Framed! A Look at “The Collected Joseph Young”
Joseph Young is known in literary circles for his distinctive style of microfiction, which he said he arrived at by paring down regular short stories to a couple hundred words. Then he went farther. Easter Rabbit, his 2010 book (which I published with PGP), includes stories like “Sine,” which reads, in its entirety, “A white line, across the cement, under the park, through the door, faint and hardly there, to its red center.” His recent art show, “The Collected Joseph Young,” which opened this month in Baltimore, reflects the same sensibility, pared down even more.
It’s hard to say how much work was featured in the show, not just because there were dozens of framed, unframed, and unframeable pieces, but because his art has a tendency to wander outside of whatever medium he’s using (or claims to be using—in the same way that his fiction provokes discussion of genre, it’s clear that much of the work of the work is concept building). The picture above shows a nicely lit bedroom with art on the wall, art on the bookshelf, a nicely made bed. Ostensibly the show is what’s in the frame, but the room itself becomes a nice installation piece too, right?
Also it was clear that some of the pieces themselves were parts of a greater whole, like “Paul Mitchell,” a panel showing those pigs from Ossabaw Island. It was only part of a series of 36 other pictures just like it.
There were also books, some framed by their covers and bindings and some unbound, like my favorite, Moby-Dick, which combined a Flintstones comic book with peculiar sentences from Melville’s novel. In one, Fred holds a guitar and says to Wilma, “Here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction.”
That book was on an end table in the bedroom in question, which in fact is Young’s own bedroom, and the pig hung on a wall in his own kitchen. Welcome to his art—and his life, uncovered, unframed, unbound. “The Collected Joseph Young” spreads through every room in his house, upstairs and down, except for a small room in the back that was being used for storage, and a big one in the front which is the printing studio of Amanda McCormick, his partner.
For the show, Young and McCormick hung utility lights from industrial pipes attached to the ceiling and the hodgepodge, cartoonish wallpaper throughout the house. Aside from brightening the rooms, the lights effected an auspicious atmosphere albeit a makeshift one—it was almost like the kind of expensive, professional lighting you’d find in an established gallery. This highlighted the amount of care that went into the presentation.
Well, the artwork did that, too. And it wasn’t just the impressive quantity, either. Young’s work, much of which is made through wintergreen oil transfers (the process of rubbing toner off of a printed sheet onto a surface) offers a lot to discuss. Even something as simple as “Marcus Rothkowitz Made Pants”—14 separate 8.5 x 11” sheets of paper with Young’s portrait printed on a background of various colors reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s paintings, along with the words “Laundry Day 1” through “Laundry Day 14”—provoked amusing conversations about, like, what the heck?
Pretty soon I was saying that about things I’d never wondered about before. What’s with the Mona Lisa? (which Young smartly fair-used for one of his collages). Thankfully, context was provided in the show’s brilliant program, a 20-page pamphlet. For the Rothkowitz piece, Young wrote boldly about what’s essential to self-portraiture: “It’s the hair you wear at the time … it’s also you as type, one human, male, American, as against the many.” This awareness—that is to say, this fluidity—is Young’s petri dish.
And all of the work dabbled in identification and reference. There were the references to Intro to Fine Artists, like Da Vinci, and to Young’s heroes, like Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman. There were references to himself—he’s all over his art, actually, taking joy from his participation in the long, slippery conversation. Even when he’s referring to the Flintstones, it’s possible to recognize Young’s hand lingering on the page. Maybe it’s folded in prayer, because there is a sense of religiousness in the show that (maybe) surpasses even the reverence for art.
Young’s religiousness takes form in his recognition of a great mystery—not a mystery to be solved but one to linger with. “The Life of Cardboard”—ten cardboard squares with arrows pointing in different directions up the staircase—plays the “he went thataway” role. Meanwhile, one of the show’s most provocative works, if not the pithiest, hangs in the bathroom. Yes, Joseph Young is collected even in the bathroom. Called “The Player,” it features Jesus on the cross with the words “Sorry, you did not win this time” superimposed over the image. Funny, yes, but not necessarily irreverent because like Player 1, Jesus is resurrected and wins on his next go. In spite of the direct reference to Christianity, however, “The Player” isn’t more religious than the cardboard arrows thing, or than “Mare Said Snow Week Late Pale Lake”—seven panels with one word from the title transferred onto each, along with (again) Young’s self portrait. Within the fluidity, something dawdles behind those words, too.
If Young is building concepts, he’s also asking the viewer to buy into those concepts. I don’t know if this buy-in is required to give the work its value as art-qua-art, but given the evidence of Young’s awareness and genuine, profound love for his artist forebears, it is easy to grant him this nonetheless. With some pieces its easier to do than others. “Ledger,” for example, which is simply ledger paper (or “accounting paper” as he calls it in the program) spray painted dark green across the top left corner, pretty much only made me think of a desk blotter, unlike “Run Home, Love,” which comprised that lovely title transferred onto a large, framed jigsaw puzzle depicting an alpine landscape—this was my Lake Isle of Innisfree. Even the classic-seeming empty frame (“Empty Frame”), which Young seemed to hang with a why not shrug, asks to be valued—and is (though it doesn’t appear on the price list).
What resounds most from “The Collected Joseph Young” isn’t just the high and low references, the self identification, or even the conceptual fluidity. It’s the way each piece, and the show overall—and the house—combined those things to address the mystery and, while asking, also resolved, “Asked, and answered.” If you required more evidence, however, you could always go down the street to the corner bar, where, incredibly, he had another show hanging.