AM I A HOUSE?





'A view in Alan Young's work emerges in a way that no one else brings to the game' - Ray Hughes



A well-known party game requires each player to guess the name written on a piece of paper behind his or her head. By asking questions like "am I a singer?", "is my boyfriend a soccer player?", and so on, I try to deduce the identity that I am – that I've been given – for the purposes of the game. We encounter something similar in Alan Young's recent paintings.

The game is sometimes called "Celebrity Heads" because, as a rule, the players take the names of famous celebrities, or at least of people known to everyone taking part. They become essentially public
figures. Isn't there something of the same effect of exposure in the figures that Young paints? They have no hidden interiority. Composed entirely of abstract shapes, they have a schematic, x-rayed quality, as if we could tell everything there is to know about them just by looking. Yet, if their forms are immediately comprehensible, if we somehow "read" them at least as easily as we read the titles of the pictures in which they appear, this does nothing to dispel the impression that they are totally opaque to themselves. How can they define themselves? What ultimately distinguishes them from the surrounding
space? The lines Young paints are not exactly contours, but rather dashed or inflated strokes of colour. His forms don't delimit coloured areas, but are themselves subject to coloristic tensions. Where an intense red meets a bright green, we get a purely differential horizon: not a boundary that encloses space, but an unstable, almost hallucinatory vibration. This might explain why his figures look out at us with such consternation. Unable to fix their place in relation to others, their mask-like faces solicit us like a string of anxious questions: "am I a house?", "is my boyfriend a chair?". . .

The two figures in the painting titled Couple may be an exception. It doesn't seem farfetched to imagine that, in fact, they know all too well that that's what they are – a couple. What they don't seem to know is why. Perhaps we should therefore refine the analogy a little, taking into account the guessing-game's second important rule.

The players of Celebrity Heads must only ask questions that can be answered with a yes or a no – which means that the game effectively prohibits any question as to why I am (or am not) who I'm said to be. I must piece together my identity, but I can't ask for what reason it takes the shape it does. More often than not, it's precisely when the game is over, when someone has correctly determined his or her name, that the annoying question, "why?", imposes itself most palpably: Why that name? What have I got to do with that famous person? Was this whole business just arbitrary, or does it somehow reflect something about the way others see me? It would clearly be awkward to insist on such questions at a party, but they are not just neurotic. Their exclusion structures the game. And it's as though the pressure of that prohibition drives them underground, where they can have strange subterranean effects.

In Young's Night Life, one figure looks straight ahead, at us, while his counterpart stares directly into him. A series of dashed lines between them suggests something apparently more intense than any ordinary communication. Young's paintings often present us with two figures, and it's tempting to propose that, ultimately, every one of his subjects is potentially haunted by its doppelgänger. From a certain point of view, Celebrity Heads, too, is all about the evocation of doubles. In reality, the point for the people watching the game is not so much the accuracy or otherwise of the players' deductions. The point, what makes the game fun, is the strange images their questions evoke for us of the people they think they might be.

Young himself says that he isn’t very much concerned with putting a single message across in his paintings. The face in Mr. Bird is abstracted to a degree that casts doubt on any one-to-one correspondence between the title and the subject. Is it literally a bird? Is Mr. Bird a person? Or should we be looking for something else again in the picture, something not exhausted by either of those possibilities? What about the painting, Cemetery? Does the title simply establish a location? Or is it somehow metaphorical, telling us something more fundamental about the figure depicted? In the very accessibility of their language, the titles effectively redouble the pictures. They make us look twice, as if in the hope that a second look could explain the mismatch between what we see and what we read. For this reason Night Life, with its mysterious exchange between two figures, might be taken as a kind of allegory – not of a deeper meaning, but of the kind of relationships typically set up by Young's paintings themselves. Conjured by the very inconsistency of the subject's attempts at selfdefinition, the double is the figure who knows me better than I know myself, seeing not only what I am, but also why what I am escapes me.

Maybe, along these lines, the true subject of Mr. Ha Ha is not the laughing figure with "HA" written on his face, but actually the small worried-looking figure at his feet: the laughing figure isn't named by the painting's title, but embodies it directly. And what does this laughter of his imply, if not an ultimately rather unpleasant complicity with us, the viewers? The humour in Young's paintings is unmissable, but they don't necessarily make us laugh (unlike the celebrity guessing-game, which is supposed to bring about all kinds of hilarity). Is there an element of cruelty in laughter? Why is it that the game's viewers are so often tempted to supplement their simple yesno answers with cryptic and even somewhat snide comments ("it depends on what you mean by 'a singer', ha ha ha. . .")? If it's never entirely clear whether the joke is on the players themselves or on the celebrities whose place they occupy, this is because it's the absurdity of the very discord between the two that strikes us as funny. Yet, by including the laughter itself in the painting, Mr. Ha Ha pushes this logic to an unsettling consequence. Far from making jokes, a truly sadistic viewer would have insisted fixedly on the rules of the game, coldly replying yes or no and simply observing the players' helplessness as, with their confused questions, they effectively mock themselves. There is no need to laugh, from this perverse viewpoint. The figures' doubles laugh at them for us.

But what about those pictures that don't present us with any doubles? Young's single-figure paintings bring out an important last paradox in his work. We might wish to see Mr. Car, for example, as a sort of street-map, offering an abstract overhead view of the kind usually given on a GPS display. But the impassive sense of distance this affords us collapses the moment we see that, simultaneously, we are looking at the features of a face. From an objective, bird's-eye shot, we dissolve to an aggressive closeup: wild-eyed, mouth open and distorted as if yelling, Mr. Car bears down on us, threatening to fill the entire space. With other paintings, such as In the Bush and House Dude, the effect is the opposite: the figure draws back, as if aghast, or throws up its hands in defence. In both cases, the very impression of overproximity is a clue to the function of doubling.

If Mr. Car clearly depicts only one figure, it must be for the reason that we, the viewers, confront that figure from the perspective of his double. We look back at the House Dude through the eyes of the sublime figuration that he "is". Is it necessary to add that the view we thereby assume, the view that thus emerges, implies the exact opposite of the guessinggame's usual set-up? It's no longer the figure in front of us, but we ourselves who suddenly occupy another person's place - which means, finally, that it is we who are now led to ask some perplexing questions: "How can I be sure, when I look at a painting, that the view I bring to it really is my own?", "And yet what if, at the same time, it belongs to no one else?". "Am I a double?"

Contemporary art is so often put in the position of a thing supposed to ask us questions – questions to which we are typically content to respond with a simple yes or no. Perhaps we'd be better off asking first of all what it is that we want from art, and what is the nature of the game we're playing. This is what accounts for the basically ethical character of Young's paintings: he doesn't prohibit that question.



Alan Young is represented by Colville Gallery, Hobart.