John Young’s practice has consistently engaged with the anachronistic condition of painting in the age of photography and the media of mass visual reproduction. When he first deployed digital imaging technologies in the 1990s in the ‘Double Ground’ series, he pioneered the possibilities of Photoshop for a new hybrid kind of painting. His recent body of abstract works extends this exploration, while simultaneously revisiting themes that go back to the artist’s first solo exhibition in 1982. That show featured a ‘chance’ photograph, generated with the use of a camera’s self-timer, of a curiously doubled Kasemir Malevich painting. If Young’s more recent photo-paintings are literally multi-layered, being about the medium of painting as much as an encounter between Western and Eastern pictorial traditions, they also represent the outcome of a career-long process of conceptual engagement with the radical subjective possibilities of serialisation.
Naïve and Sentimental Paintings is Young’s first Melbourne exhibition of work from the series of the same name, shown together with some new figurative works that veer towards the fantastic. It is inspired by minimalist composers such as John Adams, from whose Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997–8) the title is borrowed (itself derived from Friedrich von Schiller’s 1795 essay ‘On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry’). The process is crucial. Young selects stock images, generic landscapes or nude photographs – as in his previous work – and then feeds these images through a pre-set combination of Photoshop blur filters. The computer batch processes the images overnight, and is thus enlisted as a blind agent in the process. To the extent that the visual output is determined by chance – a la John Cage and the I Ching – randomly generated elements are not new in Young’s practice. Carolyn Barnes, in her comprehensive essay on the artist in a 2006 monograph, points out that he used random generation in his ‘Polychrome’ paintings in the early 1990s: by randomly selecting details from existing paintings, Young found he could generate new paintings at will.
Young has made no secret of the fact that he employs studio assistants to paint his canvases. The addition of the computer generating mediator represents a further exploration of the possibilities of shared authorship. As conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt discovered, rules can lead to unexpected outcomes. Just as Brian Eno made generative music, the variations that result in Young’s paintings are like tones from an ambient symphony. One could interpret the images as an allegory of image overload in the age of so much digital visual code (Young himself wrote an essay on that great theorist of simulation and hyperreality, Jean Baudrillard, in 1981 for Art & Text). But in fact the artist’s subjectivity is not completely obliterated; Young writes in a studio note “The choice of an image to paint, out of thousands blindly transformed by the computer… relies on a certain sentiment”. Specifically, Young has attempted to understand the resulting blurs according to his ‘affection’ for the imagery of twentieth-century European abstract painting (he mentions Arthur Dove, Paul Klee and Morris Louis). In short, Young’s relation to painting is bodily and memorious, but not expressive: the choosing of the files that are delivered by the computer is based on his affective relation to the images. Young refers to them as “abstracted works for an age that prides in forgetfulness”.
Daniel Palmer, 2007