Wistful Nature: Andrew Young Collages
Shade, February-March 2004, pages 44-45
Andrew Young: Collages, a collection of intimate, thoughtfully rendered works on paper by the Chicago artist Andrew Young is on display this month at the Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale. His collages, complete with birds, flora, shells, and insects, speak of both an orderly, balanced Victorianism and a wistful Romanticism which inspire the poet in all of us.
After earning acclaim for his egg tempera paintings in the 1990s, Young began to experiment with the collage format. Rejecting the usual techniques of selecting and applying found papers, he used the labor-intensive methods that William Morris expounded upon in his 19th century essay “Hopes and Fears for Art.” Thus, Young grinds his own pigments and mixes them with gum Arabic to create paints that resonate with richness of times past. In fact, some of his colors come from rocks he gathered in Pakistan in 1993 while on fellowship―a profoundly inspiring time for him, both stylistically and conceptually. With the adroit use of his hand-made paints, he creates papers suggestive of everything from tea stains to thin slices of cork. With the addition of richly colored fragments and handwritten passages from Thoreau’s chapter on solitude in Walden, he builds up a cache of visual information for use in his poetic compositions.
The resulting papers are then carefully shaped with soft, rounded corners, and repeatedly folded to resemble the dog-eared papers of something cherished―letters or messages that have a depth of meaning and emotion. Occasionally he will include an old postage stamp or travel-worn postcard from a far-off place, or a piece of printed text in Chinese to emphasize the idea of memory, time and connection (his father sent him packages wrapped in papers while working for the foreign service). But the majority of his work places emphasis on color and composition―often focusing on nature to make statements that go beyond the exaltation of life to more spiritual concerns. When he paints in reverse, aspects of the spiritual are emphasized―a ghostly white pigment of ground titanium white against an indigo, black, or deep red background acts like an x-ray of the vital original. One can’t help but reflect on the world’s vanishing species and the temporal aspects of life.
Nature is an important aspect of Young’s work, but seeing itself is at the core of his investigations. Originally drawn to biology, the artist began his studies at Berkeley determined to be a scientist. On a whim, however, he went to Italy on a scholarship in 1983 to study the humanities and a part-time hobby turned into a full-time passion. Still, his interest in classification, order, and logical inquiry remained with him, now imbued in his art. Young balances his collages with technical scientific drawings of beetles, bees, butterflies, and shells and punctuates his compositions with the static silhouette of an iconic bird form, solitary or occasionally in pairs. “Birds are the mediators between earth and sky,” explains Young, “A bird becomes symbolic and in a way a representation of ascension―something we long to do, but can’t―they are the span between the terrestrial and the spiritual.”
Not only does Young create stylized bird forms to serve as metaphors for the human soul, but he invests plant forms―lush, leafy plants and flowers that defy the normal exactness of classic still lifes. For the artist, the ambiguity of the forms combined with the methodical placement of them is a statement about nature and our need, through classification and taxonomy, to understand ourselves.
As he points out, “These representations serve as symbols of our desire to connect with our natural surroundings. The birds and insects are abstracted from their natural environment because this is our scientific way of understanding the world around us.”
Whether or not the viewer identifies the bird, plant or insect he depicts, the message rings clearly―we are the sum of our parts and connected with all things around us even as we exist as solitary beings.
Sometimes his nature references suggest confinement because of their tight placement on the paper on which they are painted. Such isolation further reinforces the need for scrutiny and order. In many works he heightens this effect by placing his images within a highly patterned background. However reminiscent of Islamic architectural elements, these patterns cleverly betray their origins, borrowing from such obvious sources as a linoleum floor or the metal grillwork of a floor heater.
While one can delight in Andrew Young’s painted collages purely because of the visual sensations they provide, we are also prompted to muse on the essence of things. As much as we can react emotionally to the simple sight of a solitary bird set in an indigo square against chalky white clouds, we can privately rejoice to find two birds paired, as if to remark on the hopeful nature of connection―with one another, with the world around us, and within ourselves. There is much to muse about these days―and because Andrew Young’s art inspires self-reflection, to reach into ourselves, they are successful in the way that all great art should be.