In a rare essay on painting, the critic Fredric Jameson goes to a De Kooning show at the Guggenheim Museum. For Jameson, the artist’s name – De Kooning – means the chance to stare at certain painted colours, and when viewed up close, this artist’s works offer something like a Utopian exit – however momentary or existential – from the fragmentation of the modern senses and the modern body, even though he is conscious of the paradox that enables this experience to take place. ‘In front of the paintings...all I know is that the eye finds a space of sheer coloured paint before it, in which it can lead a life of its own, beyond hearing and taste, and beyond the clock time of everyday life.’ 1

Colour – the chance to stare at it – is to no small extent the legend within which Alan Young’s paintings find their meaning, and he chooses good colours. De Kooning is perhaps not the best point of reference for discussing and enjoying Young’s work. This idea about losing oneself in a big spread of colour, for sure, the De Kooning palette, yes occasionally, and even the hand-made opposition to the machine aesthetic (of a Warhol, say), but certainly not the subject matter, although both artists operate within a paradigm between figuration and abstraction. Young’s spread of colours dispense with De Kooning’s scribbly black outlines of bodies and present each colour as a distinct mass, as a sequence of chromatic intensities, but not always, untubed directly onto the canvas. One thinks of the detached bands of colour in a child’s drawing – sky blue and grass green become individual strips, red house, brown tree, and yellow sun superimposed rather than integrated within the landscape as such. Beneath the apparent superimpositions the artist has in fact done a lot of layer building, and has then chosen a bold colour to make a shape appear to be sitting on top. Alan Young’s works are like kid art only in the most superficial sense, departing completely in terms of compositional strength and originality, observation and narrative.

The figurative pretexts in a De Kooning – or many a half-abstract painting – are not interesting in themselves, but Young chooses an ever-changing content with which to base his half-abstractions, and they are often fascinating, or just funny, in themselves. What does Alan Young paint? The world of today: city streetscapes, televised sport and sport stars, dance parties and late night hangouts, motorised landscapes, crazy drivers, urban confusion, alcohol consumption, frenzied medication, his travel destinations, and in particular, the subjects that occupy these sites, strange people, ‘cool’ people (people he has met and liked), and always, himself. Or rather, if not a depiction of the artist as such, a kind of record of the impression a person, place, or experience has inscribed within him. Generic self-portraiture as a thing in itself has been rare for Alan Young but there is an ongoing construction of subjectivity across his paintings, even a redefinition of self-portraiture. He has remarked, ‘My paintings and drawings are grounded in my immediate environment and evolve directly out of personal experience. Central to my investigation is the development of a new set of symbols

and an examination of how they have evolved. Recording these experiences in an autobiographical and diaristic way is a fundamental part of my process.’ 2 What is Alan Young’s project? ‘My main aim is to develop a new way of telling the who, what, and why of life as it is lived now...I am setting out to record and describe my world in an honest way which incorporates and develops a new kind of visual language. I want my narratives to involve the making process itself, the application of the mark as well as the look of the mark.’ The ‘mark’ found in his paintings is indeed the inscription of a whole physiological, even neurological relation to the canvas. He leaves the medium open for us to peer into, unlike those forms of realism in art that wish to paper over the medium itself.

Alan Young is also a prolific drawer, and has done hundreds, of which a good number were exhibited in epic sequences at The Hughes Gallery in Sydney earlier this year. What is evident, arguably in stronger dosage, in this great suite of drawings is a sense of physical frustration not nearly so evident in the paintings. This is different, clearly, from the carefully controlled and wryly humorous depictions of frustration in the paintings Order, Order, which is about the artist watching Parliament Question Time, or Your Call is Important to Us, about feelings of dread and the grim sense of one’s own serialisation when forced to wait on the end of a corporate telephone call.

Everyone benefits from an artist whose sublimation is finely tuned. According to the artist, the highly confident body of works in his exhibition Upbeat at Artspace in Hobart stem from concentrated focus on the positive experiences in his life, not just using art as an outlet for his frustrations – which have been many at times. The human hand is everywhere, visible in each brush stroke, each overdrawn line, in these audaciously non-high tech units of culture. Unlike the perfected design objects of contemporary production where the human touch is effaced (even, or especially, when labouring factory bodies are at stake – from an Apple gadget to a Hirst spot painting), Young’s paintings herald the presence of a sensing subject for whom atmosphere is not transparent; space and solid are one. One collector stated that she found Alan Young’s paintings so easy to live with because they are so human. ‘It’s almost like having someone else in the room.’

Where all artists strive to control their materials or medium, Alan Young must first gain sovereignty over his body. Indeed, his body enters into the work as a condition unlike any other. He has reported, ‘I have an unusual neurological condition, which involves problems with balance, weakness and involuntary movements. These influence my view of the world and make my place in it unique. My physical limitations also determine my painting style.’ For example, Alan Young paints wine glasses wide, like martini glasses, because round wine glasses are too difficult.

Alan Young’s condition is called Myoclonus Dystonia and is a bit like Parkinson’s disease. While it can frustrate or limit the ideas that are in his head, he believes that it has certain positive powers as well. For instance, he is conditioned by unique movement and flows of bodily energy, which in turn flow into the paintings. Tension builds up in his body which then needs to be released; he paints and listens to music. Dancing, almost akin to the act of painting for Alan Young, offers an important, and utterly physiological, link between music and his art. Alan 2Young the painter is also Alan Young the dancer; he has been a devoted fan of techno and house music, especially in club culture, almost since he began to make art.3 In his earlier paintings, he states, ‘I began to concentrate on just dancing itself and the many physical and mental spaces in which my friends and I are dancing. My work became about the whole idea of movement within psychological, architectural and pictorial space.’ Music, along with colour, is then part of the legend within which we can grasp Alan Young’s work. Like many, when Young was an art school student he deferred to the heroic works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he ‘discovered’ in an eye-opening visit to New York in the late 1990s. As Young has pointed out, understanding the art of Basquiat depends somewhat on grasping his lifelong involvement with music; indeed, Basquiat, like Young, more than listened to, used music while he worked. Young has remarked, inferring no doubt the Utopic state that both artists give themselves to, that may or may not be synesthetic, ‘Sound was an important part of his visuality.’

The critic Peter Timms in his piece on Nobody’s Perfect 4 noted Alan Young’s debt to Basquiat, but also that Young’s work does ‘have a longer and more solid lineage.’ 5 He wrote that the works ‘take us back to Picasso’s appropriations of African tribal masks and the French artist, Jean Dubuffet’s fascination with children’s art. They build on a centuries-old fascination with rudimentary mark-making and simplified symbolic languages. What they remind me of most, however, are the stained glass windows of European medieval churches. They share the same luminous colours, the same tightly outlined shapes, and the same concern to communicate a story directly and without elaboration.’ 6 One might also go in search of other interesting predecessors, the Fauves or the Australian painter Ken Whisson. Timms also noted that Young’s works – he was looking circa 2007 – are like cracked stained glass windows, or pictures with pieces missing, like dark puzzles where the moral and indeed the story are never quite accessible to us.

Alan Young’s work has scooped up top-notch praise from collectors and admirers of painting. The former curator of painting at TMAG, David Hansen, once remarked that at art school Young’s ‘idiosyncratic expressionist style set him apart from his politely post-modern peers.’ 7 David Walsh, museum auteur of the moment, impressed by the ‘vivacity and readability’ of the work awarded the artist the Moorilla Scholarship in 2005. 8 Heavyweight Australian art dealer Ray Hughes has commented, ‘A view in Alan Young’s work emerges in a way that no one else brings to the game.’

— October 2012


C.B. Johnson lectures in media, writing, and cultural studies for Macquarie City Campus, Sydney. He is the author of Modernity without a Project (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books, 2014).

  1. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers, London: Verso, 2007, p. 255.

  2. These and subsequent comments from the artist are taken from his MFA dissertation, Painting a Visual Language that Interprets My Personal World (2005).

  3. Nick Warren is listed among the artist’s favourite DJs.

  4. Alan Young’s solo show Nobody’s Perfect at Despard Gallery, Hobart, 2007.

  5. Peter Timms, ‘Alan Young,’ Nobody’s Perfect, catalogue essay, 2007.

  6. Peter Timms, ‘Alan Young,’ 2007.

  7. From David Hansen’s opening remarks to Nobody’s Perfect at Despard Gallery, Hobart, 2007.

  8. David Walsh also hangs his Alan Young paintings on the walls of his home – for whatever that’s worth in someone with a big museum to fill.