Though October 26th
I didn’t think Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life was boring, simply, because it contained a type of
doorknob I remembered from my childhood. The knobs were thick metal ingots that
fit into heavy solid doors (only the present seems to have hollow doors), and they
had a hard, long rectangle pin that jutted from one side through the door and
into the receiving end of the knob’s twin on the other side. They loosened through
use, eventually making the entrances and exits of doors a shaky, uncertain
affair. One day, the knob will fall off. Mallick had that knob in his movie. He
had it in his childhood in Texas. It loosened in the movie as the rigidity of
the characters blurred, as their petty rages and disputes came up against death.
Time knocks a bit and a bit more until we find ourselves quite loose. I won’t
convince you of this, but the doorknob was for Mallick as it is for me, a
symbol of our relationship to the infinite, the weather of not knowing.
Could it be that certain works by Brenna Youngblood offer
just such metaphysical reports from the softer sides of our memory? Youngblood’s
work, when it’s good, is not expressive but coded and hidden, not proclaiming anything other than the lived-in nature of life. The quality works offer
gardens now overgrown and long overstuffed garages, places where arguments have
blown themselves out and yells have ceased to echo. Writers have and will
continue to troll Youngblood’s young and taciturn biography for details that correspond
to her materials and images, but I find those works that make this sort of
pursuit easy usually rank among Youngblood’s least interesting efforts. She can
be funny, random, a bit of a punk, but Youngblood is at her best when what she
is addressing is out of view, something dark in the corner, something just off
the stage. She reminds some of Betye Saar and Robert Rauschenberg, but I like
her best when she is like Jasper Johns and Robert Gober. Sometimes the things
that mean the most are only half remembered, and half remembered things are
what pluck our silver coated memories out of desire and into reality.
To get into what I mean, Youngblood’s work last year in
Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Reclaimed Wood
Floor, 2012 (Above), bears a look. It’s literally a floor, painted over with
scattershot paint and atmospheric brushwork. It’s used and worn out. It could
be the studio floor of a painter (which would be boring). In Youngblood’s
hands, however, there are flavors and subtexts to this floor. When on the wall,
it is nothing less than a J.M.W. Turner landscape, complete with winds and
fires bleeding into and polluting the sky, opening up large and subsequently
dwarfing any small human dramas held within. Youngblood conjures Turner’s
strange luminosity, his glorious swirling world, and whether or not it is
intended doesn’t matter. Youngblood looks past and through the floor, into
something vast just like Turner looked past small human events into his version
of the dangerous truth (it is no coincidence that Turner’s luminosity became
ample food for the Impressionists). That murderous burst of red on Youngblood’s
floor, does it even matter? The power outlet? That which is being reclaimed is,
on one hand, the floor, but on another, a terrain that is much more sinister.
Youngblood’s work seems hurt somehow, fragile underneath,
but there is a fundamental glow in dark places. Youngblood’s colors are muddy.
Washy blacks, pulverized blues, ramshackle browns, and shy pinks want to
declare dirt, the rough and ready world of assemblage and found materials. This
is where the Victorville desert rat steps forward, the clenched teeth of
salvage yards and afterschool boredom.
The paintings speak of memory, of the business of old sheds, woodshops presided
over by tinkers and gypsy poets far from anything glossy and even farther from
fashion. Youngblood’s added bits of photos and objects further shock the
surfaces. However, in the gallery, these paintings are inexplicably bright, and
in light of the rough materials, the luminosity is paradoxical. Untitled, 2013 (the one with the
Authorized Personnel sign below) should have all the shine of a cardboard box, yet
glows like creamy bars of bullion.
If one is to get a handle on this brightness, it might be best
to return to the opening image of the door knob and Tree of Life. The movie’s point of view is a man coming to grips
with the death of his father, who he never forgave for being somehow complicit
in the death of his brother. He seeks understanding through a look at his
childhood, which is bright and beautiful in his mind, a lost world of innocence
and un-tethered play. Throughout the film, bits of half-remembered traumas and
misunderstood events prick the surface of a blissful registry. There’s a fantastic
scene where the viewer literally floats with a group of children through a
field of high grass only to be jolted when a boy callously and sportingly
shoots the end of another boy’s finger with a BB gun. It’s enough to set the
world on edge. For Mallick as a director, beauty and love are a secular
religion, they are metaphysical certainties that fold all (every malice and
every turn of cruelty) paradoxically into its overwhelming mystery.
In the reality of Youngblood’s work, I find none of the
pointed politics of Saar and little of John Outterbridge’s witchdoctor animism.
Her sense of humor, her puns, and the unlikely metaphors that arise from
pushing materials where they normally don’t go, mark a kinship with
Rauschenberg. However, a deeper, more
mysterious level exists that extend past these references. There is a point
where signs and symbols become frustrated, where they short circuit and get to
things I doubt Youngblood can talk about but bears so casually and with enough
nerve that you hope the artworld doesn’t do her harm (as it can). There is
something of that metaphysical, secular religion of Mallick in these works, a
bright and beautiful innocence riven through with doubt and pain, of memories
laid bare and accepted.
Consider the best painting in Honor Fraser’s show, a
painting that was not in the show but hung in the back: Women's Health
Pack (Drive Buy), 2013 (Above).This work is nothing less than devastating. I
could imagine Ellsworth Kelly looking at this work and getting the sensation of
the waiting room pink rising as a form, threatening to ingest the rectangle of
wallpaper at the top, Mother’s Day wrapping paper wrinkled and folded as if
unable to be completely smoothed out. Get close enough and the pink is
overpainted with the ghostly remains of a wheelchair.
Again, bright pain. There is a deep, unspecific trauma here.
A mother. A daughter. The rituals of giving right next to the rituals of
sickness. Youngblood borrows devices from many artists: the sweeping
interactions of shape and planes offered by color field painters, the blurred ghosts
of history painters post-photography like Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Ritcher, and the
symptomatic readymades of Mike Kelley.
However, Youngblood doesn’t make a fuss about
any of these devices. She seems to simply follow a force wherever it takes her
materials, in the case of Women's Health Pack (Drive Buy), the
force of loss. Youngblood’s work steps to the edge of the something, where
ghosts have determined how we go forward even if we don’t know it yet. It is
haunting stuff. Something here reminds me of Mallick, and in closing, perhaps Marie Howe’s great poem The Gate, which I
hope you’ll read.