody can do it. I fled from my home country and came here. I’m living as a full time artist now and doing what I really love and pursuing my dream. I want them to know that they can do it too. If this is not the right time, your time will come. Life is all about perspective and life is about how you see the world. So if they are in a place where they feel hopeless, they can find many people that they can get help from. Find your community and reach out to help and don’t just suffer or be lonely. Loneliness will kill them too. I’ve been there. I’ve been in their position. So that’s my advice.