Coen Young

For Coen Young, painting is an encounter made real by the methods and process of silver nitrate. With his silvery reflective paintings increasing in scale, their confrontation has become more open and yet vulnerable with the increased exposure, whereas his new photographic works have a passion for risk. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with him in his new studio in Camperdown, Sydney.

Let’s begin with the influences on your work …
Most influences come from general conversations with friends or strangers, what interests people, different generations, etc. Most things you see. In terms of how that affects the form of the work, I try to work out the best way to use whatever I need to think about those relationships. At the moment, I approach dealing with things through painting.

Historic influences?
There are many, but for example I think that with post-World War II West Germany it was interesting that for many (but not all) artists’ practices a kind of internationalist position became adopted which still retained a very local or regional specificity in terms of the formation of artistic identity. There was a scepticism towards adopting these contemporary aesthetic positions, especially to do with modernism. And Pop dominated what was happening in New York at the time.

In your recent exhibition, Here in this cool, air-conditioned room and the earlier All your influences, the paintings were larger and individually displayed, suggesting a greater openness to the smaller, paired and more intimate First mirror paintings; do you feel this is a growing confidence in your work?
I don’t necessarily think it’s growing a confidence. It’s been a challenge to take those initial ideas; the shift in scale and then also the necessity to single each of the paintings out to say what I wanted them to say. With the first mirrors I initially presented them as diptychs, as I was interested in a certain kind of slippage between the two objects in terms of the repeated process and gesture. But then I thought it was too constraining in terms of the works’ content, seeing the two objects in such close proximity. They seemed to be more effective in communicating whatever I was thinking at the time, if they had a specific relationship; two objects within a single frame. Working in larger scale, it’s more important to physically move between the works, potentially to experience more of an encounter, in terms of how they interact with the body. Also, being larger works, they’re affected more by the immediate circumstances, in terms of light; I’ve got more shifts in the support, and it’s a greater expanse.

Has the methodology changed from the mirror works in Here in this cool, air-conditioned room to earlier paintings?
The main differences between the earlier mirror works and the recent paintings in Here in this cool, air-conditioned room is that the nature of the support has changed. So, with the first two bodies of mirror works, the stock I was using was handmade and this had a role in negating the facility of The mirror because of its texture. Then in a way, my process of building up the underlying layers on the surface, cutting them back presented enough problems in itself in terms of disrupting the function of the mirror. So in a way there was a certain kind of balance in terms of material presences that I wanted to adjust. The other difference is that the larger works require specialists’ tools and environments to actually get a particular ground looking and functioning in a certain way. The works need a temperature-controlled environment when they’re sprayed amongst other things, which requires skilled craftsmen. It is still important that I execute the silvering process myself.

The methodology also seems to have a mystical compel, perhaps similar to iconic painters and their preparation of the object?
If there was a comparison in terms of how I prepare the grounds for what I would consider to be the image of the mirror, and in a way, as I’m essentially replicating a particular methodology from one object to the next, then I guess there is a relationship there. But in terms of how the icon is intended to function and ‘reveal’ itself to the viewer or devout subject, if they’re at the right level, then they’ll see this remarkable thing. In a way, there’s a different subject-object relationship happening in terms of how they work and by what method my works function. What I’m thinking about with these works is how the object potentially sees us. So, it’s a reversal. “How are we known in relation to the object?”, rather than “how do I see the object?”.

Have the photographs in Here in this cool, air-conditioned room and Fundamental Fantasy become more about you?
Something I think about a lot are the possibilities of the content of a particular work being generated by its immediate circumstances. With the recent exhibition, I was wanting to think about what it means to be producing subjects for my own particular set of circumstances here, in Sydney and the implications in doing so. With the two photographic works, I was thinking about the ideas behind those works for a while now, but I actually decided to execute them the way I did four weeks before this exhibition. It was quite playful in a way, just being consumed by what I could and couldn’t see in these works. But it was also a documentation of the circumstance in which the works were made. There’s fragments of the studio in there and my own image. But what I was really wanting to make was a work based on the idea of a work that physically exists, and it was then constituted by images. The images between the grids operate in a similar fashion to one of the mirror paintings: some parts are in focus, some partially, some darker or lighter. As it was some kind of idealised form to begin with, I wanted it to remain as such until it had to come together to be installed. A kind of gamble on whether it would work as a total ‘image’. This is why I took the photographs on a 35mm camera, to restrict myself from the possible manipulation of the images on my computer, amongst a few other things.

Can you discuss the paradox of perfection in your works?
That goes back to me becoming frustrated with the work. I’m theoretically employing the same method and process to make each work. I should be able to produce works where the nature of the surface is the same between each one. But because of the way I’ve taken apart this particular process, how I apply the chemicals, and my own human intervention; they always turn out not how I was expecting. I’ve made quite a few of them, but I have no more control over these works than I did a year ago. That’s been a motivation to continue with trying to deal with these particular processes. Maybe that’s what makes them interesting, it’s that they are so singular despite being made the same way.

How do the colours reveal themselves through the silver nitrate?
Those colours are the by-product of the chemical process. It’s not intentional. It occurs where there is too much build-up of the silver salt. From one angle it may appear white, if you’re standing in front of it with dark clothes, or it might appear dark blue, and on another angle you won’t see it. Then there’s quite an orangey-burnt brown, and a deep purpley colour. There is a sealer applied to the surface to prevent oxidisation and any sort of liquid that you put over the surface, even if it’s clear as water, will make the surface appear golden because of a refraction that occurs. So there’s a dye that goes in to counter that, it’s the opposite of the spectrum so it should do a full shift or balance. But that’s so hard to get right, that’s another factor that comes in to determining the appearance of the mirror works. I’m kind of a neophyte in terms of the craft. I want to perfect them, but I also don’t at the same time.

How physically demanding are the larger Mirror works?
I guess they are quite laborious, the process to apply the silver is a single process and it’s continuous, so that is relatively demanding I can’t stop once I’ve started. It takes me around two hours from start to finish. There are a lot of nuances in the materials so an issue may only be exposed at the very end of a work. I mean, to have two or three attempts at the one mirror work, it’s most likely destroyed by that point and guess that’s quite common.

Panel Discussion
Non-Objective Portraiture in Australia
Friday 8 September 2017

3.00 – 4.00 pm
Sydney Contemporary 2017
Carriageworks, Mezzanine, Bay 17

Coen Young is represented by Kronenberg Wright Artists Projects, Sydney and Fox/Jensen/McCrory Auckland, Auckland.

Courtesy the artist and Kronenberg Wright Artists Projects, Sydney.