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Rewind: Robert Youds at Sable-Castelli Gallery

Sable-Castelli Gallery, Toronto

Anyone familiar with Robert Youds’’ contribution to the mammoth “Topographies” exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1996 knows that he has long since drifted across the meridian dividing painting from sculpture. The square velvet cushions of the Soft Works for Complicated Needs series were both voluptuous and vulgar, encrusted with paint and contorted by their trussing with cords. The spray-painted haloes of aborted bindings on their surfaces are read as the traces of a creative struggle, in the same way that a Modernist masterwork bears the scars of its own making. But instead of venting on the canvas, Youds took it out on the pillows, sparing the angst and providing an object analogous to the activity of painting itself.

In livingroombedroomofficeden, shown at the Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto this spring, as well as beautifulbeautiful, showing at Post Gallery in Los Angeles this fall, Youds compresses the material world into images that somehow find a way to violate conventions long deemed too permeable to even bother attacking.

Lights, plastic storage containers, reflective tape and other miscellanea are bolted or affixed in rigid compositions that advance awkwardly into the space of the room. It is a language of manufacture, spoken in the sheer surfaces and considered joinery of an over-designed urban environment where every pocket of space must be filled, every fixture refined.

The aluminium panels and machined wall mounts employed are pristine, manufactured items. They are radically unlike most of the historical precedents that draw comparison, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines,” which utilized street detritus to veer clear of the spirituality of the New York School, only to sanctify the decentred and distracted consciousness of the urban dweller. Youds’ constructions, looking freshly rung-in on his credit card, are stridently secular by comparison. The pieces possess an internal, self-referential logic at the same time as they bear out decisions made as the artist strolled the store aisles. Instead of a solitary, existentially pained creator staring past the canvas into the black abyss of night, we have the browsing interloper caught within the fluorescent glare of a 24-hour Home Depot. Both scenarios possess a certain degree of romantic charm.

In pieces like book shelves both sides to ceiling (2000), the relentless drive for the clean lines and fluid connections of the ergonomic and space-saving are undermined with impulsive, provisional acts, like when the green plastic netting of a laundry bag is pulled over a bulbous light fixture. The move is motivated by painterly concerns, like changing the hue and intensity of light emitted from beneath, and also thwarts our appetite for the slick certainty of computer design.

Youds reworks the retail world. He succeeds in making the exactingly manufactured messy, the functional vulgar or lewd. He reinvents painting and makes it address the fullness of experience in a manner meaningful to the most demanding formalists—consumers—for whom the relationship of internal parts and the minutiae of surface qualities are religiously studied.

This review is from the Winter 2001 issue of Canadian Art.

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