Vanitas and cherry Blossoms

The Work of Pippa Young

There is something deeply emotional about looking at Pippa Young’s work. The lone figures who are introspective, dissociated in their personal void of dark or light colour, cut to the quick of the human experience. We are always with ourselves in the chiaroscuro of our mental landscape; whenever we turn away from a conversation, put down a book, stop looking at our phones, with eyes glazed we walk inside our heads. Alone, we always will be. Young holds a mirror up to the human experience, showing us the beauty in our melancholy. 


Beauty, indeed, is the first word that arrives when looking at her work. The precision of Young’s technique means that the human figure is rendered to an ethereal exactitude. The strange headdresses and ruffs, mannerist poses, and blank expressions are captivating. The figures linger in the mind like spectres: a marriage of the aberrant and the alluring enchanting the viewer into a state of still contemplation.


The captivating nature of her paintings is created through Young’s process of fastidious planning. Young begins her process with a grid, the preliminary pencil drawing layered on top. Then the artist may decide to go in and tonally shade the image, depending on the desired final effect. Some of her work, especially the ‘Postcards to Myself’ series, contain only the beautiful line drawing, or sections of the image will show this simple beginning stage, as if the artist is peeling back the skin-layers of her own process for the viewer to see the construction, the fragmentation, to fall in love with each layer equally: to intensify the desire to look. 


A monochrome grisaille layer is painted onto the sections she decides not to keep bare. This recalls the process of Renaissance painters, who are a clear underpinning influence of Young’s work. The colour is added on top; sometimes she’ll leave it at one colour layer, or she’ll keep adding up to five, depending on how much intensity she wants to achieve. Her process reminds me of a quote from Ali Smith’s, How to be Both, a book that incidentally dovetails so perfectly with Young’s work in concepts such as Renaissance art, gender-bending, the power of art, and the importance of the layer:


Alberti it is who teaches, too, how to build a body from nothing but bones: so that the process of drawing and painting outwits death and you draw, as he says, any animal by ‘isolating each bone of the animal, and on to this adding muscle, and then clothing it all with its flesh’: and this giving of muscle and flesh to bones is what in its essence the act of painting anything is


Young’s Renaissance inspiration does not stop with her process; her subject’s stylised, almost mannerist, positions are taken from old master poses. However, they are inspirations with a twist. She will take Vermeer’s maid pouring the milk, or Christ rising from the dead, and switch the genders. In her painting ‘Convention of Fools’, there are fragments of different inspirations in the painting. The spiked red lines encircling the head of the figure represents Christ’s ‘crown of thorns’, a symbol of mockery and masculine Christian sacrifice; yet the position of the figure is that of the Madonna. By combining these two positions, the artist mocks their roles in traditional Renaissance binary presentations: dislocating them from tradition, repurposing them for the modern.  


She is interested in interrogating what happens when traditional female poses are taken up by a masculine subject: does this make us question the binary of sexual difference in society? It is not necessarily her intention to produce depictions of a political ‘soft masculinity’ or ‘strong femininity’ in her work. Rather like Ali Smith’s characters in How to be Both she produces a kind of vibrating, ambiguous, blurring of gender to present a distinctly human experience. The artist clarifies: ‘my intention is to try and remove distracting things from a person to distil the idea of human experience. Not a female human experience, not a male human experience; I want my work to show the similarities inside us.’  Young, in Butlerian fashion, says flippantly, ‘gender is a nuisance’ and her work shows a troubling of it within its canvases. She does this by changing our expectations of poses and by picking deliberately androgynous or neutral models: dressing them in caps, ruffs, or Mary Antoinette hair styles to further disrupt or confuse any attempt to prescribe gender. In some ways, Young’s work, in all its layering and peeling, reveals how we all enact a kind of performativity in terms of how we present ourselves to the virtual world: a performance of beauty, intelligence, success, and, indeed, gender. 


I asked Young if these representations of deliberate ambiguity were from a feminist standpoint and she indicated that it doesn’t necessarily have a specific role, but as it is naturally something she is interested in, it comes out unexpectedly. Her painting ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, from her 2017 exhibition with Arusha Gallery, the figure - ambiguously gendered, though child-like in stature - stands in the same position as ‘The Statue of David’, a malign plastic mass oozing behind the beautiful figure. The figure is covered, from shoulders to upper thighs (interestingly where any aspersion surrounding their ‘sex’ could be laid claim) with a layer of pattern. On closer inspection, The pattern is made up of detailed pencil drawings depicting traditional representations of women- the whore, the Madonna, the Venus. By placing these details on a small nondescript figure of a child, who is occupying a position of strength, she is perhaps questioning the way society prescribes or ‘clothes’ certain gendered roles before humans have time to decide whether they themselves, want to wear them. Perhaps little girls want to be David’s instead of Venus’s, and they should have the right to choose so.


Young’s work questions the difference between representational painting and photography, making the viewer realise that there is still a very large place for figurative representation in a world that runs virtually on photographs. As we can see from Young’s work, it’s compatibility with photography is very limited. There is always something added to the perfectly rendered figures, who- although proportionally “real”- have a kind of ethereal sheen that makes them seem both human subject and more-than: Other. The injections of disembodied red geometric lines, inserted tin-foil-like material, and extraordinarily strange head-dresses, sets Young’s work far from standard photo-real art, and even further from photography. The artist makes the important distinction that photographs take seconds to create: ‘once the shutter is pressed, the moment is dead.’ Whereas painting is an accrual of the artist's time, where things can shift, meander, and modify from the initial purpose of the photographic source. It is the difference between a mechanical and a human process, one that machines cannot actually render better. It is the human touch, the warmth of hands, the time and concentration that makes art vibrate with meaning. Not a beauty captured within the second of a closing shutter.


Her triumph over the photographic image becomes muddied when considering most of her work is appreciated online in photographic form. Young has a large following of 15,000 on Instagram, and her work certainly produces an astonishing response on the platform. It photographs beautifully and clearly, so viewers feel like they are seeing ‘the real thing’, right there on their screens. Of course, it isn’t the real thing. The pieces that take months to create, yet all of them made from different materials, on different scales, on different bases, are rendered in a 1 x 1 square; homogenised on a grid made neat, diminutively appealing for brief-virtual consumption. The irony is, of course, is that this is precisely what Young is critiquing within the work: she is expressing something about the second hand experience of our existence: the fragmentation of a world that relies so heavily on seeing life through simulacra and simulation, on the always-on, always with us screens.  However, this does mean that her work reaches and appeals to a wide range of people; the non-specific subjectivity of her figures matches those who can consume them. 


Although Young deals mostly with problems of the visual within her work, words have started to gain importance. In her successful 2019 inclusion at the Draw Art Fair at Saatchi Gallery, she featured 48 small works, presented together in a 8 x 6 grid, titled ‘Postcards to Myself’. With each piece she allowed herself to experiment in a way she wouldn’t necessarily risk with a bigger piece, to ‘record ideas without judgement’. In these instances of experimentation, she began to play with words. She began to do what she calls ‘redactions’, ‘where small word-fragments are recontextualised to create new meaning and mediation’. This, as she astutely points out, is in fact a distillation of her core practice, just with words instead of images. She began with a copy of Jane Eyre, a book she was forced to read for O Level and at the time disliked. On re-reading it, she began to enjoy the evocation of the language and started to scan the pages until she found a word she ‘liked the look of’, painted it out of the context of its linguistic surroundings, and placed it in relation to other pleasing words, to make connections between the fragments, resulting in object-poems.


It is this theme of fragmentation and misalignment which she continues to interrogate within her current practice. The artist explains that ‘in my world everything seems misaligned, but also in the wider world things seem to be disconnected.’ She has been investigating how this can appear within her practice: when starting a new body of work, she likes to have ‘a campaign phrase in my head: a really simple core of what I am exploring.’ Her Noli Me Tangere series, which she offered as part of the Instagram ‘Artist Support Pledge’, is a part of this creative interrogation. It explores the fragmented nature of our personal constructed realities. All 5 pieces in the series are based on the same original drawing reproduced on Saunders Waterford paper using a cyanotype process, before working back into them with different materials such as paint, pencil, or tea stains. The perfection of the figure rendered, coupled with the strange deconstruction of process, gives the viewer a sense of seeing through the piece to its tendons. They show us the reality of our own virtually absorbed lives: one has to peel back the layers, to investigate themselves fully, to get the raw matter underneath. 


As all five pieces are fundamentally from the same image, yet with poignant alterations, continuing the conversation surrounding identity Young often explores within her work. She enjoys pursuing ‘the different personalities you have inside yourself; the misalignments of intention; the internal schisms.’ In this sense her work is at once deeply personal and expansively universal. She is exploring the problems of her personal identity discrepancies, but equally this shows the rest of humanity a relatable reflection of everyone's struggles with psychologically defining who we all are. There is, therefore, a melancholy aspect to her work. It lays bare the fraught human battle with who we are at our core, something that is perhaps unknowable, the schisms unresolvable. This is a knowledge we have to find alone, which is why her figures are either isolated or, if not alone, seem to not be unaware of the other figure in the frame. Contemplation and reflection are bedfellows of melancholia, which makes the mental state not entirely a miserable one. As Burton said in Anatomy of Melancholy, ‘melancholy advanceth men’s conceits more than any humour whatsoever.’ Which Young seems to agree with, saying ‘In order to make good work you have to have a dark core.’ Yet it is a dark core we all share, which is perhaps why her work is so alluring. It takes the internal human struggle for cohesion, plucks it from us, and projects it onto a canvas in a way that is intensely beautiful. We can review it from a distance, let it permeate softly, let its importance linger at the back of our minds, like a door left ajar. 

For more information:

Referenced Texts:

Ali Smith, How to be Both, (London: Penguin Random House, 2015)

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (Oxon: Routledge, 1990) : Judith Butler's 'Gender Trouble' was part of a poststructuralist approach to feminism and queer studies that suggested that sex is not tied to gender, that we acquire gender through a kind of repeated performativity of societal 'acts' that congeal over time to represent a stable gender. Her conclusion was, that in order to subvert the gender binary imposed by the heterosexual matrix, we must parody, subvert and perform different representations of gender individuality, to stop it congealing, in one form, on our bodies.