COEN YOUNG: ALL YOUR INFLUENCES. William Wright Artist Projects December 2014

In 1839 on the announcement of the daguerreotype process, largely considered to be the birth of photography, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre wrote a broadsheet announcing the invention. Part of it reads as follows: “The daguerreotype is not an instrument to be used to draw nature, but a chemical and physical process which gives her [nature] the ability to reproduce herself” implying an ontological connection between nature and image.[1] When exposed to light the daguerreotype copper plate, coated with silver, captures everything before it in great detail, no matter how near or far, but in a reversed mirror image of the subject. It was often reported that the daguerreotype revealed things that the photographer could not see with their own eyes suggesting mystical attributes. Seeing a daguerreotype is also contingent on light conditions. The object must be held at a certain angle in order to see the elusive image in the highly reflective, mirror-like surface; the image appearing to be either a negative or a positive depending on whether a light or dark background is reflected in the photograph. The labour intensive and alchemical process produced unique images that were mounted under glass in elaborate cases in order to prevent oxidization of the silvered surface and to enable the precious object to be carried on one’s person.

Although a painter, Coen Young has turned to the elusive chemical processes of photography to reconsider the gesture toward image making that Daguerre implies is both designated and ontological. Using a photographic methodology, Young applies various media and chemicals in multiple layers such as gesso, marble dust and enamel onto a sheet of cotton rag paper; the last being silver nitrate, which is applied, fixed and washed just like a sheet of photographic paper. Each process leaves its trace on the paper, evident at the edges, and evokes a sense of the object’s history as it slowly reveals itself to the viewer. The result is a highly polished surface that claims a certain objectness that is also its antithesis, revealed in the tension between the surface and the ‘image’, which is only manifested in the reflection. The works gesture towards an experience or temporal moment that like a memory remains ungraspable and somewhat illusive.

The idiosyncratic nature of the surface is made evident in the viewer’s attempt to contemplate the image, an image that is brought to the object by the viewer in their corporeal reflection but also emerges, unbidden from the surface itself. But this image is not a picture per se, but rather a contradictory, ever-changing manifestation of what we expect to see. In fact, if these mirror studies have a subject at all it is contradiction itself. They are both paintings and photographs, images and non-images, illusions and objects and the ‘imperfections’ in the works bring the viewer back to the surface, which like a daguerreotype is pressed up to the glass as a reminder of its mutability. The works’ refusal to translate as a static image is evident in any attempt to capture them in photographs and in the constant struggle between surface and depth. A perceived emptiness in the images also presents a contradiction because it asks us what it is we expect to see in what we think of as an unmediated visual experience. A mirror, or looking glass – is in and of itself – empty.[2] It contains no signifying information and all that it is – is what we – the ‘looker’ bring to it; and without light a mirror is but a blinded instrument full of potential. The unpredictable nature of Young’s mirror studies challenge this perceived emptiness in the uncertain tension of the surface, and by uncertain I am referring here to the quiet assertiveness the images have in their claim for autonomy. For while they are made at the same time, the crafted nature of the process combined with the artist’s intentionality, creates a series in which the images are the same but different. Even in ambient light the image persists as the reflective surface captures that which surrounds it.

The uncertainty of the image is what drives us to keep looking, a process Young thinks of as ‘expectation’, a desire to see and to know, which is often thwarted and complicated by a surface that denies any medium specificity. In the age of the post-medium condition, in which the pursuit of a purity of medium is seen as antiquated, various commentators ask What is photography? What is painting?[3] This question regarding categorisation of the medium is prevalent in the work of the German painter Gerhard Richter who provocatively claims that he paints photographs: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph; I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means.”[4] Young too is not ‘making’ a photograph in the way that we think of a ‘photograph’, with a camera and a lens, but rather evokes in many ways the earliest ventures of image making such as the camera obscura where the image remained unfixed; and also references other contemporary iterations of non-lens based media.

While Young’s previous experimentations with the photographic process were reminiscent of the Claude glass these new evocations are closer to the reflective surface of the daguerreotype.[5] The Claude glass was a tinted, blackened convex mirror used to produce a stable, reflected image reminiscent of the paintings of Claude Lorrain, which gave a rather weak reflection that dulled the details, while colours were toned like those of varnished paintings. The glass was used by travellers who would hold it in their hand so as to see a reversed image of the landscape behind them and for the purpose of composing pictures.[6] The pictorial properties of the Claude glass, reducing everything to a visual equivalence as Geoffrey Batchen puts it, are strikingly like those of the photograph. As one aficionado commented in 1839 on seeing a daguerreotype “The best idea I can give of the effect produced is, by saying that it is nearly the same as that of views taken by reflection in a black mirror.”[7] Although Young’s current mirror studies evoke a sense of a ‘looking glass’ they are neither faithful to projecting an unmediated sense of the real, nor are they stable in their reflective qualities. Rather, they are unpredictable and at times disturbing objects, which will continue to intrigue and mesmerise as we look for that which lies beyond the surface.

 For Bill.

Donna West Brett

[1] Beaumont Newhall, ‘Eighteen thirty-nine: the birth of photography’, in Photography: discovery and invention, J Paul Getty Museum, 1990, 19.

[2] See Norman Bryson, ‘The gaze in the expanded field’, in Hal Foster ed. Vision and visuality, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture no 2, Bay Press, Seattle, 1988.

[3] See Rosemary Hawker, ‘Idiom Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography’, Oxford Art Journal 32.2 2009, 263–280. See also David Green ed. Where is the photograph? and Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iverson, Photography after conceptual art.

[4] Gerhard Richter in an interview with Rolf Schön, 1972, Hans-Ulrich Obrist ed. The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962–1993 (Thames and Hudson, Anthony d’Offay Gallery: London, 1995) 73.

[5] First Mirrors. 2014 at William Wright Artist Projects, Sydney

[6] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with desire: the conception of photography, MIT Press, Mass 1997, 73.

[7] Batchen, 74