Unfolding the Essence of Being: The Collages of Andrew Young
I Space, University of Illinois, Chicago 2001
Modern artists have long been seduced by the mystical air surrounding the medium of collage. Since Picasso’s decision in 1912 to paste a trompe l’oeil pattern of chair caning to his Cubist still life, artists have been aware of collage’s tactile and conceptual alchemy. Natural and found materials could now seemingly retain characteristics of their original identity, while initiating quiet visual and psychological transformations: whether between image and abstraction, symbol and sensation or physical object and fleeting visage. Honing these resonating oscillations are Andrew Young’s poetic improvisations that are a synthesis of the deliberate gestures of painting and the random incidents cultivated by collage.
Young is a painter who established a reputation, over the past fifteen years, for coaxing from self-made elixirs of egg tempera distilled, elegant compositions that resemble the partially excavated walls of rooms once lit by lamp light. Imbued in these enigmatic layers of geometric designs and floral imagery was an inescapable sense of history, evoked through the simulated textures of anonymous, smoke-stained plaster walls, crackling paint and distressed architectural ornamentation. Young painted images that were not simply an attempt at depicting place, but rather were searches for the material embodiment of life experiences.
In his new series of twenty-five collages created from 1998 to 1999, Young embarks on similar “journeys” that delve even further into the complexities of existence as defined by the physical presence of things. Intuitively, he builds interlaced mosaics of humble, opaque and translucent papers that express space as a palpable reality. Filled with subtle inflections of color, tone, line and texture, these prosaic “atmospheres” build emotional energy slowly, establishing hushed, intimate spaces for meditation. As a result, Young expresses modernism’s indebtedness to the minimalist vocabulary of Asian art that sees open space not as an empty void, but as an arena filled with possibilities. This point of view is succinctly explained by author Leonard Shlain in his book, Art & Physics: “[It is an] ancient Eastern idea that empty space is alive and procreative…The large empty spaces contained within an Asian work of art are a representation of this idea. In contrast to a homogeneous Euclidean space that never changes, the Eastern view suggests that space evolves.” 1 Young enlivens this concept through the distinct patinas of his assorted papers and the unexpected, visual incidents that emerge as a result of their sensuous interaction. He suggests that space bears the imprints of numerous, unknown lives, yet remains a porous tablet.
Flattened out planes of creased, worn-looking paper are the unlikely sublime “empty spaces” in Young’s compositions, serving as both image and field, positive and negative space. These rectangular shapes work as flexible, modular components that adapt to his intuitive and informal organization of narrow, vertical grids. Quite human in their awkward appearance, these flawed and imperfect rectangles evoke the feeling of temporary patches, nimbly fabricated to stretch beyond the bounds of their physical limits. The resonance of this metaphor is reinforced by the feeling that the papers have absorbed a full range of conditions, positive and negative, which the world has to offer. This unknown, but nonetheless tangible, history seems ingrained in the papers’ frayed edges, dog-eared corners and saturated, but weary, surfaces.
But while Young’s papers appear to be “found” materials, they are actually created by him. Staining rice papers with various natural pigments, he creates a range of arid terra cottas, sun-bleached ochres and brilliant cobalt blues that are capable of transporting one instantly to the streets of the Mediterranean or the Middle East. This is in part the result of the depths to which Young has gone to obtain his own pigments. A deep, reddish-brown that seems carved from the walls of an ancient Mesopotamia was in actuality painstakingly extracted from the minerals of a stone Young brought back with him from an excursion to Pakistan. The integrity of such raw materials is an important part of his conceptual framework. His resulting images, that layer the most basic shapes and subtle colors, rely on the intrinsic character of materials that originate from the real world, not solely from the artist’s tool box. Such materials are invested with an additional intensity of emotions and associations. Through Young’s deep, reddish-brown, for example, we feel the accumulation of heat and dust compacted over the millenniums in this cradle of civilization. His compositions, as a result, while abstract in design, nonetheless feel possessed by a special quality of living that strains all of one’s senses. Deep reservoirs of such sensations, filled with Young’s foreign travels, permeate his works. The American expatriate writer Paul Bowles poetically expresses the beguiling character of such distant places in his travel essay, Africa Minor. Bowles writes: “It is a strange sensation, when you are walking alone in a still, dark street late at night, to come upon a pile of cardboard boxes soaked with rain, and, as you pass by it, to find yourself staring into the eyes of a man sitting upright behind it. A thief? A beggar? The night watchman of the quarter? A spy for the secret police?”2
The aura of overseas lands, visited but not completely understood, was sparked by Young’s memories of receiving mysteriously wrapped packages from his father, who was a member of the foreign service. Though eventually amassing his own collection of unique, indigenous artifacts from his own world travels, Young never forgot the initial intoxicating feeling of holding strangely printed papers, wrappers and labels that had absorbed the air and soil of these seemingly mythical places. This experience taught him that a journey does not need to be limited to that engaged by only the physical body. Conveying such travels in Young’s works are images as overt in symbolism as rare postage stamps and the ubiquitous travel postcard, to more veiled icons such as insect and plant specimens, butterflies (a Christian symbol for resurrection), as well as birds (a symbol for the soul in Ancient Egypt). Embedded within the matrices of “open” spaces and “solid” walls of colored and toned paper, these images visually approximate the ability to not only experience time, but to see it, as Young creates hypnotic layers of translucent history that visually unfold. These unique temporal layers reveal the subtle distinction between his collages and his paintings. Employing the chance possibilities of the collage process, Young is able to find a visual means to convey the seemingly random ways disconnected events, places and things from the past, present and future attach themselves to each other, lending definition, if not always clarity, to our lives.
A collage such as c–12, that establishes its initial mood through a black rectangle, overlapped by a bird silhouette and a sepia-toned postcard, demonstrates the importance of the viewer in completing the circuits of potential meaning that Young sets in motion. It is a quiet, sophisticated collage that emphasizes the inaccuracies in the labels, artificial and real, then and now. Young gets us started in questioning assumed perceptions by emphasizing the inflections that define the simple identifying descriptor of black and white. Contrasting the nostalgic, sepia-toned landscape on the postcard with the velvety-black rectangle, he makes us feel the significant differences between these two images from the same tonal family. The ethereal luminosity of the silver-hued photograph is made even more crystalline when juxtaposed with the light-swallowing black rectangle that is dark as coal. These differences are crucial in alluding to the compression of time. The heightened frozen quality of the placid lake image, the result of its sharp focus, represents a past viewed from a distance, incapable of being changed. Yet, the tactile density of the door-shaped, black rectangle implies the looming presence of a future where the two halves of existence, the events of a past and a present, have yet to catch up to each other. Articulating the area between the two–a present–is the silhouette of the bird, its black body separated from the black field it sits on by a thin, white contour of worn paper. The bird’s body is simultaneously part of its background, creating a reverberating positive and negative presence that suggests the metaphorical weightlessness of present experiences, yet to be evaluated in the context of time.
Especially evocative of the subliminal elements of movement and time in Young’s papers are their folds. Colorless and razor-thin, these subtractive lines suggest that the pristine flatness of the original paper has at some point been transformed into three-dimensional mass. Through this implication, the flattened, anonymous form suggests it has occupied the real world in a functional capacity and now has been physically and visually “re-born” into its present transcendent state. These transforming folds are “drawn” by Young with the precision of a pencil line, activating his surfaces with the delicacy of touch that recalls his previous work in egg tempera and watercolor. However, these incised edges are much more physical, revealing the often tenuous links between shapes.
In a work such as c-44, curvilinear, symmetrical, bright-blue shapes float on a sandy background without touching or overlapping each other. These seemingly, disconnected shapes are nonetheless linked by a grid of delicate, yet integral, creases that split each shape into equal halves. Young’s composition, while remaining abstract, implies that something recognizable exists just outside our peripheral vision. The scaffolding of his sharp folds resembles the coded, visual language of a schematic pattern for an unidentified form, whose full presence will only emerge if its disparate parts are reassembled.
Young’s folds are also suffused with the spirit of silent gestures associated with privacy and intimacy. Many of his more excessively creased papers resemble something that has been folded repeatedly in on itself through deft movements of the artist’s fingers, perhaps to shield it from public view. In the piece titled c-40, black, curved fragments seem deliberately cropped and scrambled by the boundaries of rectangular, creased edges, as if to obscure their identification during the act of public revelation. In other instances, Young’s abrasions of his papers―the areas where creases begin to resemble the irregular contours of dried river beds―create the feeling that they have been handled with a concentrated and prolonged energy. These subtle signs of clandestine activity invest his papers with the spirit of personal talismans in the form of letters repeatedly open and re-read, as if the process of memorization was a rescue mission to save the written word before it has faded. In actuality, Young has gone through a period of time in the studio when simple drawings were spontaneously made on scraps of paper, folded and crammed into the pockets of his work clothes. Eventually retrieved after being unconsciously held close to the body for a period of time, these papers had absorbed not only the physical essence of Young’s body–its heat and oils–into their fibers but his spiritual and mental states of being as well. Now finally unfolded, these papers bear no only a physical fragility but contain an indescribably emotional weight that exists beyond the sum of their formal elements.
The dilemma of making oneself vulnerable in order to gain freedom, whether physical or spiritual, quietly unifies the underlying organizational structure of Young’s related, yet diverse, compositions. While obsessively layering his muted and brightly colored papers, he initiates a series of searching gestures. His actions are similar to the automatic and intuitive movements of Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock, albeit translated from the size of the full body to the scale of Young’s agile fingers. Echoing Pollock’s heroic painterly practice, Young is continually involved in a tug-of-war between acts of revelation and concealment as part of an inward search. Working on the floor as Pollock did, he hovers over his collages as he responds to the new, visual armatures that emerge from the fluid shuffling of paper shards, looking for a feeling of “rightness” that cannot be easily explained. Young “unfolds” some of his papers only to re-submerge them in a latticework of overlapping 90 degree angles that recall the intricate webs of Pollock’s suspended lariats of pigment. Engaged in a continual quest for a particular harmony or tension between color, light, texture and an isolated image, Young uses one shape after another to create a visual “window” around previous layers until clear delineations between front and back have disappeared.
Young’s ability to create depth from materials that nevertheless emphasize the flatness of the picture plane reflects his interpretation of the push-pull principle of color and space, espoused by the influential modernist painter and teacher Hans Hofmann. In a collage such as c-52, close tonal ranges and a disciplined layering of shapes create a dynamic series of receding crosses that emerge and disappear from what appears to be a sedate composition of four, evenly balanced floral images. It is an excellent example of Young’s ability to make a poetic integration of image and object in which meaning is enveloped in the apparent emptiness of form.
Embracing the transcendent potential of elemental geometric shapes, Young reveals his passion for Islamic design. In this religion, pattern and calligraphy replace representational icons as a means of conveying the highest spiritual teachings. Refined over thousands of years, the Islamic visual language reflects both subtlety and boldness. Young incorporates these qualities in his collage, c-49. Inspired by the graphic, yet graceful, linear geometry of an Islamic screen, he creates an all-over design to activate the background of one of his more minimal compositions. However, in keeping with the dual roles that his shapes and images are often expected to fulfill, this pattern is also capable of being interpreted as a strong metaphor for imprisonment and liberation. When Young superimposes the lone silhouette of a crimson bird (framed by its backing paper) on the center of the screen, the flat pattern becomes dimensional. We are made aware of the separation of worlds, defined by what is in front of, and behind, the lines of the design. Nevertheless, in Young’s collages boundaries are not allowed to remain so easily delineated. Though unrestrained by the bars of the symbolic cage, the bird cannot leave the invisible boundaries established by the quarter-folded paper it appears embedded in.
The bird image remains one of Young’s more resonating elements, formally and emotionally. One is not sure whether the birds are from a dismantled penny arcade, a vintage birdseed package, or an ornithology guide. Used sparingly and with enough variations, the birds do the seemingly impossible―they entice us to search for their presence in works in which they do not even play a role. Painted in crimson or black, singly and in pairs, the resolutely motionless birds become ghostly human surrogates, their shapes capable of being interpreted as simultaneously positive beings or negative apparitions. They can be metaphors for freedom won and lost, or symbol of travelers who move easily between worlds. Positioned on unfolded, rectangular cards, the birds also appear “targeted” by Young’s various permutations of fine, overlapping cross hairs of vertical and horizontal creases that physically cut through their bodies at the breast. The confluence of this physical and painted entrapment creates an edgy ambiguity between symbolic danger and visual chance. More often, these creases and the outer perimeters of the cards they are painted on act as formal buffers between the birds and the shifting spatial zones that surround them. This subtle isolation of the birds from Young’s clusters of papers also serves an important conceptual purpose. Principally occupying the top layer of his collages when they are used, the birds remain an extended link to the present in works whose multiple layers of history have the potential to be disorienting.
The tight, visual poetry created by the birds is evident in a work such as c-46. It is a rare composition in which the centered forms of the birds are almost completely obscured by a collage image of a painted flower bud. For once the birds put us ill at ease. We seem severed from an accustomed landmark for present time, as the birds appear to be one more piece of earthly detritus: an out-of-date poster that has been pasted over a crumbling wall. But slowly, a subdued transformation begins to occur. The accidental, amorphous, white erosion shapes that Young has so carefully allowed to eat through the work’s tan background to begin to leave the material world of crumbling plaster for the atmospheric realm of clouds. Ever so slightly, the longer we stare at the image, there appears to be movement behind the flower. Is it our present, in the form of the birds, struggling to break free of our past? This unanswered question keeps us returning to the image.
Young’s collages are compelling because they make us recognize that the ultimate essence of life has no fixed set of reference points. His works imply that the true nature of existence lies in the series of small and seemingly disconnected revelations that unfold during the endless cycles of transformation that happen before us. The meditative, spatial tapestries he creates allow us to fine-tune our own intuition as a means for unfolding the essence of our own being.
John Brunetti is a Chicago-based critic and the Illinois editor of dialogue.
1 Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics: Parallel Vision in Space, Time & Light (New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1991), 160-161
2 Daniel Halpern, Too Far From Home: The selected Writings of Paul Bowles (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1993), 377-378
Full-color exhibition catalogs are available with the above essay. Please contact the artist to inquire.