The rebirth of painting dates back to the 1980s, but London galleries still avoid the challenge painting presents to the Conceptualist orthodoxy. Provincial galleries, such as Cardiff’s BayArt, have thus become the home of the real avant-garde.
BayArt’s latest exhibition, Semi Fiction, features the work of father and daughter Steve Young and Ellie Young. Both work in figurative painting: Steve with figure groups, and Ellie depicting faces on head-shaped supports.
Ellie paints a variety of faces, including street portraits, faces from film and television, and her own. As in the work of photographers Cindy Sherman and Claude Cahun, Ellie depicts faces as masks that each show a certain aspect of the wearer, and yet conceal as much as they display.
Some of Ellie’s paintings feature literal masks, including celebrities such as David Bowie. When a mask is removed, as in the Bowie painting which shows the mask half-on/half-off, the viewer is confronted with the question of whether a face is any more a face than a mask. Ellie’s use of painting makes this point clearer: the mask is painted in an identical technique to the face, thus blurring the face/mask distinction more convincingly than is possible in, say, a photograph.
Steve produces groups of figures on a more traditional rectangular format. This allows him to use pictorial space for arranging figures, in contrast to the more direct approach of Ellie’s head-shaped supports. His main strength is a Surrealist touch. Among people socialising appear figures seemingly without personalities, depicted with few facial features and often staring at the viewer from blank eye sockets. Steve also experiments with drawing internal frames, but rather than drawing attention to elements of interest, the frames instead divorce the depicted figures from their surroundings. His paintings thus examine how depiction can cause psychological disintegration not only in our perceptions of people but in perceptions of physical reality.
The work of Steve Young and Ellie Young thus share a common theme, that of the disintegration of both the self and our perception of physical space. Though not original — Warhol’s disintegrating Marilyn Monroe being over forty years old — the birth of a generation of children who will never know a world without selfies and image-based social media demands such continuing examination of the consequences of image creation. Constant internet access brought by smartphones has resulted in the population being increasingly divorced from physical spaces, leaving people always languishing in the Matrix of cyberspace. Steve Young’s exploration of the disintegration of psychophysical space is thus timely. The proliferation of television and the internet has resulted in the confusion of reality and image, as seen in celebrities who are able to mask a darker side behind an image of charity work and philanthropy. Ellie Young’s work is thus also timely. Her shaped supports force the eye to wander to the world beyond the created image, and her paintings’ varying surface textures draw attention to the constructed nature of images, and thus their fiction.