Robert Younger

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

One of the reasons why these props function so well as sculpture (apart from an innate integrity) is that they have been objectified, ceased to function as contributors to a setting. Physically separated (although the toasters are grouped together, as are the houses), given breathing space—the chair has even been hung on the wall—their isolation serves to help make them emblematic. As Roberta Smith points out, however, the solitary shape(s) on a unified field to which this is analogous was only half the story of the Whitney presentation. The other half, featuring “Jenny, Zucker, Bartlett, and to some extent Hurson,” involved a certain “all-overness of surface.” If Robert Younger is a New Image sculptor, he must be of the latter sort. His rendering is an appropriately angular paradigmatic shorthand. The 1978 “equilateral men,” for instance, have triangular heads with four holes for features and stick-figure limbs. But these two-dimensional bodies were made for a specific landscape, to have moved them out of Art-park would certainly have been possible, but to move them into a gallery would require considerable manipulation of that space. Intended to be viewed from a moving car, these figures, in red, yellow, white, and black, were planted 125 feet apart along one side of a highway. Going in one direction, passing motorists unwittingly mentally united each racial stereotype to the next; returning in the opposite direction, they were confronted with the results, so to speak, of their own indiscretion: “double-headed interracial” offspring (one triangle head wedded to another in an eventual permutation of all the colors), a funny play on popular fears that broken taboos end in monstrosity, freakishness.

The point is that Younger’s is a decidedly environmental esthetic. Like those painters concerned with activating every inch of the surface, he leaves nothing to chance. His newest work is no exception. A three-room wallboard structure, it sits diagonally in the gallery, displacing most of it. The title, Sexually Contagious Relationships (Recent Research) and a copy of Valley of the Dolls flank the doorway and set up what one guesses is the “message” of the piece: the dangerous loss of identity involved in the sexual act. If you are female, does sexual contact with a male mean you “catch” maleness, and vice versa? In the first room, in a trapezoid of green light, are the words, “When she came in they called her bourbon”; in the last room, on the opposite wall, “When he left they said Tokay.” Interestingly, although both phrases are pieces of an overheard remark, Younger changed the gender of the second at the last minute.

Or does the contagion result in a kind of cancellation, a neutrality? The doorway to the second room is shaped like a mortar, and a pestle has been crudely sketched above it. Over this door are the international symbols for male and female, themselves rather androgynous. A mortar and pestle are used to grind together diverse ingredients into a featureless powder or paste; they are also a symbol of chemistry, a.k.a. mutual physical attraction. The same neutering of opposites is formularized into an algebraic cautionary tale:

In this middle chamber, a beehive, both a warning of danger and a no trespassing sign (squared-off, rudimentary hives were used by Younger at Artpark for the same purpose) and a bed cohabit. A slanting, latticed amber light falls across the bed, but the resulting mood of hard-assed, one-night-stand sexuality is abruptly muted by the sappy optimism of a gigantic have-a-happy-day button looming on the last wall in the third room (you have to climb over the bed to get into it). This is also the face of a clock, the hands pointing to eleven; with the enormous curved line of the smile, it is a perfect distillation of post-coital conflicting emotions: gratification and a panicky sense of eleventh hour crisis. Yet even mixed feelings resolve into nearly identical states. Two tiny doors, slightly bigger than electrical outlets, are marked respectively “agitation” and “aggravation,” again, barely differentiated concepts, not to mention spellings. Outlined in red light, they glow like emergency exit signs. In reality, though, the only way out is back the way you came.

What Sexually Contagious Relationships does to gender distinctions—stripping them down—is what a New Imagist does to visual phenomena; there is, then, a unique matching of form and content here. Like Hunn’s narrative, Younger’s has its origins in an extremely personal obsession; unlike Hunn’s there is no opening outward, in this particular instance, into larger social or ideological concerns. Even this difference, one of emphasis not quality, is not so wide, perhaps only the difference between a system arrived at intuitively (Nunn) and intuitions systematically arranged (Younger).

Jeanne Silverthorne