Written by Naima J. Keith
For nearly a decade, Brenna Youngblood has fused painting and photography into densely layered collages. Figures, architecture, and decorative backdrops are fragmented, multiplied and layered to form dynamic chaotic rhythms. Born in Riverside and raised in Victorville, both small cities outside Los Angeles, Youngblood was initially interested in film but later moved to photography, taking classes throughout high school. After earning her BFA in 2002 from California State University, Long Beach, and her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2006, where she studied under James Welling and Catherine Opie, Youngblood began her artistic career by creating richly layered photographic collages. Images of chairs, lights, and decorative objects cut from the artist’s photos are encrusted in splattered fields of muted tones. Straddling the line between painted and photographic representation, the early works integrate emotion and documentary immediacy. Later, Youngblood moved on to collapsing paintings, objects, and assemblage into layered works that reveal the histories, traces, and documents of the world around her. She arranges ephemera and photographic imagery onto her canvases to intentionally place cultural materials in conversation with painted abstraction.
Given Youngblood’s interest in the index, the aesthetic of the palimpsest, and found materials, one can see why critics frequently bring up the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Leo Steinberg’s related notion of the “flatbed picture plane.” Steinberg famously argued that Rauschenberg oriented his work not along the traditional vertical axis associated with the human body (with the canvas as a window onto the world), but instead along a horizontal axis of culture, of accumulated stuff and information. In contrast, Youngblood’s work confuses vertical and horizontal—and, in turn, the spaces of body and culture—through various formal devices. Traces of the everyday seep into her work, but Youngblood is also concerned with gesture and subjectivity, in which the very physical presence of paint reveals the mark of the artist, and all documentary or historical records are created by particular people in particular places and times. As critic Ed Schaad noted, “Youngblood’s work . . . is not expressive but coded and hidden, not proclaiming anything other than the lived-in nature of life.”* In addition to this documentation of cultural context, Youngblood’s canvases stratify the surfaces of the urban context—including signage, posters, advertisements, and other detritus—in order to reflect and simulate the building up and breaking down of history.
Museumgoers were first introduced to Youngblood’s practice in 2006 with “Brenna Youngblood” at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. This solo exhibition featured densely layered photo collages. Later Youngblood turned more toward assemblage, and pasted her photographs onto canvas alongside strips of fabric, dollar bills, paper plates, found images, lights, and other items evocative of worn and distressed domestic interiors. Youngblood has stated that adding paint to her practice is a way to introduce her hand to her work. Her applications of paint are impressionistic or neoexpressionist, but she also imbues her assemblages with sarcasm and even humor, which draws her closer to figures such as Sigmar Polke and David Hammons. In Scene (2007), Youngblood depicts what look like two light bulbs illuminating a grungy back wall. Partially influenced by After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999–2000), by Jeff Walls, and William Eggleston’s image of a red ceiling with light bulb, the harsh light in Youngblood’s photographs in Scene contrasts with the gentle luminosity of the painted surface to create a sense of isolation and intimacy. In Jesus and Sacagawea (2007), Youngblood collages a found image of Jesus with an ambitious composition of wood panels. (One might miss the dollar coin commemorating Lewis and Clark’s Native American guide Sacagawea, which lays on its side in a crack between panels.) She supplements these two- and three-dimensional objects with passages of paint, usually in earth tones punctuated by vibrant color, over bits of paper or scraps of wood. In many cases, the photographs create a trompe l’oeil effect or a false sense of depth that is quickly countered by the flatness of the paint around them.
These works vacillate between collage—a building up of images—and décollage, a strategy of ungluing or excavating that became popular among the nouveaux réalistes in the 1960s. Youngblood’s mixed-media works have a strong sense of history—their constitutive materials have each lived lives before coming to rest on her canvases. STATION (2008) is a two-sided painting with a distressed frame perched on a found wooden stool. Complex and multilayered, the work encourages viewers to consider it from different vantage points, with the history embedded, through texture and tempting tactility, just beneath the visible surface, hinting at the importance of what cannot be seen.
In This story has a great ending (2009), a photograph of a police car barrels toward the edge of the canvas against a mountain landscape unconvincingly rendered on cut paper. The history here incorporates politics, but they are opaque, centered instead on the material conditions of everyday life. Youngblood’s work presents no overt commentary, but in its focus on obsolescent urban detritus elevated to the context of painting, it functions as comment on both the false preciousness of high art and our throwaway American culture. The presence of the artist’s hand through passages of paint remind us that this historical record is carefully mediated. The paint paradoxically serves to destabilize meaning, rather than cement it.
As her work has continued to develop, the magic of her assemblage has further emerged. The end results transform mere stuff—through language, paint, and careful juxtaposition—into something that far exceeds its base materiality, while at the same time insisting upon it. Youngblood’s assemblages from 2012 incorporate materials sourced at sites both personal and public: her childhood home, the street, fast food chains, craft stores, a stretcher shop. On one canvas, french fry boxes cut to form the words “Buffalo Burger” (the painting’s title) hover above a black form that resembles, with the vagueness of a cloud or Rorschach test, a buffalo in motion. The artist’s distinctive humor is clearly at work in this signage gone awry, which has an out-of-whack quality that makes the words and dark form somehow pathetic and personable. Candy Paint (2012) is a floor-bound sculpture shaped like a diamond, caked in paint-splattered textured paper, set on casters, and lit from the bottom with a red bulb like a cheap brothel window. Every piece of junk seems self-aware, without pretense but with plenty of wit.
Youngblood’s most recent paintings are often enrobed in a thick layer of polychromatic paint. Democratic Forest (2014) depicts a collaged image of a tree-shaped air freshener, painted so thickly that it takes on an object-like presence and brings a work that is clearly a painting into the realm of sculpture. Camouflaged Callus (2014), made specifically for this exhibition, poetically incorporates a chain-link fence design and footprint. The paint appears to have been applied to the canvas in layers, with the final coat horizontally troweled by any number of tools. In Youngblood’s heavily layered paintings, the substance beneath each stratum is less secret than sediment. Her process implies that each covered layer may be every bit as visually immediate as the one reveled. Such is the alchemy of Youngblood's practice. The uppermost layers of her work only represent the point at which accretion stopped, just as the most recent of Youngblood’s works represent where her accretive practice has paused to give us all a peek.
Naima J. Keith is an associate curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Since joining the Studio Museum in 2011, she has organized numerous exhibitions, including “Kianja Strobert: Of This Day in Time” (2014), “Titus Kaphar: The Jerome Project” (2014), “Glenn Kaino: 19.83 (2014), The Shadows Took Shape” (co-curated with Zoe Whitley, 2013), “Robert Pruitt: Women” (2013), “Fore” (co-curated with Lauren Haynes and Thomas J. Lax, 2012), “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” (Institutional Curator, 2012), and “John Outterbridge: The Rag Factory II”(2011). Her exhibition “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989” (2014) appeared at the Studio Museum in 2014 before traveling to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in publications for The Studio Museum in Harlem, UCLA Hammer Museum, LAXART, MoMA PS1, NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art and the University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara.
* Ed Schaad, “Brenna Youngblood,” I call it ORANGES (blog), October 13, 2013, http://icallitoranges.blogspot.com/2013/10/brenna-youngblood.html.