These assured, sumptuous new works by John Young seemed designed to trip you up. The title for the show was suspicious: ‘Naive and Sentimental Paintings’. Surely works by an artist acknowledged as one of Australia’s foremost painters since the early 1990s were not ‘bête comme un peintre’ (‘dumb as a painter’), as Marcel Duchamp famously analogized – beguilingly innocent and self-indulgent?
Young’s works have for many years involved multiple images, often presented as series, a smorgasbord-like dish from which we could pick and mix our readings. These recent works, largely from the ongoing ‘Naive and Sentimental’ series, but also including new, composite figurative paintings, fold that horizontal array into a zero degree of synthetic depth, clearly derived from a Photoshop-informed sensibility. Young is well versed in and actively engaged with the theoretical framework this approach entails (for example, he wrote an essay in Art & Text on Jean Baudrillard in 1981, the year Simulacra and Simulation was published). Images are not collaged onto each other (as in the classic artistic device of the 20th century) so much as merged within a shared ground, made synchronous, borrowing from the wonders of digital morphosis (perhaps the defining métier of the early 21st century).
Young has also achieved particular success in the Asia-Pacific region, frequently holding solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne (as well as Berlin, Tel Aviv and Nanjing), and was the President of the Asian Australian Artists’ Association in 1997–8. For as well as the hyper-real, the hyper-cultural reach of his practice should not be overlooked. Young has consistently drawn Western and Eastern art-historical traditions into alignment in his work, a reflection perhaps of his cultural identity (he was born in Hong Kong in 1956), as was explored in the major survey show ‘Orient/Occident: John Young, A Survey of Works 1979–2005’, held at TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2005. But unlike the deliberate appropriation strategies prevalent in the 1980s and ’90s, of which he was a critically acclaimed exponent, cultural slippage is now often nearly impossible to detect in the seamless poetic, digital felicity of his imagery.
Macau II, Winter (all works 2007), for example, seems to present a scene from a 19th-century European bourgeois parlour, with a quasi-Surreal intrusion of white blossom (or perhaps coral) into the pictorial field. Yet Macau is significant in this context, as it was the last European colony in Asia (China assumed sovereignty in 1999, after 329 years of Portuguese rule). The ornate parlour, on closer inspection, is itself a synthesis of Oriental and European design influences; the blossom intervening into the picture plane acts as both a Colonists’ exotic artefact and a culturally specific decorative device. The juxtaposed pictorial elements are wedded by a shared textural variety, a lattice-like structure and an off-white tonal range – ‘sentimental’ formal qualities that elide difference and which consequently have the curious effect of infusing – rather than simply adding – the exotic into the viewer’s reading of the scene.
Young’s studio process in generating these combinations is specific and considered. Thousands of found images – including stock photographs, landscapes and nudes – are fed into a computer, which applies predetermined Photoshop filters through batch processing. The ‘automatic’ composites that result are then assessed and selections made: ‘The choice of an image to paint, out of thousands blindly transformed by the computer, relies on a certain sentiment.’ This emotive variable, the resonance that catches the artist’s eye, is, according to Young, intended to deliver ‘abstracted works for an age that prides itself in forgetfulness’.
Here we are not far from the ‘canned chance’ of Marcel Duchamp or the automatic generative Minimalism of Sol LeWitt and John Cage. Indeed, as Daniel Palmer identifies in the catalogue essay for the exhibition, the work is inspired by ‘Minimalist composers such as John Adams, from whose Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997–8) the shows title is borrowed (itself derived from Friedrich von Schiller’s 1795 essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry”)’. Young adds a further borrowing to this passage of emotively driven likenesses and harmonies, in which the mechanical overtones of his pursuit should not be seen as lessening the degree of feeling.
While the sheer speed and anonymity of information flow are the hallmarks of digital media, Young exploits the ‘forgetfulness’ that these generate by allowing the haunting absence of the signified to be compensated by an over-fullness of signification, a kind of distillation of sentiment. We revel in the luxury of the Morris Louis-/Gerhard Richter-influenced abstract work Kulu V, Winter, as we might at the Kulu Bay Resort in Fiji on which it is possibly (but not significantly) based; we can read Sandro Botticelli, Elizabeth Peyton and Virginia Woolf into The Triumph of Clarity over Anger, Autumn but are not beholden to these points of reference. In Young’s approach paint is celebrated as the bastard medium par excellence, here enhanced through technology, employed in the evincing of that ‘certain sentiment’ we long for. Or more exactly: Young draws our attention to the code-shifting, mix-making procedures that were culturally always already around us but which now find increased opportunity in the digital age and which make manifest but forget the origin of an imprecise, ambient but compelling emotion.
First published in Issue 115