Christopher Yin and John Yoon on Collecting in the Interlinked Communities of Los Angeles

The duo discuss collecting as a cultural introduction, and the joy of supporting artists at the outset of their careers

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BY Jennifer Piejko AND Christopher Yin & John Yoon in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 14 FEB 22

Jennifer Piejko: I’ve seen a lot of your collection by following your Instagram hashtag, #littlekittencollection. It’s a little messy, though, since people post pictures of cats and tag them #littlekittencollection, too.

Christopher Yin: Yes, the whole point of that hashtag is …

John Yoon: … its informality.

CY: We call it the Little Kitten Collection because we’re both Leos, it’s very tongue-in-cheek. We take art very seriously — but not ourselves. It’s a way to share our joy.

JY: Actually, the name is a very useful communication tool in the art world. It’s become our shorthand.

JP: Tell me how you got into art.

CY: John and I met in 1997 and started collecting in 2004. We’re lawyers by trade, but we’re humanities-driven people at heart. My undergrad degree was in English literature and John studied Japanese and Spanish literature. We both had some knowledge of art history from our liberal-arts education but for years we were just occasional museumgoers. We didn’t follow contemporary art closely until we visited New York in 2004 and went to the Whitney Biennial and were really blown away by it. We decided that we should spend a little more time looking at contemporary art and, once we came back to LA, we started going to galleries more regularly. At that time, the Chinatown cluster was very exciting: China Art Objects, David Kordansky, Daniel Hug, The Happy Lion, Peres Projects. We also visited the 6150 Wilshire cluster, including 1301PE and Marc Foxx. Both of us worked during the week; on Saturdays, we’d go to some galleries.

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John Yoon (left) and Christopher Yin (right) at their home in Los Angeles with (from left to right): Shana Lutker, t.t.t.t.t., 2010. Yuji Agematsu, Zip: 12.01.06 ... 12.31.06, 2006. Matt Sheridan Smith, Untitled (felt, wax, spoon), 2015. Mathis Altmann, Deplorable Management, 2016. All photographs: Carlos Chavarría

JP: What was the first work in the Little Kitten Collection?

CY: The first piece we acquired was a print by James Siena, whose work we first encountered in that 2004 Whitney Biennial. For the first couple of years, we just looked a lot. It wasn’t until about 2006 that we knew what we’re truly drawn to.

JY: Right. A work by Amanda Ross-Ho was among our first purchases …

CY: … by a contemporary emerging artist.

JY: Before then, we were going to galleries just to learn; at the time, it was a small enough community to be able to do that.

CY: It was a testament to the community that the galleries were not intimidating. We would go and gallerists like Susanne Vielmetter or Steve Hanson at China Art Objects would be very open to showing us things and talking to us.

JY: They were very gracious. We learnt a lot from them.

CY: We were clearly newbies – fans – and they were open to starting a conversation with us.

JY: We also started looking at a lot of the art schools here in LA: those communities are very tight knit, and schools started having joint MFA shows.

CY: For a few years, there was an annual show called 'Supersonic'. It featured MFA group shows by eight of the Southern California art schools.

JY: There were more than 100 artists in each of these exhibitions. The 2006 'Supersonic' was where we first saw Amanda’s work. She presented a work called Seizure (2006), which used a mounted photograph of police-seized contraband as a tabletop perched on two sawhorses. The work was evocative on so many levels, but its meaning was slippery and elusive to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

CY: We’re kind of nerdy and we would take notes on the programs, so we remembered her later, when she first showed with the LA gallery Cherry and Martin.

JY: We also first saw Kaari Upson’s work at a CalArts MFA open studio, and we were like: “Wow!” We’ve been very lucky to have that kind of early access to talent in LA, thanks to all the great MFA programs here.

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Justin Beal, Hot House, 2009

JP: And did those feel open and accessible to visitors, to people who are interested in art but not necessarily in the education system?

CY: Yes. Despite many of the MFA programs being conceptual and theoretically driven, I just went into each encounter with art accepting that I don’t know everything. Ultimately, whatever resonated with me, I dug into later. We didn’t go in with strong preconceived notions of what art should be, and we were very open to new ideas, to learning both backwards and forwards. The gallerist Rodney Nonaka-Hill, for example, would tell us that a Brian Calvin painting was an homage to a work by the 13th-century Italian artist Giotto. So, I would research Giotto’s work to become better informed as to what I was looking at in a contemporary work.

JY: Because we were always learning, always taking notes, I felt like we were students again trying to understand all these artworks.

CY: Once we started collecting works by recent MFA grads, we realized that they, of course, all knew one another. In LA, the community is pretty porous. So, we knew Amanda because we started collecting her work, but she had gone to USC with Ry Rocklen, Justin Beal and others. Artists often belong to a community that is driven by their education, and I feel like we had the privilege to tap into and access that.

JY: Some of the gallerists also graduated from the same MFA programs and studied under the same teachers.

CY: I remember going to a dinner hosted by the gallerist Erica Redling, who went to CalArts herself. Almost everyone at that dinner was connected to CalArts, and it was such a thrill to listen in on Andrea Bowers and Rodney McMillian reminiscing with their teacher, mentor and friend Charles Gaines about their time there. There’s a sense of lineage. It goes backwards and forwards.

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Puppies Puppies (Jade Kuriki Olivo), Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (Green), 2017

JP: You have both spoken a lot about community in LA: schools, the gallery system, artist networks. Can you tell me about the community-building that you do in terms of other collectors and artists of color? You’re both also involved in organizations that prioritize diversity. Does that make you more interested in collecting political artwork or work about identity?

CY:  Both of us want to engage in a way that is meaningful, but we are also mindful that we are just collectors and not necessarily …

JY: … Activists.

CY: We’re aware of our limitations but, at the same time, we do feel part of the art community. John was an early volunteer with GYOPO, a collective of Korean American diasporic arts producers and  professionals founded by curator Christine Y. Kim in 2017.

JY: Yes, it was set up for members of the community to support one another. I was also on the board of Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) and Christopher was on the board of LAXART.

CY: I’m currently engaging with a small group of Asian American artists, curators and supporters initiated by Danielle Shang and Grace Oh. The group have been meeting over Zoom to discuss issues relevant to Asian American art, which is such a fraught concept to begin with and often neglected or marginalized.

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On the floor, left to right: Ry Rocklen, TBT, 2012. Young Joon Kwak, Hermaphroditus’s Reveal, 2017. James Crosby, Abstraction, 2018. On the wall, left to right: Todd Gray, Shimmer, 2019. Sula Bermúdez-Silverman, Peephole 1–4, 2021. Eliza Douglas, Untitled, 2021

JP: How else has your collection changed over the years?

CY: As part of the LGBTQI+ community, we feel strongly about supporting our trans and non-binary siblings, and we want to understand and engage with the issues they face. Many trans artists, such as Young Joon Kwak and Puppies Puppies (Jade Kuriki-Olivo), also happen to be among the most fascinating out there. We don’t have a rule to collect only works by people of color or LGBTQI+ artists but, in recent years, just by what we’re drawn to, the proportion has shifted more heavily towards artists from these groups. We’ve collected more pieces by women artists, as well.

JY: Sometimes it’s intentional, but sometimes it’s just maybe subconscious.

JP: Are there any very up-and-coming artists you’re following closely at the moment — ones you’re excited to see works by during Frieze, maybe? How do you tend to discover emerging artists now?

CY: We follow so many artists! Some recent obsessions include Julien Nguyen, Rindon Johnson and Bri Williams. We are also hoping to see and acquire more work by some artists already in our collection, such as Shahryar Nashat, Sula Bermúdez-Silverman and Julia Phillips. We discover a lot of emerging artists by scrolling through Instagram postings by galleries, curators and collectors, but that is no substitute for seeing the work in person. Art fairs like Frieze can also provide an amazing opportunity to see work that hasn’t been shown in LA before, including some that we may have admired online but never seen in person.

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Nevine Mahmoud, Blue Donut, 2017

JP: And are there any collections that you find inspiring? Are you building towards something?

CY: Instagram allows you to get to know other collectors. You can just start DM-ing and chatting with them; then we might meet each other for the first time at an art fair. I find many collections wonderful, but one of the most inspiring exhibitions I’ve ever seen was 'Slip of the Tongue', curated by Danh Võ at Punta della Dogana in Venice in 2015.

JP: It was beautiful.

CY:  I remember coming out of that show thinking it would be my dream collection. John and I have a heavy bent towards sculpture and object-based work. We don’t have a lot of pretty pictures, so to speak. We have photography, we have painting, but even the wall works tend to have a certain sculptural element to them. Having lived with art for a while, I think I’m drawn to things that come with a certain aura, a certain charisma.

JY: We think of artworks as living, breathing things, which we have the privilege of being entrusted to take care of.

CY: Every object in 'Slip of the Tongue' seemed to just exude an aura. Obviously, it was beautifully curated as well, but there were some truly breathtaking works just standing there, like living things.

JY: The essence of an artist.

CY: Our engagement with art is beyond just looking. Generally, I tend to approach art in a cerebral fashion, but I also engage with it in terms of its aura, which transcends that cerebral part of me that wants to analyze everything. It’s like there’s something religious, spiritual, in that experience. And I’m not a religious person at all, just a very lapsed Catholic.

JY: But I think we’re both spiritual.

CY: Yes, so art is a kind of church for us.

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Left to right: Kevin Beasley, Untitled (Organ), 2015. Oscar Tuazon, Untitled, 2010. Haegue Yang, Sonic Rotating Geometry Type F — Nickel Plated #30, 2014

JP: Are there any works that make home feel like home to you?

CY: Amanda’s incised drywall piece, Gran-Abertura #1 (2006) — the first she ever made, I think; we actually moved into our current home partly to accommodate it. It’s an actual drywall that’s installed in front of the regular wall. Of course, we had to do everything to make that piece comfortable. It’s a bit of a fixture. And it’s one of the earlier pieces in our collection: it’s always been with us.

JY: We think of it as a welcoming artwork because it’s the first piece you see when you walk in. And it’s a pillar of the beginning of our collection, so it needs to be there: it’s our nostalgic and sentimental anchor.

CY: Amanda came to the house to supervise the installation. We were just so pleased to meet her. I often feel like a part of her now lives here, too.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2022 under the headline ‘Table for Two’.

Main image: Evan Holloway, 65 (detail), 2007

Jennifer Piejko is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

Christopher Yin is an entertainment lawyer at Netflix and John Yoon is a corporate lawyer. They are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. They live in Los Angeles, USA.

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