By Scott Gleeson
The enigmatic sculptural assemblages of artist Millicent Young restore mysticism to contemporary aesthetic experience and are willed into being by an impulse toward unity. Rooted in a genealogy of distinctly modernist aesthetic responses to the rise of industrial society and its attendant machine culture, a moment claimed by certain earth scientists as the beginning of the Anthropocene era, Young’s art rejects the promises of technological progress, embracing instead an eschatological sensibility in which connectedness to knowledge, the earth and each other are the foils to ecological and spiritual ruin. Young’s sculptures and two-dimensional works, often incorporating natural, elemental materials, are presented to the viewer in traditional gallery contexts installed without frames or placed directly upon the floor. Works in the 2013-14 series Known Not Known, for instance, are crafted from such substances as horsehair, adobe, grapevine, and twine, whereas sculptures from the Vehicles series (2009-12), introduce a sumptuous array of hardwoods like hickory, cedar, and rosewood. In Vehicle, a cantilevered branch adorned with a horsehair tail is suspended from an axel between two disks of hickory, cut in cross-section to reveal the tree’s growth rings. Operating within the visual idioms established by David Smith’s Voltri VI and certain works by Martin Puryear, Young’s sculptures are animated by visual tension and the movement of the fibrous elements within the airy negative spaces that envelop them.
Upon viewing the works, one imagines the artist foraging materials in the landscape that speak to a yearning for the patina of history and the echoes of geological time. Unlike much contemporary sculpture produced for commercial artmarkets, sculptures like Continuum are not “fabricated,” they are made. Fabrication implies industrial production based upon a prototype, and was characteristic of late modernist sculpture, especially where uniformity of form or finish were favored aesthetic ideals. Conversely, “making” signifies handiwork rooted in pre-industrial craft traditions historically centered in the contexts of hunter-gatherer and agrarian domestic production. When revitalized within contemporary art, craft traditions similarly address issues of authorship by resituating them in relation to the collective experience of the home and community. Function is often of primary importance in craft; however, Young’s objects function purely on a symbolic level as visual expressions and as indexes of the artist’s labor. Her objects assume anthropomorphic and spectral qualities, thus inviting the intimate embodied experience and empathy of the viewing subject. This is true of the foreboding suspended grapevine sculpture Predator (2014), hovering at a height of nearly eight feet, and the more recent spectral White Luminous Room (2016), an installation of 1500 vertical strands of horsehair resembling a mist or apparition. Despite the ephemerality and entropic nature of these works, they strive for a monumentality and universality of experience, an impulse consistent with much art of the early 20th century avant-garde. They depart from craft as practiced in the context of Feminist Art, a movement for which historical specificity and situational contingency are core concerns and foils to ostensibly patriarchal and colonial notions of universality characteristic of abstraction.
Ultimately, Young’s forms bear witness to the (un)natural processes of death, climatological change, mass extinction, and urbanization. They operate upon an ethos of consciousness-raising, laboring to unify the aesthetic, political, historical, geological, and spiritual dimensions. Thus, we might consider Young in kinship with radical theorist and landscape painter John Ruskin, the 19th century critic of British industrial society, and the Surrealists, who, acting in response to the horrors of modern warfare and the failed promises of technological progress and Enlightenment rationality, developed illogical and non-rational epistemologies in search of collective, universal experience. Rather than advocating action, however, these works underscore the significance of being present in the full awareness of lived experience as it unfolds in each successive moment. Young’s art stimulates consciousness of our place within a continuum of life, thus, it may be read as both a celebration of human existence and an affirmation of human potential. By calling attention to our presence within and affect upon ecological systems, Young implies the possibility of transformation while resisting didacticism or explicit calls for political action. Transformation occurs not on the scale of culture or community, but rather at the level of cognition within each individual viewer as a mindful awareness of collective experience emerges into consciousness.
Art and Earth define us as human beings. The rupture of connection with either renders us senseless and therefore only brutal. The language of art is sensual. It is a language where the difficulties, mysteries, and paradoxes can be held. It is a language that holds. The idea that imagination begets empathy and is awakened by the senses guides all that I attempt as a citizen artist.
The Anthropocene is Now. As defined, it is the epoch we are living in: the Sixth Great Extinction. Extinction is a large word and of such a vast scale that we cannot connect. We are a culture in denial of death; extinction is beyond our American imagination.
To be witness to death is to change the field in which it is occurring. That effect is extraordinary because it is done with open eyes.
I am compelled to make work as witness to our time, to what is vanishing. To shape a language for what we cannot grasp or utter. To not pretend. To effect the field of perception. To speak my love to the dying. To say I am sorry. To remember. To be in awe.
Millicent Young (b. 1958) is an artist based in Hudson Valley, New York. Her sculptures and installations addressing themes of death and materiality have been exhibited both nationally and internationally. The artist is the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In 2016, Young earned an Award of Excellence from Dave Bown Projects, and in 2005 received a Florence Bienniale Sculpture Award. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Les Yeux du Monde, IA&A at Hillyer, and the Greater Reston Art Center. Young’s art is held in private and institutional collections, including the collection of the National Museum for Women in the Arts.