John Young

Having represented Australia in major exhibitions internationally for four decades, and with over sixty solo and numerous group exhibitions, Young’s current focus is transcultural humanitarianism. In 2020 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his significant contribution to the visual arts. His solo show, Nice and Sentimental Paintings, opened this month at Olsen Gallery, Sydney.

The youngest of four siblings, John Zerunge Young spent his childhood on the southern side of Hong Kong, in an art deco granite house that was scarred with Japanese bullet holes from the Second World War. As a child, looking out from the balcony he painted views of the sea and the sun setting over the bay, which was far away from the hustle and bustle of the iconic city. 

His father was an industrialist involved in petroleum products. By contrast his mother, of Chinese and Dutch heritage, was “more of a progressive,” a feminist and the chair of the prestigious Chinese Women’s Club, which helped soldiers after the war and refugees with resettlement. She was also an opera singer and collector of Chinese art from different dynasties. Another of Young’s early cultural influences was his great uncle, a poet and lyricist and the “13th Literati of the Southern Sea.” The Literati were scholar-artists, from the gentry class, who emphasised the importance of both poetry and calligraphy, often writing poems directly on their paintings.

Young was eleven years old when he was sent to boarding school in Australia, in Sydney. Finding life in a dormitory with forty boys intolerable, he wrote to his parents and asked to be moved and was enrolled in a Jesuit day college. As the school lacked an art department, he engaged the ageing Russian émigré painter Peter Panow after finding his details in a telephone directory. The beret-wearing Panow had trained in St Petersburg and espoused the “radicalism” of impressionism. Young recalls with amusement being taught that “The only way that art could last through history was with canvas and paint so tough the painting would wedge itself through history, physically!” and to “Never mix cobalt blue and ultramarine oil paint.” Panow used to say, “If you did, in two hundred years it will start going black.” Nonetheless, Young claims he learnt everything about colour from this eccentric. It was through seeking such extracurricular training that Young was offered a scholarship to the National Art School, in Darlinghurst.

He chose, however, not to take up the scholarship offer, as he’d been introduced to progressive art through the journal Studio International. It was here he learnt of conceptual art and the crisis in painting. These ideas were a world away from the conventional understanding of art in Australia. Finding a need for a broader education, he fortuitously enrolled in philosophy, mathematics and fine arts at the University of Sydney just as the first wave of postmodern discourse was beginning.

During these years at the University, Young contributed cartoons to the leftist Student Union newspaper Honi Soit as well as getting involved with an intellectual punk band, The Slugfuckers, orchestrating the lightshows and projections while they performed. It was the late seventies, the time of Radio Birdman and The Saints and people were supportive of new ideas, and everything was a “happening.” 

At twenty, he graduated with First Class Honours in philosophy and was offered a place in the PhD program. At the same time his intention was to teach art theory at the recently established Sydney College of the Arts. However, Young ultimately decided to enrol as a student as the College’s program was both experimental and unique in Australia. Artists who at the time were considered the most progressive of their generation migrated from vanguard activities at the University’s Tin Sheds to this newly established College. While Young had never met these artists, he had certainly heard about them and their radical views on art. He found a natural affinity with his lecturers and eventual colleagues Imants Tillers and the late composer David Ahern, finding consensus with them on the ways of artmaking for Australia. This astonishing period fostered the early careers of many of his fellow students, such as the luminary film director to be, Jane Campion.

At the start of the 1980s, Young worked in a factory, “playing in the factory by day and working in the studio by night.” It was during the night that he produced his first cycle of large drawings entitled ‘Drawing in Ten Parts,’ 1981, a physically punishing group of serial minimal works. It was also in 1981 that he coauthored with Terry Blake the first Australian paper on Baudrillard and art,  that anticipated changes in society under the influence of hyperreality. This was for the second issue of Art & Text, an art journal founded by the late critic and writer Paul Taylor that had an immense impact on Australian art during the 1980s. After saving enough money to travel to Europe, Young lived in London and Paris, the latter funded by the Power Scholarship for the Cité Internationale des Arts. It was in 1982 that he had his first “watershed moment”: seeing documenta 7 in Kassel, Germany. It highlighted for Young that Australian contemporary art was marginal. So, while Australian artists knew what was going on in the rest of the world, the rest of the world didn’t take much notice of their innovations.

Young considered whether he should remain in Australia, as an artist within European modernism, as there were no Chinese role models at that time who shared similar interests. He’d met Nam June Paik, the Korean-American video artist, in 1982 in New York. Paik, the most established avant garde Asian artist at the time, was a natural mentor for Young. When Young asked whether he should relocate to New York, Paik surprisingly advised the contrary, prophetically explaining that in the future everyone will be known everywhere no matter where they are living. In a way, that prediction came true and Young decided to stay. 

Once reestablished here, Young embraced postmodernism and concept-based paintings that also interested US artists such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Sherrie Levine and the German artist Sigmar Polke. “It was one of the few times in my life where I could see intellectual paths emerging and unfolding over the next ten years. It seemed prophetic to be able to recognise the things that were being fought against and things that were inconsequential . . . and how some things were trumped up styles like the new expressionist movement. You knew that that wasn’t really the significant discourse . . . the authentic discourse was actually postmodernism as it considered deeply our informational age and hyperreality.”

It was ten years later, in March 1991, that another watershed moment occurred for Young. He attended the historic conference “Modernism and Post-Modernism in Asian Art” at the Australian National University in Canberra. Young now felt that potentially the whole world could take part in contemporary art, since there were undiscovered or unrecognised modernist histories in different parts of the world, a stage of historical development to which Europe and America had previously laid an exclusive claim. His two watershed moments, set ten years apart, gave Young the perspective for his practice over the following decades, and what he could contribute to Australian art. 

While Young was not interested in identity politics per se, he was keen to create a voice that spoke of these many histories. So, in 1996 he facilitated the establishment of the Asian Australian Artists’ Association in Sydney and launched Gallery 4A (now 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art), with Melissa Chiu as the curator. One might speculate that Young’s early involvement with 4A eventually led to his current concerns that embrace the global “turbulence of migration” and the long and continuing (some would argue) history of persecuting immigrant minorities in Australia.

Perhaps the best way to understand Young’s work is not to look for key works but rather periods or cycles of works. Starting in 1995, the Double Ground Paintings series ran for twenty years. Then there is the History Projects, 2008 –2019, and his recent focus, the Abstract Paintings. Along with these major periods there are also peripheral cycles such as the Silhouette Paintings and the Polychrome Paintings. Once Young has decided on the direction, he is very thorough about what those cycles address, with the cycle only finishing when it seems to be “running out of gas.” 

The Polychrome Painting cycle for instance was simple and straightforward and premised on the idea of the commodification of art. The Double Ground Paintings had to be worked through more thoroughly and took longer to realise. At first Young resisted the idea of the history project but was encouraged to have the will to undertake it by his German gallerist, Alexander Ochs, and others. However, after beginning he realised that he was learning much from the historical events he was investigating – in particular, the values that these historical figures lived by, as well certain episodes in Australian history such as the brutal treatment of Chinese miners during the Lambing Flats riots of 1860, and more broadly he questioned the cultural founding myth of Australia. It was the genesis of Young’s foray into researching archives and personal histories, initially international events, then exploring specifically the story of the Chinese in Australia, 1840–1967. He has also examined the individual behaviour and the ethical codes of those who find themselves living in cross-cultural situations. 

The international critic and curator, Thomas Berghuis, later coined a term for Young’s practice: “situational ethics.” This change in direction resulted in major international exhibitions including 1967Dispersion, 2008, in Hong Kong, Bonhoeffer in Harlem, 2013, in Berlin and Bamberg in Germany, and Safety Zone, 2010, 2011, 2014, which toured Australia. Many of these projects were to become some of the first visual histories in Australian art that dealt with cross-cultural trauma and the history of the Chinese diaspora in Australia since 1840.

Of course, while Young has investigated the major narratives of our time, such as race, displacement and migration, he has also been affected by personal loss. He began the current series of Shiva Paintings two years ago in response to his father-in-law’s death and the way in which his wife, who is of Jewish heritage, dealt with her culture’s process of mourning. This series of paintings takes its name from the week-long mourning period in Judaism, known as “sitting shiva.” Of course, one could also understand these paintings as exploring the wider ramifications of trauma, death and mourning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a sense of collective loss in our shared world. 

Young’s contemporary concerns have shifted from postmodern painting, sometimes referred to as conceptual painting, which negotiated the place of painting after the end of modernism, to transcultural humanitarianism. This embrace of this overarching idea draws together transculturalism, a term that describes the erosion of boundaries and an emphasis on shared values, and humanitarianism, which evokes notions of respect for people regardless of race, gender or politics. Working from this timely premise in his latest work, now manifested as installations rather than a suite of paintings, Young attempts to problematise the experience of non-Anglo-Saxon migrants and refugees and his own complex cross-cultural history.

Though his projects are heavily researched they remain studio based. As is common with many artists, Young uses assistants in his studio. Perhaps what is different is that he refers to their activities as “our body,” having a physical voice or agency, with the body affecting the surface of the work just as well as he himself can. He no longer feels that it is necessary to engage in the authorial gesture, as his work is not about the “big expressionist brushstroke.” The important thing for Young is that our human corporeality can still affect art making in this age of virtuality.

Young has suggested that “I work more like a quartet, where I can participate in playing the music but at other times, I can be outside, more as a composer.” In that sense, Young is the composer who creates, playing with others in the quartet creating his next cycle of works. Over the last four decades, Young’s inventive work and methods have taken him to the Guggenheim, representing Australia in exhibitions worldwide and now paradigmatically as the subject of the last chapter in John Clark’s historical text The Asian Modern (National Gallery Singapore, 2021). Staying in Australia has indeed born cultural fruit.  

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021
Images courtesy the artist, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, ARC ONE Gallery, Boroondara Arts Centre, Bunjil Place, Olsen Gallery, and Philip Bacon Galleries

Naive and Sentimental Paintings 
13 April – 7 May 2022
Olsen Gallery, Sydney

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