Hybrid and Gestural
by Nelida Nassar (2013)
English-born and Beirut-based artist Tom Young is presenting his first self-curated exhibition in Lebanon, entitled Carousel. His imagery is as powerful and provocative as it is discreet. In his new body of work he reflects on his relationship to Lebanon (Cedar Roots) and, in particular, on his deep kinship with Beirut (Still Spinning and Gunflowers). It is an investigative journey down memory lane, touching on among other topics childhood loss and travels to Cuba, France, and Oman (Cuban Heals, Heart of Havana, Dark Star, Amari, and Mirage). During his peregrinations in Beirut, Young discovered an abandoned patrician house with a unique central hall traditional architectural features; he attempts to recapture its spirit through the use of towering, large-scale paintings on canvas, numerous drawings, and an installation of objects, furniture and photographs found in-situ. He transforms the house into an art object, evoking the presence of the Baloumian family by painting their portraits from salvaged photographs. He reclaims the house as a Duchamp’s ready-made, weaving together his personal narrative of displacement and abandonment (Separation, Until We Meet Again and Homecoming) with the chronicle of the Baloumians, prosperous tradesmen who deserted the premises (Golden Age and Perfumes), with the story of Beirut ravaged by war (End of The Line), and with references to Israeli bombings of the city (Crash and 20 Years), a city which is in search of a new identity.
Young could be considered an architectural painter, but it would perhaps be truer to say that he is a painter of habitats (Fowda). On the surface, his subjects are buildings, or portraits, but at their core his images are focused on the scattered remnants and traces of lives he finds in hallways and on façades (Let The Light In), in derelict spaces (Cascade), or glanced at from windows and rooftops (The Day After).
Beirut offers Young a particularly rich setting for his inquiries. The curves and columns which line the streets, and the dense layering of the urban space, refer to past eras and speak of the political, social, and economic forces that have brought the city to its present condition. In his rigorous yet sensitive examination – facilitated by an exceptional sense of colour, an intense palette of gesture, and composition that make his images feel like vivid memories– Young delicately peels away the patina of daily living (Delicate) and reveals the juxtapositions that create a city’s identity. In this city, the aristocrat lives where the peddler once resided; merchants conduct their business where children danced and tumbled; and prisoners lead a dreadful life in a jail sited underneath a highway as in the rubbings of (Ziad, Sitar, Jawad and Rami). Each image is a discovery and a fragment of the city’s biography.
The analytical feel of Young’s images comes from the artist’s use of pre-Renaissance and Renaissance perspectives. When the images are soft, with muted colours and thinly painted, they lodge in one’s imagination, evoking a mood, and their main impact remains on the emotional level. The viewer has to put more of him or herself into them. Those images with detail bring to mind the old expression: There’s no fiction stranger than reality. Reality itself composes the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions, as well as the oddest combinations – and there is no way to account for them.
While incorporating familiar objects into his paintings, Young presents us with enigmatic images. His bold three-dimensional, textured paintings engage with the history and the future of painting. He adheres to Joseph Kosuth’s view: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art. If an artist accepts painting (or sculpture) he is accepting the tradition that goes with it. That’s because the word art is general and the word painting is specific. Painting is a kind of art, if you make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the nature of art.”(1)
Although Kosuth recommends ignoring the specific in order to achieve the general, he did not give artists any detailed advice. It is Donald Judd who, in his essay “Specific Objects,” spelled out this strategy. “The best new work,” he declared is, “neither painting nor sculpture, but a paradoxical hybrid” like “a picture [which] stops being a picture and turns into an arbitrary object.”(2) The specific object only needs the third dimension in order to exist, he argued, since “Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colours – which is riddance of one of the salient and objectionable relics of European art.”(3) In dispensing with illusionism as nothing more than “an objectionable relic,” Judd described the impasse already reached by the medium of painting.
Young certainly produces hybrids which affirm “the notion of the specific object; but they push beyond that: to the generic one –towards art as such rather than painting or sculpture.”(4) In this exhibition, he creates “the third dimension, so necessary for the specific object,”(5) through his installation and paintings, on the one hand, and the reenacting and exploring the medium of the photograph documents on the other. His installation folds and shapes the actual space of the house into a matrix for the assembled object in such a way – namely as the stage on which the object appears – that it becomes essential to the object’s very existence. The mediums, (the elements in which colour is suspended, or the technical support for the image traditionally canvas, photographs, drawings, installation, rubbings, etc.) different as they may be, are support for the work and for all of Young’s practice.
1. Joseph Kosuth, “Art and philosophy I and II,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Idea Art (New York: Dutton 1973), p. 82; first published in Studio International (October - November 1969). And see Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), p. 245.
2. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Complete Writings 1959 - 1975 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), p.181.
3. Ibid., p. 184.
4. Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996),
5. Rosalind E. Krauss, ““Specific” Objects,” in Perpetual Inventory (Cambridge,Mass.: MIT Press, 2010), p. 48.