New York

Daisy Youngblood

McKee Gallery

The only disruption in this austere, brightly illuminated space was the diminutive work of Daisy Youngblood—a community of small votive objects scattered around these ample rooms. Mounted directly on the walls or placed on tall pedestals, Youngblood’s clay sculptures seemed to undermine the carefully constructed serenity of their environment.

Each piece embodied abandonment or carried in its contours some trace of injury, age, or lifelong struggle. Foreshortened Horse, 1992, was mounted at eye level, projecting from the wall at mid body to animate a space that extended well beyond its Lilliputian dimensions. The neck turned sharply, its head tucked back in a graceful gesture of deference or perhaps disdain. This elegiac form spoke of unimaginable sorrow and sounded less expected notes of uncompromising defiance.

Standing on a chest-high pedestal, Little Elephant, 1991, was tragically whimsical. Youngblood placed this bantam-sized beast in a dramatic pose—legs spread, head level and trunk down—eschewing detail in favor of a more abstract, gestural impression. In sharp disjunction, three of the creature’s legs and the tail were wooden pieces: the legs were solid branches, hastily appended prostheses; the tail a delicate twig inscribing space. The awkwardness and anguish of a body in pain stirred a deep-seated ache.

Like the figurehead of an old sailing vessel, Old Woman, 1991, consisted of a head and torso mounted at a gentle angle from the wall. Slouching into space, the coarse, low-fired terra-cotta figure was marked with the bleakness of age, a once-supple body awkwardly twisted by brittle and bent bones: its arms were absent and its shoulders hunched; its breasts misshapen by age; its head a fragile orb without hair or ears, the only evidence of the memory of sight two vacant sockets. In neither a grin nor a grimace, the figure’s mouth parted slightly to reveal four delicate teeth like those of an infant.

Gaston Bachelard, Susan Stewart, and others have considered the persuasive powers of the miniature. The small-scale object or figure condenses human emotions—pain, ecstasy, fear—with bold authority. It is as if by reducing the size, the object projects a feeling of greater potential: the magnitude of ideas is in inverse proportion to the scale of the objects. All of Youngblood’s sculptures were exquisite studies of scale offering only a slight materiality to alter—to disturb—the large, antiseptic environment. Each piece registered an obsession for restrained inquiry in order to discern how little physical evidence is required to convey ideas about the human condition.

Portrait of Savannah, 1991, foregrounded the visceral quality of its materials. This particular portrait was a small head with haunting, empty eyes and an open, uncomprehending mouth. The head appeared as if it had been wrapped in bandages like a victim of violence or a mummified corpse. Supported precariously by a fragile neck, it tapered to a small, tentative base. As with all of Youngblood’s work, the spare physicality of this piece belies its disquieting multivalency.

Patricia C. Phillips