Cross Contemporary Art, Saugerties, New York
by JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2018
At the end of a strikingly forthright artist’s statement, upstate New York artist Millicent Young asserts, “To be changed is to create change.” There is no better way of communicating the reality of emotional transformation and its consequences, in art especially. Young comes from New York City, but has spent much of her adult life in Virginia and now in the Saugerties area--her penchant is for solitary walks in nature. Her feeling for natural materials and an idiosyncratic, autonomous identity as an artist makes itself known in the fine show at Cross Contemporary Art, which presents a small retrospective of the themes important to the artist. Materials, horsehair in particular, mean a lot to Young; her work exists decidedly on the side of the organic. This strikes the viewer both as a personal statement--the artist lives close to the countryside--and as an elegiac report on the slow but sure destruction of the landscape.
The long rectangular space of the gallery is amply suited to Young’s broad array of work, mostly three-dimensional but also flat in a few cases. The pieces don’t establish much of a close dialogue with each other; instead, they present as self-sufficient entities whose origins and inspiration are as much spiritual as they are concerned with what they are made of. Still Reach (2014) consists of a rounded column of horsehair rising from a gray ceramic container; the hair is quite dark just above the container but immediately becomes a light grayish-tan as it moves toward the ceiling. In fact, the hair is hung from the ceiling it nearly touches; the piece’s presence is based on a trick of the eye. It lends itself to any number of interpretations--a geyser of water, a hairy architectural shaft, some very strange plant. Memorable in form, Still Reach also conveys a deeply spiritual ambience, something beyond our capacity with words.
Canto for the Anthropocene: 33 (2018) consists of a square plate of lead lined with horizontal rows, from which horsehair cascades. (The plate is framed by a thin, square piece of wood attached to the wall. The simple geometric form of the square, accentuated by the lines of open holes, is thrown into havoc by the horsehair that falls out of the openings. It is a piece that actively mixes rational restraint and free-wheeling display, challenging Young’s audience to hold in mind, in the same moment, two very different ways of constructing art. The title indicates we are living in a time of dominant humanity, and the grid of holes is clearly a man-made form. But the hair, slightly wild in its irregular energies, suggests something beyond the grasp of people. Humanity is regularly defeated by nature in Young’s art--even if nature is now regularly experienced as a memory! Luminous Room (2016) faces visitors entering the gallery from a distance; it is a series of wheat-yellow horse-hair strands, collected into a grid while hanging from ceiling to floor. As with most of Young’s art, one doesn’t have an exact sense of the piece’s meaning, but the title here suggests that there are places where visionary beauty can and does exist--as we experience with the piece itself.
Temple for Grieving (2012) consists of a thin, red flame-like image on paper, its upper register consisting of thin lines driving upward but separate from each other. The work is elaborately framed; thin strips of wood extending slightly beyond each other hold the image in immediate place, but beyond this first frame is a bigger one: a thicker rectangle extending a couple of inches from the wall on which the entire piece is hung. On the bottom crossbar, there are three square openings; the middle is stuffed with a pink fabric that has been folded and tied into bundles. Young’s title reminds us that she has a gift for poetic wording; like much of her work, this piece mysteriously evokes elegiac feeling without specifying what caused that feeling. Extinction (2017), another two-dimensional work of art, consists of two muddy splotches on white paper, which is surrounded by a dark gray paper frame. Formless, lacking any distinguishing feature, the image offers very small hope to the viewer who seeks solace. Even the faint writing and counting marks on the paper, while visually compelling, seem extraneous to the general point of nature’s defeat.
An unspoken mourning is communicated in the pieces described here, but it cannot be said that despair takes over. Young’s art is so good, so well made, that it radiates something close to praise even as it momentarily succumbs to a truly bleak sense of what people are doing to the landscape. The woods have always been the real source of metaphor, and our managed forests feel imaginatively bankrupt in the face of a genuinely untampered treeline. Young knows this deeply and is committed to making art meant to reawaken a sense of commitment to an outside world we will never fully control and, sadly, have done so much to destroy. Doing so may appear impossible so very late in our natural history; climate warming has been a reality for decades. Yet Young’s art presents a space filled with structure that keep our imagination alive, however momentarily and however distant from an untouched environment. Thus her work proves that art is not only a human endeavor, it is also a place of praise for a realism that is not humanly conditioned, despite the fact we have done our best to forget so. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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