Nate Young, Interment, 2017, gold leaf, walnut, Plexiglas, horse bone, spray paint, LED, 28 1/2 × 16 × 6".

Nate Young, Interment, 2017, gold leaf, walnut, Plexiglas, horse bone, spray paint, LED, 28 1/2 × 16 × 6".

Nate Young


Nate Young, Interment, 2017, gold leaf, walnut, Plexiglas, horse bone, spray paint, LED, 28 1/2 × 16 × 6".

Vestigial representations of the occult were harnessed in “Cleromancy,” Nate Young’s exhibition of six works from the past year that obliquely layered a range of personal and political histories, touching on subjects such as black jockeys, the Great Migration, divining, and family mythology. Densely distributing the works on three walls of the light-filled gallery, Young invoked a symmetrical, chapel-like display punctuated at the end wall with Untitled, a two-part piece. Composed of a single horse bone mounted on a walnut pedestal in front of an illusionistic graphic depiction of a similar equine bone, the work offered the coupling of object and image as a means to deliberate on the authority of the real and the magic of illusion. The drawing of the horse bone floats in a nondescript white ground, half obscured by a smoky cloud of smudged graphite. The verisimilitude of the rendering evokes the enchanted qualities of pictorial surrealism, while the physical remains emerging from the slender wooden pedestal bespeak the sacred qualities of a relic.

A triptych of wooden boxes (titled Exhumed, Grave Goods, and Interment, respectively), hanging side by side on the wall adjacent to Untitled, engaged the age-old philosophical debate between appearances and truth through a clever play on the physics of light reflection. Each box resembles a commemorative plaque and contains a block of serif type with textual information addressing the history of black American jockeys. A sentence from Grave Goods reads, THIRTEEN OF THE FIFTEEN RIDERS IN THE FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY WERE BLACK AND FIFTEEN OF THE FIRST TWENTY EIGHT RUNNINGS WERE WON BY BLACK JOCKEYS, while Interment declares, BUT BY 1904 BLACK JOCKEYS WERE VIRTUALLY NON EXISTENT. The font is printed in glossy black and set against a flat-black ground, rendering the texts difficult to read. On each of the three works a title plate occupies the top niche of the box design, while a ghostly, holographic picture of a horse bone hovers in a narrow recess between the title and the narrative text. To produce this apparition, Young made use of an internal system involving a light and mirror, so that what we see is in fact the reflection of an illuminated bone—which appears to be levitating on the sheet of Plexiglas that forms the work’s surface—tucked deep within the wooden box.

Two large framed drawings, Divining No. 1 and Divining No. 2, were installed directly across from the three magic boxes. Both drawings consist of handwritten text and diagrammatic notations set among graphite illustrations of hovering skeletal parts. The text fragments and sketches of bone anatomy coalesce into narrative maps poetically imparting the history of Young’s great-grandfather. Arrows and lines connect the pictorial imagery to the numerous text blocks, whose delicately written sentences recount a narrative of displacement: THOUGHT THE PRIMARY MODE OF TRANSPORTATION WHICH CARRIED MANY FROM THE SOUTH TO THE NORTH DURING THE GREAT MIGRATION WAS THE TRAIN, MY GREAT GRAND-FATHER TRAVELED VIA HORSE AND MY GREAT GRANDFATHER SETTLED IN A TOWN OUTSIDE OF PHILADELPHIA AND CHANGED HIS NAME TO JACKSON IN ORDER TO HIDE. Each drawing is a distinct constellation of image and symbol populating a foggy, graphite-stained middle area on a vertical expanse of paper. Words are inscribed on diaphanous scrims of vellum that lend these works an otherworldly quality. The accurately rendered apertures and hollows delineated in the joint ends of the bone representations reinforce the connectedness of the drawing’s parts to a whole: Narrative snippets become biography, and disembodied femurs become horse.

There is another element of Young’s work that commands as much scrutiny as his beguiling concoction of image, symbol, and story: fine woodcraft. The joinery and the finish of the surfaces comprising his frames, pedestal, and magic boxes are exquisite. More than a professional framing conceit, Young’s expert woodworking skills are as enduring and alchemical as any sleight of hand. When commingled with African American histories, personal mythology, and an atmosphere of the occult, Young’s traditional technical skills solicit an engaging critical examination into empirical, spiritual, and philosophical systems of belief.

Michelle Grabner