Emojis are everywhere. From emoji poetry, Alice in Wonderland translated into emojis, and an (animated!) emoji version of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the cutesy image-language of text messages is having a major art-world moment right now. Given the rapidly growing popularity of net art, the rise of the emoji-as-artistic-medium isn’t all that surprising. But enigmatic net artist and rapper Yung Jake is taking emoji art to a totally new level with his bizarre and awesome celebrity portraits, created entirely out of the familiar text-message pictograms.
Using emoji.ink, a Kid Pix-like online drawing tool which lets you paint pictures by clicking and dragging emojis, Yung Jake has created compelling, funny, and sometimes shockingly accurate depictions of celebrities ranging from Larry David to Lil B. Looking at these images is a bit like staring at an optical illusion. At first glance, some of the portraits are incredibly realistic, especially considering they’re made out of emojis. The thing is that when you look further, your eyes inevitably start struggling to decide if what you’re seeing is really Kim Kardashian’s likeness, or just a chaotic, eye-strain-inducing arrangement of colourful emoticons. The celebrity expressions seem to melt and shift, reminiscent of Lucian Freud’s unsettling portrait style.
Forget optical illusion. This is like getting way too close to a Pissarro and suddenly realising that the beautiful landscape you’ve been admiring is nothing but millions of incredibly tiny dots of paint. And visual confusion aside, the question remains: is Yung Jake’s work really “art”, or is it just an elaborate internet-based joke?
Knowing Yung Jake, “both” might be the best answer. His best-known piece, “E.m-bed.de/d/”, is a dizzying interactive experience, in which self-referential browser windows (often simulacra of various popular websites) spring open and fall shut across your screen in time with the beat as Yung Jake raps about going viral. Watching E.m-bed.de/d is obviously extremely surreal, but at the same time, it feels quite realistic. Yung Jake has managed to accurately convey what it would feel like to literally watch a video go viral.
This surreal/real dichotomy is one of the defining characteristics of net art, a scene born on Instagram and Tumblr. Testing the limitations of the Internet as an artistic medium, net art often features low-res, pixelated graphics, glitches, gifs—and of course, emojis—resulting in a distinctly nostalgic, Web 1.0 vibe. It ranges in medium from websites to YouTube videos to images to blogs. Yung Jake has even created an augmented reality app. Net art is often crowd-source and curatorial, frequently repurposing graphics sourced from all corners of the Internet. Never mind #breaktheinternet—net art is breaking the Internet’s fourth wall.
To an outside observer, net art can often look like a series of inside jokes produced by an insular, hyper-trendy web community. In a way, it is; Yung Jake has described net art as “a scene just like rap or memes or punk.” But when it comes to the future of net art, he’s optimistic about the scene’s possibilities, saying “I foresee it becoming much bigger in the future because the Internet is starting to reference itself … and people like that.” The recent popularity of emoji art seems to suggest that net art is making its way into the mainstream. And whether or not you’re into the aesthetic, it’s hard to deny the appeal of making art on your iPhone.