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Digital Artist Yung Jake Scores With Emoji Portraits

By Guy Trebay

A depiction of David Bowie made with emojis, by artist Yung Jake.
 
Yung Jake
A depiction of David Bowie made with emojis, by artist Yung Jake.

They flow ceaselessly through the text panels on our smartphones, these ubiquitous ideograms used to convey facts or feelings or perhaps nothing at all. They have come to infiltrate both our memes and our dreams. They appeared on Nippon Telegraph and Telephone mobile devices in the ‘90s, went global when Apple made them standard on iPhones and have become so universal that Sony has turned them into an animated movie.

And now emoji, it seems, are a medium for fine art.

That is how the Los Angeles creator Yung Jake (real name: Jake Patterson) has come to use them, creating a show of appealingly retrograde three-dimensional “Emoji Portraits” that opened at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton, New York, the week during which — tragic but true — hardly anyone celebrated the red-letter nonevent of World Emoji Day (July 17).

Andi EllowayArtist Yung Jake in New York.
Artist Yung Jake in New York.

Depicting celebrities like Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Willow Smith and Kim Kardashian West (with strawberry lips and Magic 8 Ball eyes), Yung Jake’s paintings are sprightly renditions of digital images he began making in 2015 with an application developed by Vince McElvie, a business partner and friend. Using emoji.ink as his tool, Yung Jake found he could “paint” pointillist portraits assembled from hundreds of goofy images of movie cameras, rabbits, moons, clouds, smiley faces, honey pots and, yes, poop.

“I just happened to be good at it, so I did a bunch of celebrities,” Yung Jake said in a text message, his preferred form of communication. “I sent a lot to my famous friends knowing they’d post.”

Sometime YouTube rapper, sometime art-world darling, sometime digital explorer, Yung Jake was raised, as he claimed, in “Bridgehampton, Bali, Sag Harbor and New Zealand” (“we traveled around a lot growing up cause my family surfed,” he wrote) and educated at, among other places, Bridgehampton (New York) High School.

He attended the California Institute of the Arts, from which he graduated in 2012, taking with him the Yung Jake persona he had begun developing in 2011 with music videos like “Unfollow.” In it, wearing pink pants and a bucket hat, he raps in a drowsy monotone about unfollowing an ex on social media. The video gained some traction on the art world circuit, and in the years since, he has emerged as one among a crop of compelling millennial artists whose digital works are developed almost entirely for or on the Internet.

Still, while his augmented reality artwork “Datamosh” was a buzzy hit at the digital salon of the 2013 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, it is the emoji pictures that have brought Yung Jake a measure of mainstream attention. In January, a booth dedicated to those images at the Zona Maco contemporary art fair in Mexico City sold out; less than a week after his new show opened at the Tripoli Gallery, all but four of the 13 emoji paintings were accounted for.

“I think of the art just as life and the things I do are all just part of it,” Yung Jake wrote, as a way of explaining his relaxed and hyphenated art practice.

Fusing Page Six celebrity with the kiddie fun of emoji, Yung Jake has conjured up a genre that may not be “very deep ... or high concept like my other stuff,” as he said, and yet one that remains as mindlessly irresistible as a smiley face.