York Chang is a unique presence in the L.A. art world, a consummate practitioner of multidextrous, concept-driven painting and sculpture who is also a practicing lawyer. Although his art is not about legal matters in a direct or political sense, his intentions are to break down information overload to arrive at more fundamental, if fractured, truths about human experience. Between fiction and social discourse, information and empathy, truth and truthiness, the mixed-media paintings, collages, photography, appropriations and meta-narratives he generates do that thing art does best — using artifice to get back to reality. Chang’s work goes on view April 7 at the Orange County Museum of Art and April 13 at Vincent Price Art Museum.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
YORK CHANG: It's been a gradual process of understanding, but maybe it was the moment I realized that being an artist is more about a certain way of looking at life as you move through it, rather than about a specific career, vocation or goal.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
My work is often about the staging of credibility, about how we give shape and meaning to the tumult of information we come across every day, and all the beautiful ways that we deceive ourselves.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
I would be lost and wandering the desert.
Did you go to art school? Why/why not?
I think I would have really enjoyed art school, but I went to law school instead. I was a student activist in college, and was committed to working on social justice issues, so that took me on a different education path. But all along the way, I was questioning and working constantly on the question of how aesthetics and politics were intertwined, and making art was a way of thinking through these questions. In that sense, I put myself through my own art school curriculum, and was very serious about teaching myself about art through reading, writing and, most importantly, looking. I met an amazing network of artist friends and mentors along the way, and developed my own cohort. And then I really just put myself out there by organizing a lot of shows.
With the choices I made, I didn't have the space and time that art school affords to figure out my practice before emerging as a fully formed version of myself as an artist — I put a lot of underdeveloped and uneven work out there early on, and had to grow up as an artist in a very public way. But my choices have allowed me to contribute to the conversation about art in different ways than if I had gotten an M.F.A. education.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
Because this is as far from the desert as I could go. It's a city of a thousand cities, a place where you create your own reality.
When was your first show?
I organized my very first solo show at a place called Inshallah in downtown L.A. in 2001. It was between Second and Third streets, before it was called the Arts District. I installed 40 paintings and threw a big party. I think it’s a parking lot now. But I would say that my first real show, which really set me on this more conceptually oriented path that I'm on now, was at Pete Galindo's Federal Art Project in 2008, also in downtown L.A., where I organized a retrospective for a group of fictional artists that I had created. I think it’s a DMV satellite office now.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I have two solo museum shows opening this month — a solo museum show at the Orange County Museum of Art, titled To Be Wrong With Infinite Precision, opening April 7 through Sept. 1, and another solo museum show at the Vincent Price Art Museum, titled The Signal and the Noise, opening April 13 through July 20.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
I think Bruce Conner was an amazing artist. He played with identity and authorship in really interesting ways. I would love to create work as Bruce Conner, and ask him to create work as York Chang, and do a two-person show together. I would also love to put together a group show with all the artist friends of mine who I play tennis with: Charles Gaines, Ben Weissman, Justin Cole, Gina Osterloh, David Thorne and Simon Leung. We could organize the show like a tournament bracket.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
Sometimes late at night I'll listen to late Coltrane records or post-punk bands like Shellac or Jesus Lizard — stuff that makes me want to take things apart.