You Are Where? Getting to Know 'Non-Places'
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 8, 2009
Trevor Young paints places that most of us ignore. He memorializes the airport lounges, hotel rooms, drive-throughs and gas stations en route to Paris or Poughkeepsie. He calls them "Non-Places," the title of his 78-piece exhibition at Flashpoint.
Yet in Young's version of things, no one sits waiting for the plane or sups at the diner. All the people are someplace else -- somewhere other than the here and now of his pictures.
But that's how it is, right? Our minds rarely linger at the airport gate, even if our bodies sit there for hours. Imagination shuttles us toward our destination or lingers with loved ones left behind. If anything, focusing our minds invites a low-grade terror, a compulsion to scan and assess. Swine flu carrier? Terrorist? Everyone is suspect.
So Young's unpeopled paintings suggest a version of how we wish things could be. The crimson banquette of the artist's large-scale "Departure" curves like an enveloping arm. It holds no sweating, sneezing disease vectors.
Yet when the people go, we're left with other pains. Without humans, Young shows us, we have loneliness and its attendant anxieties. His pictures are profoundly forlorn affairs.
The show opens with a painting of a lonely highway tunnel rendered in matte, lavender-inflected grays. The picture's mood owes much to Edward Hopper's chronicles of urban anomie and it bears strong resemblance to a Hopper that hangs at the Phillips Collection. That work depicts a lonely train tunnel entrance, and it's a picture Young has seen many times.
When Hopper painted that tunnel in 1946, the artist worried over the acidic anonymity of city life. Young, 33, grew up cloaked in the sameness of the Washington suburbs; his pictures take ordinariness for granted.
Indeed, Young's tunnel could be anywhere -- in Los Angeles or the Midwest or downtown D.C. The images flirts with the nondescript.
Yet Young paints it -- and his other pictures -- in a manner that refuses full anonymity. The works -- some are postcard-size; "Departure" is nearly six feet tall -- appear resolutely handmade, mussed by the artist's hand and inflected here and there with drips and splotches that a painter with different intentions would never have left behind. Young insists that we see evidence of him painting, not just his images.
Although there are a few spots where Young taped off his canvas to create clean edges -- the lines running the length of an airplane fuselage in "Departure," for example -- his dominant strategy is the contained painterly gesture. The move lends a humanity these pictures might otherwise lack.
Along the way, Young reveals the vulnerabilities of these places. Here is a disused luggage carousel built to be slick and efficient, yet its down ramp hangs flaccid from the ceiling. And a plane engine, painted head-on, could pass for the portrait of a halved grapefruit, not a machine of massive thrust.
Los Angeles-based curator Annie Adjchavanich oversaw the installation of Young's pictures, and her choices underscore Young's intentions. Save a passage of introductory text, there are no price lists or titles. Pockets of small-scale works alternate with bigger canvases, creating a staccato rhythm across the wall. Our eyes are ushered along, but much is left to our imagination.
Although many of Young's smaller pictures are abstracted glimpses of planes or hotel rooms, the artist's world isn't entirely placeless. His buildings have the suburban, low-slung profile of Southern California, where half of these pictures were painted. (Young recently completed a residency there.) With this context, another wrinkle emerges: The pictures suggest stage or movie sets, not real life.
Like the movies, Young makes scary things safe. Stopping at a roadside McDonald's and using its toilet invites the unpleasant realities of strangers and germs. Looking at a picture of a similar bathroom -- even when Young paints it with a spot-on, urine-colored palette -- ensures it remains at a safe distance.
Young's exhibition, with its contradictions and nervousness, gets a certain mood just right. He's mining familiar images, to be sure, and owes a debt to the countless painters, famous and not so, whose subject is the Americana of gas stations or the vaguely hip anomie of airports. But he's also taken the temperature of our worries.
In too many regards, we inhabit a society of non-places intended to protect us from our fears. Perhaps next Young will paint pictures of laptops, our other favorite hiding place.