Go between the zones
Safety Zone (detail) by John Young, evoking the 1937 Rape of Nanking. Summer 2010 60 works, digital prints and chalk on paper 320 x 1590cm overall.
The bridge and the fruit tree: A survey by John Young
ANU Drill Hall Gallery Closes March 24
John Young has had a stellar career in the Australian art world which has spanned over three decades. Born in Hong Kong and trained in Sydney, his work has comfortably engaged with postmodernist and postcolonial theories winning the praise of academics and the support of some of Australia's most respected commercial art galleries. He has been widely collected by public institutional galleries throughout Australia, and a few overseas, and now has quite a respectable bibliography devoted to his art practice.
This exhibition comprises three discrete bodies of work, or projects, as they are usually called. The first in the truly huge Safety Zone, a 60-panel installation which is part of the Transcultural Humanitarian Projects, and which is in part a documentation and in part an evocation of a ''safety zone'' set up by a small group of foreigners as a buffer area for locals during the Japanese Rape of Nanking in 1937.
Many of the panels are highly literary designs where old-fashioned text-rich chalkboards are employed, and these are juxtaposed with scanned images.
The second series is the Cardinal paintings and the ''double ground'' paintings out of which they have grown, where there is a juxtapositioning of different visual codes. Pre-modernist representations clash with digital deconstructions and patterns. Many of these pieces invite transcultural readings, where not only contrasting modes of visualisation are brought together, but also Asian and European visual conventions are contrasted.
A primary strategy is to set up these contested zones so that the viewer is invited to inhabit the seams between the zones and to create meaning for themselves.
The final section comprises the abstract paintings and the New Wolf of Rome series, where the myth of the Lupa Capitolina is revisited and becomes like a vision on speed, where filmic presences collide with symbols from alchemy together with Chinese nature poems.
A few years ago I saw a major survey of Young's work in the Yarra Valley at the TarraWarra gallery, where some attempts were made to bring together the various strands of his practice. This survey exhibition at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery comprises more of the separate strands, where you are permitted to imagine possible connections.
Young is an enormously prolific and enterprising artist, with a huge and diverse oeuvre. At times I find the scale of his art unnecessarily monumental, giving in to a tendency for bombastic overstatement which denies the sense of intimacy.
The work is typically literary and illustrative of concepts - you ''read'' and decipher his images, rather than perceive them primarily on a visual level, and then have meaning reveal itself to you. Frequently the surfaces of the paintings are disappointing, a bit facile and predictable, and in the acres of surfaces a greater differentiation in technique would be rewarding.
Young has carved out a niche in the Australian art scene as a theory-led artist with a distinctive and recognisable language. He is still a young artist, aged in his '50s, and there is plenty of scope for growth and reinvention.