Coen Young: Bright young things - Art Collector

Issue 72, April - June 2015

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. He talks to Tracey Clement. Portrait by Nikki Short.
Coen Young, photographed for Art Collector Issue 72, April - June 2015. Photo: 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.
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