Robert Young: Strange Coquetry

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      At the Atelier Gallery until June 9

      The attitude painters take to the canvas, paper, or panel supports that they make their work on is one of the most important decisions they confront, and one that occurs before any questions of subject matter or “content”.

      For Renaissance painters, the flat surface of a panel or wall was a window, transparent as glass, with real objects behind it, conjured up by the miracle of multiple-point perspective. For modern abstract painters like Agnes Martin or Guido Molinari, the flat fact of the surface is as inescapable as death, something that defeats any attempt to dissolve it or make it disappear.

      Between these extremes of illusionism and blunt facticity lies the work of Vancouver artist Robert Young, whose inventive paintings, drawings, and mixed-media collages defy easy categorization. Though he taught for years at UBC, Young is the antithesis of an academic artist, and is now, at almost 70, in the happy position of not really having any followers.

      Young’s art imaginatively reconstructs experience as a kind of allegorical collage, in which realistically painted or drawn objects compete for the viewer’s attention with images pilfered from art history. His paintings are nominally still lifes that depict living-room interiors, flights of stairs, scenes half glimpsed through urban windows, and fruit and flowers. Their ostensible realism is repeatedly disrupted by visual quotations from the work of other artists, and by jarring shifts in medium. Oil is juxtaposed with chalky gouache, watercolour, coloured pencil, and silvery graphite.

      Young’s compositions are further complicated by witty trompe-l’oeil effects, in which drawn or painted objects are tacked to the picture by carefully drawn pushpins or pieces of painted tape, í  la William Harnett or Jasper Johns.

      Young doesn’t distinguish, as do most people, between non-art objects and phenomena encountered firsthand (honeysuckle, shadows, a living-room carpet) and art he admires (a Suzuki Harunobu woodblock print, a Tuscan column). This is a radical idea in a culture given to enforcing separation between things, one eager to classify and sort more and more finely, forcing experience’s subjective richness into the narrow confines of genres or “schools”.

      The largest painting in Young’s exhibition, Shadow Play: Lurid Bride, is a composite of many small studies of objects and interior scenes collaged on the canvas, like a Roman tomb wall or an advent calendar. It’s more stiffly composed than Young’s smaller studies for its components, which are fully finished works of art in their own right and only play at looking unfinished.

      The compositions of the differently scaled works often seem identical, but Young makes dramatic changes between them. For example, a carpet is painted in chalky violet gouache in a smaller work, and in green watercolour in its larger sibling. Young thereby demonstrates that things which appear compositionally identical may produce entirely different feelings in viewers. It’s an experience that speaks to the success of Young’s rigorous and visually generous work, which is as carefully thought as it is made.