Robert Young: Quotidian View exudes history, philosophy

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      Robert Young: Quotidian View

      At the Burnaby Art Gallery until November 29

      There’s a small print in Robert Young: Quotidian View that is definitely more than the sum of its subtle parts. Titled Citrus Utopi, it combines etching and Japanese woodcut techniques, and at first glance resembles an old botanical print. Comprising a delicate line drawing of a lemon branch with fruit and leaves, a scalloped wedge form filled with tiny dots, and a pale green trapezoid fading away into space, the work aligns Young’s formal and philosophical concerns. The sources of these images include a lemon branch the artist’s father long ago grafted onto another tree and a receding rectangle in a painting by Kazimir Malevich, the inventor of suprematism. The historical and philosophical references include the grafting of a political agenda onto an aesthetic movement, and specifically the utopian aspirations of the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century.

      Most of the prints, drawings, and watercolours in this survey exhibition of works on paper reveal a contemplative calling. Covering the years 1982 to the present, they meditate on still-life arrangements, domestic interiors, and garden views from windows of the artist’s small Mount Pleasant house. Young invests the most humble objects—a broken chair, a dandelion, a colander—with a Zen-like reverence for the everyday.

      Young also looks beyond his home, toward the enriching influences of music, poetry, and religion. As well, he honours those who have aspired to improve the human condition. His images of the Russian dissident Pyotr Yakir and Myanmar’s jailed political leader Aung San Suu Kyi remind us of the need to be aware of history and the importance of striving to overcome the worst of human nature.

      The composition of three mixed-media studies and a woodcut print of Yakir sets the image of the persecuted historian’s face between an untitled book and a collage by another suprematist, Lyubov Popova. In an understated comment on the failures of the Russian avant-garde as it aligned itself with the (again, utopian) ideals of the Russian Revolution, Young has reversed the collage that stands as a backdrop to the portrait. Even without knowing who Yakir is, the viewer recognizes the gaunt face, shaved head, and scruffy beard of someone who could only be a political prisoner. He looks like a man whose beliefs are being starved and tortured out of him.

      In all his work, Young treads a fine line between his aesthetic, philosophical, and political inquiries and his often-stated opposition to what he sees as postmodernism’s orthodoxies. At the same time that he believes that a work of art should be autonomous and not “instrumentalist”, he also fills his art with a rich range of cultural and political references and personal observations. Young’s work affirms the belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.