Working back in

The grid within the grid
Yuill/Crowley, Sydney

For the best part of his career John Young's work has been concerned with the problematics of aesthetic production, and particularly with art's reception when the exchange of authorial intent for public codification occurs. For a number of years Young programmatically repainted the late works of Andre Derain, in which the painter recanted his former position as a progressive modernist to return to traditional pictorial values and representational skills, producing images which in comparison with his Fauvist works seem sentimental, often to the point of kitsch.

The replicated harlequins of Derain, however, occupied only a segment of Young's canvas, which, characteristically, was divided into longitudinal bands. Derain, the lapsed modernist, was bracketed by the end point of the teleological process which was modernism in painting-the grid. The modern and the anti-modern, the plenitude of historical completion and the subversion of its rejection were embraced in the same work, though in its structural role the grid assumes primacy over the figurative element imprisoned within its superior order.

Countless words have been written on the significance of the grid in the art of this century; its role in the defeat of relational abstraction, its connection to Western rationalism and its value as a sign of postmodern closure. Such discussion has necessarily spilled over into the consideration of the work of John Young since the grid has been a constant element in his painting and drawing, juxtaposed with various groups of figurative imagery. But perhaps what is more important than the sign value of either figuration or abstraction is the way their nexus speaks of the process of legitimation in the reception of art: the determination to read the late work of Derain as kitsch implies a value judgment at the point of reception, assuming, that is, that the artist himself saw a different value in his practice. By comparison to the compromised and regressive work of Derain the minimalist grid represents a more certain moment in the narrative of modernism. As such, the appearance of either element is to be read as strategic rather than as pure presence.

Graham Coulter-Smith has linked Young's use of the grid to the artist's particular interest in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, as Coulter-Smith wrote, was 'The first to point out the essential emptiness of the grid of reason (that is logic)" .1 Wittgenstein 's writing questioned the possibility of absolute truth, which he saw as the effect of "language games", and the very institution of philosophy, but there are other ways in which John Young's work may be likened to that of Wittgenstein. There is a tactical dimension to Wittgenstein's writing. His philosophical discourse is more than hermeneutics at the level of language, it is demonstrative through its formal structures. In Young's work it is not just a matter of reading the grid as sign, with all that entails in terms of art historical precedent and pedigree, but in looking carefully at how the grid is painted, how it appears.

Wittgenstein contested the discipline of philosophy, rejecting linear argument, refusing answers in order to privilege questions. In his writing the 'meaning' is as much in the interstices between words, lines, paragraphs and texts as within them: this is a challenge he levels at his readers. Similarly Young undermines monolithic readings of the grid by the formal and structural variance of his renditions. He uses his own work and that of other artists as reference, working back into it to produce permutations and presenting these to an artworld for which the value of similarity and difference is an equivocal, ever shifting matter driven by discursive, institutional and economic factors.

Then there is Wittgenstein's concern for the rupture between the individual and the public sphere of language, a certain parallel for the disjunction between the meaning invested in the (private) production and the (public) reception of the work of art. The schism between the public codification and the private experience of art is central to the work in John Young's recent exhibition, Bad Faith Realism, at Yuiii/Crowley gallery, Sydney.

To an extent the structure of the grid, which like language derives from the public arena, has overtaken Young's work. Many of these canvases are now entirely covered with a polychrome grid of small rectangles-in only some works is this grid surmounted by sets of images, variously combined and derived from the photographs of Paul Outerbridge; 1950s photo albums; calendars of the Tasmanian wilderness; reproductions in art books. There are also three paintings featuring eight very large rectangles set out in two rows of four, one above the other. It is the relationship between the two sets of 'abstract' works and the facts of their production that I wish to address since it is through them that Young most trenchantly targets the transformation of artistic production as it is eo-opted by economic and institutional interests in the name of special cultural experience.

These works are produced by a team of painters (including Young).2 Before beginning any work Young establishes a finite set of colours which will be used to create the polychrome canvasses. Without variance the colours are sourced from existing art, Young's interest being in the semiotic relationship between colour and the zeitgeist. He has taken colour combinations from the work of Gunther Forg and Barnett Newman, from Gerhard Richter's Colour Plate series (1970s), from Charles Leadbeater’s spiritual colour chart (1904), and, in this case, the chromatic range established in Brice Marden's series of paintings, The Seasons (1960s).

It is surprising to see how this palette of Marden's translates as a package of late 1980s design. The grid becomes pattern or ambience, the latter being specifically highlighted in the large rectangle paintings. These works, simultaneously a copy and an original since they are details of the larger grids, essentialise their atmospheric colour effects. They could be colour suggestions in an interior design magazine, and, as such, they beg comparison of the complicity of art in generating both effect and desire with the similar complicity of more evidently commercial and commodified forms of aesthetic production.

After the colours are chosen they are mixed in bulk and the canvas gridded up for work to begin. The sequence of colours is determined by various arbitrary systems which have evolved and changed over time. As such the application of colour is the subject of prescriptive arrangement which limits the value of art as free (self) expression. The primacy of 'process' as a means of undermining the notion of the art object as unique, handcrafted original was, of course, worked through in the late 1960s, and Young capitalizes on the fact that its audacity has been thoroughly canonized through the process of normalization enacted by art history and the art museum.

Whilst it is this process of public ratification that the works address, Young has written of the sense of community and commitment which developed among the painters as they produced the works, of the affirmative power of labour and involvement. But how is the viewer to know of this? Despite the presence of the marks of the brush, and idiosyncratic imperfections in the surface of individual rectangles which suggest the presence of more than one hand, the production of the grids appears quite mechanical. On completion of sections of each painting, however, the grid is redrawn through the wet paint, dragging threads of one colour into another at their edge, an evident gesture which rejects the totalising perfection of the grid as system.

In comparison to the sense of engagement which characterised the production of the paintings, Young has described the sense of closure in beholding the finished works, which he considers become "emotionally exclusive and rejective of the viewers (including the artists involved)".3 The paintings have titles like Sanctuary, Fruit

(Happiness), The Seventh Sacred Season, names so saccharine as to parody the notion that the production and reception of painting revolves around some metaphysical truth or sublime experience. Young intends the titles to "exorcise the sanctity of [the] passionate relation between artists, [turning] your interpretation of this relation into banal kitsch "4, but perhaps this effect is not so simply achieved.

Whilst so much discussion in the past decade in certain art circles has revolved around the totalizing effect of the world of signs, its colonization of 'the real ' and the resultant paralysis which recognizes no other possibility for aesthetic production than the mute (re)circulation of images, antithetical discourses proliferate throughout the culture industry. They assure large sectors of the viewing public of the significance of art as a mode of address, and despite the intent of individual practitioners, despite even their refutation of intent, establish a system which structures and orders Discrete Entity. Left to right: Mikala Dwyer, Margaret Roberts, Kate Brennan, Mary Louise Pavlovic, Robyn Backen. Photo: Chris Fortescue the meaning of art in terms of the meaningful. The rhetorical framework constructed around works of art, which really constitutes little more than produce promotion, assures the special status of aesthetic production in order to establish the special status of art's institutions and the market.

Whilst Young might contend that all meaning which marked the process of production necessarily evaporates from the work on its public apotheosis, it is more likely that it collides with different belief systems. Works of art become the raw material for an art bureaucracy which imposes its own meanings. The grid could pose a problem for this system since it facilitates few of the affirmative interpretations of traditional painting, yet it also offers a path of least resistance: authorial function is diminished, the grid's established sphere of reference is broad and open to manipulation.

For Young the meaningfulness of art is to be engaged in activity, which in itself suggests purpose. His commitment to action is both tested and emphasized by the eccentricity of his project, his devotion of canvasses covered with grids. Yet the proliferation of (like) images and objects is at the very heart of art production. How often is the artist making over the same work ad nauseam, the slight stylistic, formal or thematic differences permitting each work to be marked out as individualized?

notes: 

1. Graham Coulter-Smith, "John Young: Paradoxical Dialogue·, Eyeline, March 1988, p.21.

2. David Thomas, Elizabeth Pulie and Chris Jansen worked on the most recentgroupofpaintings

3. John Young, Propositions for the Polychrome Paintings, 1989

4.Ibid