John Young: None Living Knows

There is a remarkable history in Australia; one that is scarcely known. As artist, John Young’s exhibition title surmises, ‘None Living Knows’; a line borrowed from a W.B. Yeats poem. Like many histories in Australia that don’t fit the dominant European narrative, it remains only a soft murmur.

So envisage you are travelling by foot two thousand kilometres in an infinitely unfamiliar landscape, surrounded by an oppressive climate, devoid of the culture you know and in a country where animosity towards you is the populous mindset. This is the incredible experience of up to several thousand Chinese workers and immigrants from then Palmerston (Darwin) who walked east during the late 19th century, sometimes as far as Cairns. It is also the story that has inspired Young’s fourth exhibition dedicated to the history of the Chinese diaspora in Australia since 1840.

John Young, Naïve and Sentimental Painting XI, 2016, oil on linen, 203 x 270cm. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

Typical of his narrative-based exhibitions, Young uses the event as a starting point then pushes further and suspends factuality in order to understand the psychology of the experience. He states, “the story is a plinth from which to take off”. While the men walk the interior of an unmapped country, Young traverses an imagined interior of the men.  His existential approach attempts to conceive what it must have been like for these immigrants seeking a living on the gold fields while experiencing a foreign world empty of the defining markers; stripped of an accustomed culture, interaction in their own language, visual familiarity and facing the real possibility of death.

How do you place yourself in this new world and regain a sense of presence? How does the new experience and environment imprint upon you beyond the physical? It’s a universal theme, the one of long journeys, think Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ (8th century BC), Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (2006) or turn on the news. Young sees the body of work “as a metaphor for now”, examining how humanity can survive today, and notably how the human values of endurance, perseverance and hope continue to carry us.

John Young, None Living Knows II, 2017, oil on canvas, 238 x 156cm. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

Young’s practice has always been shaped by an intellectual rigor with all facets of his work extensively researched, methodically considered and precisely applied. The exhibition itself consists of a bank of chalk drawings comprised of documented and fictitious text and diagrams, as well as photo images. Displayed like a storyboard, they are Young’s re-imagining of these long walks. The practice of working with an impermanent medium such as chalk then wiping it to leave a dusty residue only to layer over it again alludes to the rewritings of history and therefore its fleetingness. History is a palimpsest of variable narratives – a faint dusty whisper.

John Young, Naïve and Sentimental Painting XII, 2016, oil on linen, 203 x 270cm. Courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne

The evocative pivot point of ‘None Living Knows’, are the 11 abstract paintings. The images are generated by compressing a series of internet pictures of the landscape endured by these men; a technique Young has utilised for previous abstract works. The final artworks manifest as layered organic forms that are painted immaculately revealing fluctuating layers of opacity and translucency to create contraction and emergence. Young turned to early 20th century spiritualist paintings of the West to inform his final choice of computer generated images to paint. It is fair to say that within the framework of ‘None Living Knows’, in which the artist considers the big existential questions on behalf of his subjects, that a certain spiritualism is imbued upon and transcends beyond the canvas. They are meditative works to be sat with, to be felt and listened to, and are considered psychological and emotional spaces. And in a determination that brings the artist full circle, Young, for the first time, has incorporated a repetition of visible hand brush strokes through these abstract forms. Like the long sweeping movements of tai chi they infer time and duration but most significantly, “place the body back into painting”.

In a step away from the polished finish of previous abstract works, Young has reincorporated a sense of touch; they are haptic with texture and humanity. And it is this sense of humanity that is at the core of Young’s narrative-based exhibitions, resulting in ‘None Living Knows’ to be his most spiritual exploration of humanity to date.

Venita Poblocki is a curator and writer.

ARC ONE Gallery
Until 8 July, 2017