Of Light and Air:
mixed media works by Andrew Young
The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Chicago, April – June 2013 (exhibition views)
Of Light and Air
In the late 1850s, a young Illinois explorer and cataloger working for the Smithsonian Institution named Robert Kennecott established a natural history museum on what was then the western-most edge of developed areas in the United States. Considered the First Museum of the West, the Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded in 1857 so that nature enthusiasts and amateur scientists alike could house their specimens and share their scholarship. Kennecott was an avid naturalist, surveying the vast North American landscape, discovering many new animal species, and enriching the collections of both the Academy and the Smithsonian. Within a decade, the Chicago Academy of Sciences boasted one of the largest and most important collections in the country. Tragically, most of Kennecott’s notes and specimens from his expeditions were lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the museum persevered, was rebuilt in the 1890s, and thrived into the 20th century to become a primary center for education and regional natural historical studies.
In 1999, the Chicago Academy of Sciences opened its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to serve a fundamental role in bringing local natural history to an urban environment and populace. Traveling exhibitions, public lectures, displays, and dioramas are ingredients for nourishing the scientific curiosity of the many students and general visitors attending daily. As a legacy to its founder and first director, Robert Kennecott, the Academy’s diverse collections have been growing and its research is continuing. Conservation is a theme of increasing significance to the museum’s programs and exhibits, offering a broader perspective on what place nature and ecology have in the city and for our society in general.
A unique feature of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is its art gallery. In any natural history institution one would expect to find two-dimensional representations of its subjects—be they on paper, on canvas, or in photographic media—and most often accompanying displays. However, to dedicate a space solely to an individual creative vision of Nature and to present new exhibitions on a three-month rotation is special. Here, it solidifies the museum’s stated mission of bringing the human dimension to nature and vice versa. From April 13th to June 30th, 2013, the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted an art exhibition in their ground floor gallery entitled, Of Light and Air: mixed media works by Andrew Young. On May 11th, the museum staged an artist talk in the space called Gallery Walk: Artist Andrew Young. Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, recorded the event for their cultural events archive Chicago Amplified. The following is an edited version of that presentation.
Welcome everyone. I want to thank the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum for the invitation to exhibit in the museum’s Flatwork Gallery. It’s exceptional when a natural history museum dedicated to education and regional conservation also opens up its program and sites to artistic work. Of course, artists will bring slightly different, sometimes challenging, and hopefully illuminating points of view to our experience of the world, which can be a benefit to everyone. It is, after all, the human perspective steering human behavior that will set a course for Nature in the future and our station in it. So, to begin things, I feel I should give a bit of personal history: from where I come and my early interests. (By the way, you can now hear bullfrogs in the background, which is a perfect entry point.)
As a boy, I collected all of those little nature guides—titles such as, Seashores, Fishes, Rocks and Minerals, Trees, Birds, and Shells of the World. I believe they were called Golden Guides. Picture a library in a child’s bedroom, with each of the volumes neatly placed on a shelf. Growing up on the East Coast, I had access to the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and other wooded mountain ranges of the Appalachians, as well as the New England coastlines, Cape Cod, and Long Island. You might imagine the experience of my world then was a very tactile sensation, a physical interaction with the surroundings. Much of my personal time was invested in my collections and outdoor experiences. This progressed—with special thanks to my mom for her tolerance and electricity bill payments—to having a wall in my room much like the amphibians and reptiles behind us here, only mine were tropical fish aquaria. And, all the while I was engaged in these collecting experiences as an interface with the natural world, I was also almost unconsciously—I guess, automatically—cataloging them with drawings. For example, I would creep up on a turtle sunbathing on a log and make sketches in my notebooks of the scene. It seemed like the natural course for someone so carefully invested in our biological company on Earth to take this passion into college.
I enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, in a Biology of Natural Resources program, which focused not just on biology as a pure subject but also on human interactions with the landscape. That is, how we draw energy, conserve, renew our resources, and keep healthy our environment. I emphasize this because there’s a return and repetition to this theme in the course of the artwork in this show and how I describe it. Interesting and maybe a key to the development here is that I grew up in a very eclectic home. My father is a restless traveler with a very collector-like spirit. Envision his exotic carpets, sculptures, artifacts, treasures, and trinkets from around the world as a home environment, and a creative mother who is involved in teaching, stage acting, oil painting, and singing. I’m still refreshed when I think of our attic space filled with art studio materials and the smells of linseed oil and turpentine. It’s a very fond memory that is integrated not only with my enchantment and obvious passion for biology and our natural world, but also in the way I interact with it. Low and behold, our lives are filled with gentle arcs of change and also harsh ricochets of change, and eventually I set aside my biological studies—influenced to a degree by my stepmother at the time who was a ceramic artist—to pursue what had been to that point a kind of background noise, a background language of expression that I forever use in describing my surroundings. In 1987, I sought a graduate degree in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To my surprise, they admitted this one-time biologist and self-described Nature Boy, and I have since made a career over the last 25 years largely as a professional artist. During this time I have never let go—in subject and spirit—of both the literal and metaphorical essence of biology as it relates to our experience as human beings.
So this brings us up to the present. With the sounds of frogs and crickets around us—albeit some of them recorded—and live animals upstairs and down, it’s a full circle life experience being shown in this particular context. Previous museum and gallery shows of mine, essentially those presented with empty space around (you know, the classic contemporary model with a white room, bright lights, and hard floors), invariably made reference in their statements, catalogs, or wall text to my background in biology and a persistent fascination with nature, indirectly, if not symbolically. But in this gallery I finally have the real company of Nature around me.
A couple of questions have come to me already about the title of the show, Of Light and Air. I certainly mean both terms in a metaphorical way. Something that has become important to me in recent years—and that which was integral to a show I curated at The Art Center in Highland Park, Illinois, just over a year ago—is the history and notions of the Hudson River School of Painting. These are mid-19th century landscape painters who were, coincidentally—or I should say incidentally—concurrent with the foundation of this institution, the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Consider a pre-Civil War period of social change, economic change, and expansion in U.S. settlement, with two elements coinciding: panoramic artists, who were idealizing and romantizing open landscape, and pioneering collectors venturing into the wilds to collect and capture previously undescribed flora and fauna. Each returned to an eager audience, with new tales, visions, and discoveries. What intrigues me about the Hudson River School artists is that the landscapes they painted were not only outsized in their physical presence, in their scale, but oftentimes they used various sources and puzzled elements together in their compositions, creating idealized scenes out of fragments of things they saw and drew, perhaps even invented. Back then, naturalists were artists and scientists at the same time. You might visualize a guy with a backpack and maybe a little watercolor kit under his arm setting out into the field to survey and record his observations. It meant surviving diseases, wildlife, and other hazards, then coming back to the studio to render pictures of open space and magnificent vistas, conjuring adventure, conjuring invention, and journey. It was a synthesis between the spirit of our country and the territory which we were ultimately going to settle. (It’s something of a double edge sword in this regard, for we know in retrospect about the politics of the land purchases and settlement processes.) So, I see my painting—in particular these artworks in the company of nature—as an intersection of the real and the imagined. For instance, I use earth pigments to paint birds in silhouette and botanical elements from memory, not as an attempt to represent nature as we would document it photographically or as we would define it scientifically, but as a means to leave a space open for the viewers and their subjective experience. In this manner, the members of the Hudson River School were able to perfect the landscape through painting, practically emptying it of the hard edges and even, sadly, of the populations that lived in these regions. It was an attempt to engage the land through, in part, a social and personal agenda, as well as portray Nature in a tamed and idealized way.
What we have in this gallery are 29 works of mine made over a period of nearly 15 years. They were handpicked to relate not only to the broader thesis of exhibiting within a natural history museum, but also divided into descriptive themes. Because this venue is an educational setting, I aim to address a broader audience. As you’ve probably noticed, there are vinyl-lettered titles above several groupings of works. This isn’t to suggest these are wholly separate or singular in thought; rather, I’m trying to tease out how certain elements in the paintings function. Above all of your heads in this corner is the title, Appropriated Forms, which is a very specific piece of my artistic process. In each of these artworks, you’ll find geometric forms as backgrounds (see pages 4 and 14)—tableaus, in a sense. These make a very interesting story for me personally, because of the way they are exemplary of drawing from my specific surroundings and incorporating that process into a larger message. Literally, these backgrounds, these geometries, come from floor coverings and heating registers. All are American renditions of a borrowed Islamic style turned into more common, less enduring utility items. I was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, some years ago, in fact right at the threshold as I was moving from egg tempera to a mixed media/collage approach in my art. I found in this home where I was staying that I’d stand on vintage patterned linoleum in the bathroom, and I would clang on a geometric heating grate as I marched up and down the stairs. The visuals reminded me of a lecture and teaching experience I had in Pakistan in the early 1990s where I saw a lot of the same imagery presented in palaces and on floors of important public meeting areas, fountains, and religious structures. Each seemed to have a much more resonant, spiritual, and integrated experience within the Islamic culture and society, which I felt was lost when reproduced much later in a purely design format. So, I appropriated, or borrowed, these forms to rescue and re-present them as something elevated again into sacred status, or as close as I might come to that. I once went to a palace in Lahore and noticed that the windows, or at least the divisions between the interior court space and the exterior, were ornate lattices allowing light and air to permeate in a somewhat transparent way. However, they were also fortified, being made of brick or stone, and very strong. In my work are bird elements, botanicals, and butterflies, all of the figural characters superimposed on screens of geometry. Here, I think this combination becomes an engaging metaphor for hopeful elevation and ascension, but also impaired flight, with the bird in silhouette placed up against a partially penetrable, seemingly delicate, but also boundary-like structure.
There was a large transition in my work process around the time the earliest works here were made: the late 1990s and early 2000s. I came from graduate school into the art world more recognized for my work in egg tempera than any other medium, although I was also doing photography, watercolor, and drawing during that period. Egg tempera is a very archaic medium, predating traditional oil painting and popularized by such famous Early Renaissance panel painters as Botticelli and Duccio. It is applied to a hard substrate, such as a wooden board, that is covered with a traditional plaster-like gesso. This is not the acrylic gesso we know of today, rather a rabbit skin glue–titanium oxide mixture that becomes almost egg shell-white when dry and is both oil absorbent and light reflective. The egg tempera painters would blend mineral pigments with egg yolk, and sometimes water to thin the mixture slightly, and basically apply skins of color as lenses over a white ground. What is remarkable about egg tempera as a medium, and that which I try to effect to a certain degree in watercolor and collage, is the white surface beneath the painted layers—the light underneath—showing through to create a glowing effect. This gives these paintings a magnificent luminosity and sheen about them. In the collages, I carry forward this mentality, both in a layered, physical form, as well as in a light-drenched, visual attitude. I utilize the same powdered mineral pigments, but apply them on drawing paper and Chinese rice papers to create translucent, almost stain-like films. One almost has a sense of archeology about the finished work, in which a record of prior events, some early decision-making—or pentimenti—occurs within. These pictures contain not only the appropriation or borrowing of forms, both historical and present-day, but also a unique physical construction, employing a very tactile brand of light and memory.
Writing and Reflection
Another theme, which I entitled Writing and Reflection, again teases out some of the different strategies in the paintings. You’ll notice in many of the works, save for the occasional postage stamp, postcard or, in this group, appropriated or borrowed text, everything is painted by hand. I incorporate writing and printed text, but not always intended to be literal interpretation. In one case, I used pages from a journal in the Czech language that I discovered only after the fact were written by an artist about his experiences in Eastern Europe. In another, I repurposed a Chinese newspaper. In a third (shown on the front cover of this catalog), I included a handwritten sepia-pen transcription of part of a chapter of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I think all of you are familiar with Thoreau’s adventure at Walden Pond and his thesis about humans in society, nature, and isolation. All of these reflections and philosophies he put forward quite poetically, I should say. The text, here, borrows from his chapter entitled, Solitude. I thought this chapter title was very ironic, since he’s writing about the sounds of the animals about him, the trees, the neighbors, in a sense all of the activity around. Much like a campus You Are Here map, Thoreau is identifying himself inside of his surroundings, inside of a system. I asked myself, what is it about language, what is it about this meditation that even in handwriting can be a kind of recorded lyrical or poetic interface with our immediate world? As I mention in the wall plate, “As birds have ‘calls,’ we have voices and writing so as to create understanding and community among us.” Writing is not only a meaningful form in translation, but it can also be visually rhythmic, expressive, and very beautiful.
Variation and Evolution
I reference in the wall plate of Variation and Evolution the notion that in the natural world there is an embedded genetic code among living things to cause mutation and variation within generations. This is the evolution that drives adaptation and, ultimately, diversity among species. I want to emphasize that I paint all life forms in my works from memory, and even though there is repetition, there is design, and a suggestion of a preconceived order, the fact is I could never duplicate a form from my own hand if I were to do it a thousand times. So, just as I am changing in this sense, I’m also having a physical interaction, even a struggle, with the process and evolution of the work. This becomes symbolic of the tension of change and evolution in our environment. No two organisms, nor their circumstances, are ever exactly alike. I make reference to the botanic encyclopedias and the formulas of presentation that early naturalists used in their herbaria: the pressed plant catalogs we’re all familiar with (see back cover). These inventories idealized nature in many ways: first, by subconsciously supplementing the known with the imagined, then changing the more common into the beautified. We understand that collections for study are inevitably connected with the separation and disappearance of what is cataloged from its context in the environment. There is an impulse in human beings to unify things, to know by detecting patterns, and to answer unknowns by limiting variability. Perhaps this renders Nature safer in our personal experience, or more under our control. However, evolution teaches us that variation and change are inevitable, even at the most primary level.
I titled another area of the exhibition Geometric Abstraction. The piece some of you may recall in the center of that section has some very bright, beautiful Matisse-like blue elements (see page ten), bilaterally symmetrical and arranged almost like paper doll cutouts. Or, as I explained to a friend earlier, perhaps they resemble a 19th century entomological engraving where a biologist has separated all of the components of, say, a beetle—mouth parts, wings, legs, antennae—and laid them out in a grid. The composition could also be a flower dissected of its organs, petals, and leaves. Again, these do not make reference specifically to the name or identity of the object or organism, but instead graphically present subtle structural hints or suggestions in order to explore the very system by which we enter and study the natural world. We render things in geometric form to create a comprehensible picture— say, a map—of our environment. Graphs, charts, hierarchies, even nomenclature in biology, are all strategies we impose on nature to better understand the relationship of things. Of course, this is ever-changing with advancements in technology. New DNA identification, for instance, and the associations we ascertain from the process, seem to have their very own kinds of evolution. Sometimes traditional methods of presenting Nature—in the attempt to untangle its complexities—can unintentionally create distance between the observer and the observed.
On the farthest wall down the gallery from us, I write about Photographic Representation and present two works (see front cover and title page) by example. This is a very small piece of the actual physicality of the collages before you, but a very significant one at that. Accompanying the botanical forms, rendered in an almost ghostly white, translucent manner—perhaps more as spirit or apparition than living in some way—and the silhouettes of birds often centrally composed, is the inclusion of an occasional archival photograph, usually of a mountain, a water scene, or some trees. What intrigues me is that the majority of these photos are postcards. Most have been mass-produced, purchased on location, and presumably sent to somebody as if to say, in the classic sense, “Wish you were here.” Essentially, it’s like capturing a snippet of the observed natural world, rendering it safe, rendering it hand-held, and to a degree controlled, then transporting it to another locality for reference, to entertain another, or maybe bring that person remotely to a place or experience you had yourself. Sometimes, we buy postcards of things we never actually see. I’m compelled by the dislocation of this, for at once we hold something connecting and abstracting regarding Nature. Postcards of nature represent yearning and nostalgia, each a measure of distance between the viewer and the natural experience. I have a personal collection of early 20th century postcard images of waterfalls and geysers. It’s still a fascination to me that people love water that is free-falling, especially in volume, or water that’s being shot vertically very rapidly, and that we make numerous documents of these. We even build National Parks around them. I would suggest it’s the aberration, the relative rarity and dynamism of such natural phenomena—not necessarily the danger or violence, per se (though one could go on about the romance of being washed over a falls in a barrel)—that draws us. Perhaps there is an enchantment with the sound, power, and visual chaos that moving water supplies. It is certainly a very immediate kind of exposure to what is really active, always moving, and continuously evolving under out feet.
There is another impulse evident in the postcards and archival images of Nature and the dislocation that accompanies them that goes back to the Hudson River School. The idealization of the landscape, in both cases, rarely includes people. With the exception of maybe Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, where visitors encircle the legendary geyser as if at a religious ceremony, humans are generally evacuated or extremely diminutive relative to the subject in photographs of nature. You’ll find such emptied pictures of the perfect sunset, the perfect peak, the perfect waterfall, or colorful trees, wildlife, what have you (I still take such photographs myself), where Nature is captured, owned in a sense, and sent away or reproduced as an open and timeless abstraction for another’s experience.
The section on Symbolism is the first thing you see when you enter the gallery space. This is significant to me because we are, after all, in a natural history museum where Nature is the primary subject and a popular scientific approach is predominant. With art, of course, we’re taking it another step further and truly emphasizing, not diminishing, the human piece of that equation. I don’t know how many of you have seen the Lascaux exhibit at The Field Museum recently, but it is magnificent and I highly recommend it. I was intrigued by several interviews with anthropologists and philosophers about their experience and reflections on this prehistoric gallery of art. You can picture the multiple decorated chambers with horses, deer, aurochs, bison, and all of the other overlapping exquisite renderings. One philosopher posited that, in this day and age, we live in a system whereby we have institutions that isolate feeling, believing, and thinking from one another. We have our religious temples, our scientific laboratories, and our museums, for example: three categories or compartments of experience. I tried to take this idea a little bit further, not only to get inside the head of the twenty-thousand year old artist, who is probably unconsciously integrating and overlapping these divisions, but to consider what it means to display art in a setting such as this museum (a modern cave, if you will). It is an attempt to not only show or better illuminate aspects of our natural world through study and artistic vision, but to also meditate on the inevitable—if undesirable— separation that occurs in this relationship with our surroundings. We are present-time custodians, though only temporary inhabitants in this ever-changing environment.
I compose pieces to have a certain sensibility like a collection, such as an herbarium from the 19th century, a curio box, or a naturalist’s study—that Victorian manner of collecting and sorting, preciously rendered from personal exploration, and systematically connected to Nature through taxonomic nomenclature. I also want to bring in an element of symbolism. So the images behind me, as I point out in the wall text, have in most cases a botanical study or a bird element as the focus. I think the birds in silhouette obscure them from being specific to a species. They are generalized and vacant, yet allusive. Being centrally composed, they become almost iconic in their presentation. Quite literally, when you think bird, it conjures birds as mediators between the earth and the sky. They affect what human beings have aspired to for the longest time, and that is to fly. They are both terrestrial and celestial, so to speak, emblematic of the body and the soul. In my artwork, plants, especially because of their seasonal nature, symbolically represent the ephemeral, mortality, and renewal.
As I think about human experience, overall, I also think about my personal development, with aquaria in my room growing up, the reference books and field adventures, and the patience my mother exercised with my vast accumulation of rocks, shells, and other chunks of the outdoors. I think about human experience being this dimensional, elastic episode of, first, our mortal and terrestrial selves: everything that reminds us of the ground, of earth—my process of grinding mineral pigments excavated from salt mines, coal mines, road cuts and other distressed places of human interaction—and bringing this experience closer to hand and heart. Instead of mixing and mashing soils and sands with egg yolk, as was the case with the tempera panels, I’m using an organic glycerin and water-based gum Arabic solution to make a watercolor paste for the mixed media works. I essentially reconstitute earth and bring it physically into the paintings. Upon inspection, you can see the overlapping of materials: the sorting, cornering, incising and folding, all of which is meant to be metaphorical of body and our physical interaction with the world.
Second, you have the ephemeral forms: the light, if you will. Only a couple of hours ago, I was looking on my computer at a Frederic Church painting of Niagara Falls, coincidentally created the same year this institution was founded, 1857. The subject appeared as if it was backlit. There was a bright light seemingly boiling out of the falls. Again, it puts forward this preoccupation with falling water, that sort of tumultuousness, elegance, and power of momentous change. Thus, I see the other side of the human experience parameter—the opposite bookend of that integration of thinking, believing, and feeling—as our personal and communal aspirations. As the bird becomes metaphorical for ascension, we span the terrestrial and celestial. We sense the earth and the heavens, simultaneously. We have all the tactile, physical, and concrete aspects of our world on one side—our age, limitations, strengths, and weaknesses—and on the other we have the ethereal and our desires. This is the Light and Air that I allude to in the title of the show which brings about believing, and recalls the quasi-spirituality that the Hudson River School was alluding to through their Nature. The light they were rendering in their paintings and the collage-style composition of various scenes they fit together coincided with strenuous social transformations in the country and the view that the wilderness was no longer dangerous and untamable. People stood in line and paid admission to see these paintings unveiled from behind curtains. It was a dramatic experience, combining both real and ideal notions of the natural world and our place in it moving forward. Today, similar aspirations are intact, but we have a much more tenuous environmental situation. We have a fragile and uncertain future, considering Nature as a whole and our specific role in it. Ours is a strange and flexible disposition with everything once natural: timeless, boundless, and ethereal, but also limited, temporal, earth-bound, and aggravated. Real terrestrial contact is elusive and sometimes separating, as is evolution, dynamism, degradation, even violence in the ways of the natural world. The same for all those languages we employ to categorize and catalog our landscape and, in some cases, attempt to control. Perhaps art objects can become surrogates in the place of our alienation, transporting us to what is missing.
I want to thank all of you for coming out to this talk, and for your generous attention to my story. I hope you learned a little bit more about me, my work, and my process.
Sensitive to the changes that settlement brought to his native Midwest, Robert Kennicott recognized even in the 1850s the dangers that habitat destruction could have on the loss of resources and the potential for extinction:
Man interferes unwisely [in the vast system of nature], and the order is broken. . . . [B]efore waging any war on any animal, let us study its habits, and look well to the consequences which would follow its extermination.
After completing a comprehensive survey of southern Illinois for the Illinois Central Railroad and co-founding the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Kennecott embarked on a series of explorations of Arctic North America. His last was in 1865, when he was commissioned to seek an overland route to Europe via Alaska and Siberia for Western Union Telegraph. He died there at the age of 30, presumably of a heart attack. His discoveries, as publicized before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, contributed to the eventual purchase of the Alaska Territory by the United States in 1867. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, many of Kennecott’s surviving collected specimens were transferred to the Academy from the Smithsonian and Northwestern University. These and other related early finds provide an invaluable physical record of the past upon which we can gauge our present circumstances, and possibly our future.
Full-color exhibition catalogs are available with the above essay. Please contact the artist to inquire.