New York

Andrew Young

Littlejohn Contemporary

Andrew Young has the eye of a naturalist, to use a nineteenth-century term appropriate given the Victorian-looking patina of his paintings and collages. In his recent works, ten of which were on view here, he pastes meticulously handpainted images—birds, plants, flowers—on variously textured papers, interspersing them with monochrome Asian prints, postage stamps, and fragments of pages from Chinese newspapers and magazines.

At first glance Young's works can seem muted, almost timid. Yet even from a distance a discreetly animated quality competes with the flatness of the stylized graphic images. The crumpled blue paper of Untitled, c-201, 2002, for example, seems to shimmer like the surface of a lake, and the work's red hues blur richly between rust and dried blood. Particularly when Young is depicting petals, his palette can erupt from subdued drabs into fiery hues. And each element in his uncomplicated yet dense compositions—earthy magenta or umber paper rectangles, translucent overlays of yellow and orange pigment, geometrically apportioned silhouettes of birds, excerpts from handwritten letters—seems to find its place without jostling anything else. Abstract or purely textural passages abut or obscure graphic imagery only when the latter seems to aspire to more than the careful gestural lushness that's crucial to Young. The overall feel is at once rich and unadorned, compact and airy.

Especially affecting is Untitled, c-74, 1998-99, in which a bright blue flower is framed by brilliant yellow and blue rectangles at the base of two hovering mustard gold fields. And in Untitled, c-205, 2002, Young gives himself over more than in the other works to a flourish, here a leafy frond. In Untitled, c-206, 2002, Young's masterful gestures and textures combine in the plant leaves he renders in blue. The brushwork is calligraphic and entirely transparent, and the dry, minutely cracked pigment suggests the fragility of a budding sprig; adjoining whitish rectangular sections intimate the diaphaneity of organic membranes. In the upper right quadrant of Untitled, c-209, 2002, a watery streak reads variously as a thin stem, a dry riverbed running through a desert, a vein, and a nerve. This complements the upper left section of the work, in which flowers on slender stalks are depicted as single strokes against a brown haze. In rarer moments Young is overtly playful; in the dark blue square at the bottom of Untitled, c-204, 2002, a flower gone to seed is rendered in almost childlike fashion, while another leafy bloom floats nearby atop a blotchy rust background. The inky murk behind the two birds in the same collage appears enticingly deep.

Many elements of these assemblages would seem to fit into the category of art on their own, yet in their cohabitation they evoke the obscure and brackish. One is reminded of Walt Whitman's “Calamus” (“In paths untrodden, / In the growths by margins of pond waters, / Escaped from the life that exhibits itself. . .”). These works suggest those vague arenas of the psyche where we, like the poet, respond as we “would not dare elsewhere.” Obvious contrasts are at play in Young's work, between nature and artifice, old and new, structure and randomness. Yet passages guided by chance are all the more allusive for the exacting attention paid to form elsewhere. And the artifice of language, in the form of writing, appears ultimately as a further expression of nature, like flowers, the idiosyncratic sigils of a strange and perpetual exultance.

Tom Breidenbach