For me, the appeal of the painting lies in its beguiling visual effects. It is only after contemplating the image for some time that Young’s figures reveal themselves in the tangle of softly toned shapes and patches of colour. In the work, Young melds traditional oil painting techniques with the processing power of digital technology. He selected the source image, Ian Fairweather’s ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, using a computer program he designed – the program also generated the abstract composition that forms the basis of Young’s painterly meditation.
– Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, UQ Art Museum
About the artist
In his paintings, Chinese-Australian artist John Young (Young Zerunge) explores his migrant experiences and considers principles of Late Western Modernism through a bicultural lens. Young was born in Hong Kong in 1956 and moved to Sydney in 1967. He began studies at the Julian Ashton School of Art, and in 1973 won a scholarship to study painting at The National Art School, Sydney. Young declined the offer and, instead, enrolled at the University of Sydney. He graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy) with First Class Honours for his thesis Wittgenstein, aesthetics and epistemology. He subsequently studied at Sydney College of the Arts, completing his Diploma of Arts, Painting and Sculpture in 1980. In 1981, he was awarded the Power Foundation Scholarship for Young Artists and moved first to London and then to Paris, where he lived until returning to Australia in 1983. For the next decade, he lectured in Studio Theory and Painting at Sydney College of the Arts and, in 1995, established the Asian Australian Artists’ Association (Gallery 4A), Sydney, with artists Vicente Butron and Emil Goh and curator Melissa Chiu. Now called the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, the association continues to support Asian-Australian artists and curators. Young has lived and worked in Melbourne since 1997. His work is held by the National Gallery of Australia; most state galleries; tertiary, regional and corporate collections around Australia; and overseas at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, and the United Nations Collection, New York.
About the work acquired
John Young’s ‘Moment’ series (2015) is influenced in equal parts by his cross-cultural background and his training in Western art and philosophy. The series consists of six paintings based on a range of visual references, including the work of Scottish/Australian artist Ian Fairweather (1891–1974).1 Young created the artworks using an innovative process that he first developed in 2006. He has programmed his computer to source images from the Internet within set visual parameters, and to transform these pictures into abstract compositions. From a selection of random possibilities, Young chooses a single image that he believes has ‘an interesting resonance’, and then faithfully paints the work with oil on linen.2 The method, which he has coined ‘the human-computer friendship,’ melds contemporary technology with the age-old, manual techniques of oil painting. This somewhat arbitrary process allows Young to select images that share what he considers to be universally appealing aesthetic qualities. He acknowledges that his paintings resemble, for example, works by Western artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Gerhard Richter (1932–) and abstract ink paintings by Chinese masters.3
In Moment III Young has created a smooth surface that mimics the texture of a digital print, punctuating the canvas with small patches of pale blue paint that show evidence of his brushwork. The computer-generated image on which Young’s work is based was sourced from Ian Fairweather’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a semi-abstract painting of two nudes. Fairweather, who Young has described as ‘the most important artist of the Antipodes’ sought cultural and philosophical challenges throughout his life. His work, like Young’s, is emblematic of a cultural exchange between Australia and Asia.4 The title of Fairweather’s painting refers to a Symbolist play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949), which Claude Debussy (1862–1918) later adapted as an opera (1902). Ostensibly a love story, the narrative explores themes of creation and destruction. Young takes up these ideas in his painting. The process of renewal, in which the past is destroyed through the creation of new images, may be read as a metaphor for Young’s own migratory experiences.
Adapted from text prepared by Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, September 2015.
1. John Young, Eternal transformation (Brisbane: Philip Bacon Galleries, 2015), 2.
2. John Young, artist statement, email to Samantha Littley, 3 September 2015.
4. John Young, email to Michele Helmrich, 18 September 2015.
Young is one of a number of contemporary artists who have engaged with the legacy of Fairweather. Others include TV Moore, whose photograph As Fairweather (2009) is held by The University of Queensland; Charles Robb, whose sculpture Heavy weather (2012) and Heavy weather III (2014) reference the Ian Fairweather memorial rock; and New Zealand-born artist Michael Stevenson whose installation Argonauts of the Timor Sea (2004) ruminates on the infamous, near-fatal raft journey that Fairweather embarked on in 1952. Refer to Samantha Littley, Catacoustics/Charles Robb (Brisbane: Metro Arts, 2015), not paginated.