Coen Young: Bright Young Things

Coen Young’s dedication and commitment to art and its role in our lives was shaped early on by a close personal friendship with the late William Wright.

Words: Tracey Clement

Photography: Nikki Short

In many ways, Coen Young seems like an artist from another century. His recent paintings on paper, with their mirrored silver nitrate surfaces and soft, aged patinas, are often discussed in terms of their relationship to photography. But, if there is a link between the two mediums in his work, it harks back to the photography of metal coated plates and darkened rooms, of long exposures and labour intensive processes verging on the alchemical; the resolutely analogue techniques of the past, not the pixel wrangling that typifies photography in the 21st century. And the artist himself (despite being clad in tight black jeans and a loose black T-shirt, the standard uniform of contemporary creatives) approaches his work with an intensity of purpose and a firmly held conviction that art really does matter – an approach that seems reminiscent of a bygone era.

Young’s attitude to art and its key role as an integral part of life: a way of thinking, of communicating, of being in the world, was shaped early on by his deep friendship with the late William Wright (1937- 2014) who was both his mentor and his dealer in Sydney.

They met in 2010 at the National Art School (NAS) when Young was completing his honours degree and Wright was a guest lecturer. Young had come straight from high school in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire and although his parents were very supportive of his artistic ambitions, like many Aussie artists, he didn’t feel that he was part of a culture that reflected back to him the feeling that what he was doing had real worth. But that all changed when he went to NAS and one of the lasting legacies of his time there was his on-going relationship with Wright.

Young recalls their first meeting: “It’s funny, Bill walked in, I didn’t really know much about him, and he sat down next to me and started casually looking around the studio nodding his head; just kind of looking at how I had my brushes set up, and the mess that I had there. And he didn’t really say anything. Then he just started to tell me a story about an encounter he had with Rothko, and I guess that was what Bill was great for. Whatever sort of dilemma you might be having he just had a way to relate to you,” Young remembers, adding: “I guess as necessary as self-doubt is, it can certainly become overwhelming. And later on one of the great things about spending time with Bill was just going down to his gallery and sitting with him. I would leave the studio in a bit of a state and we would sit and talk and I always left feeling, not necessarily better, but I guess I left feeling like I was making something valid. Bill understood the importance of the act of contribution, or attempting to contribute.”

And as an artist, Young does indeed have something to say. He believes that “all art is essentially about communicating” and his ongoing series of mirrored surface paintings are a dialogue with both himself and the viewer about the human condition. “The process of making something is a way to try to attempt to understand things,” Young explains, “things about myself and how I negotiate reality.”

Each of his mirrored paintings undergoes a methodical, labour intensive and repetitive process, which he attempts (and fails) to replicate exactly each time. Part of each stage of his technique is an equally futile attempt to remove all gestural evidence of his hand. And it is precisely these failures that infuse the work with tension and vibrancy, with life. “It’s a task that’s kind of doomed from the start,” Young admits. “But, I guess I’m interested in what that can potentially offer the viewer, ultimately, in recognising that.”

Young’s mirrors reflect on the inevitability of instability and change; the metamorphic potential of failure; the way that we all emerge from the same spot (see Courbet’s L’Origine du monde) but no one ends up exactly the same. His works are a meditation on individuality and both the frustration and creative potency inherent in accepting the lack of control we have over so many things.

William Wright, Artist Projects, Sydney

Hilarie Mais was William Wright’s partner in life as well as in William Wright • Artists Projects (WW•AP). She describes Wright’s first impression of Coen Young saying: “There was an instant recognition of a very talented and serious young artist.

“Over the years Bill and Coen became very close confidants, forming a friendship far beyond teacher and gallerist,” Mais adds. “When Bill died in October [2014], Coen came back early from Germany to be a pall-bearer at Bill’s funeral, dedicating his 2014 exhibition at WW•AP, all your influences, to Bill’s mentorship and memory.”

Mais first encountered Young’s work while he was still a student. As she recalls: “Coen’s obvious dedication and commitment to his practice was what struck me in someone so young, the intellectual framework was strong, but also the physical presence of the work and level of craftsmanship and control of material was impressive. We attended his graduation show and invited him to exhibit.”

And since then she has seen his practice mature. “There is always a constancy and integrity in the work as he continues to push and expand his investigations,” she says. “The challenges and the unpredictability of his chosen materials imbue the work with a tense edginess and sensitivity despite the initial first impression of a fugitive calm.”

Young may be an emerging Australian painter, but according to Mais, “Coen is an artist of the world, not a geographical location, with immense potential who will stretch beyond our shores”.

Co-director, Fox/Jensen Gallery, Auckland

Andrew Jensen, director at Jensen Gallery in Sydney and co-director of Fox/Jensen Gallery in Auckland, is Coen Young’s dealer in New Zealand. “Our represen- tation is new,” he says, “although I have been aware of his work for some time having met him not long after arriving in Sydney four years ago.” And even before hosting his first solo show in New Zealand, Jensen is taking Young further abroad. “The exhibition in Auckland, of 13 major mirror paintings, will be our first, however we are thrilled to be taking three paintings to Art Basel Hong Kong where they will be presented alongside artists such as Günter Umberg, Tomislav Nikolic, Jacqueline Humphries and Callum Innes; a context that feels rich and appropriate for his work.”

Jensen explains that he was drawn to Young’s paint- ings because of his rigorous approach to his craft. “Coen can make. He seems to feel acutely aware of this responsibility. He doesn’t fetishize the process but is deeply involved in investigating material and its behaviour,” Jensen explains. “This knowledge and approach means that he is more able than most to make works that can meet the conceptual aspirations he has through the sensitive making of objects.”

And according to Jensen, Young can hold his own alongside much more experienced art world players. “We have presented a long line of major painters over the years, particularly abstract painters from Europe and America, as well as Australia. Coen’s work doesn’t just join this conversation, it adds to it. He brings a startling poise and consideration given his age com- pared to these major figures.”


Image: Coen Young. Portrait by Nikki Short

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 72, APR – JUN 2015.


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