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William Corwin: "Carey Young: Appearance"

Carey Young, Appearance, 2023. HD video (from 4K), silent, 49 minutes 30 seconds.

Tiny impalpable details are the things that construct identity, especially when they exist in a hostile environment. A gold earring, chosen by its wearer versus a strip of gold brocade, imposed on the wearer by the state, is just one pair in a list of long thoughtful shots, visual comparisons, woven together by Carey Young in her 49-minute video Appearance (2023). Hair, shoes, fingernails, and sundry accessories are the markers absorbed slowly from the filmic portraits of fifteen women, all judges in the United Kingdom. None of the sitters actively rejects the traditional trappings of power, though King’s Bench Master Victoria McCloud goes the farthest with blue hair. But this is not a work of art that portrays rejection of the status quo; instead, we are invited to accompany Young on an investigation of the nuanced ways in which women weave their details of personality into broader restrictive parameters—parameters that were forbidden to women until less than a century ago (the first women became judges in the UK in 1949). Stiletto versus kitten heel versus flat: Young’s lens lingers on the choices that women must make as jurists which will inevitably be judged with no reference whatsoever to their intellectual achievements. These gestures are then considered against the typologies of the robes themselves. Ingrid Simler, Lady Simler, a justice of the Supreme Court of England, is drenched in gold, her costume a vestige of royal authority, clumsily re-appropriated by a democratic system. On the other side of the coin is a host of judges wearing far more sedate clothes of office—gray, black, and fuchsia puritanical robes with awkward lace or ribbon collars, seemingly more appropriate to a production of The Crucible than a contemporary court of law. The spectrum between juridical grandeur and humility, representing the notions of royal and ecclesiastical power over proletarian justice: these are the variables against the constant of feminine personal adornment presented by the individual—Young has created a fascinating record as well as an inquiry.

As the artist posits detail against detail, she nudges us to detect the contradictions that manifest simply out of usage. In “Surfaces of Law,” a series of still images which capture prisons throughout Western Europe, can be read in terms of levels of care—how much effort will a society expend on the individuals it punishes? In a photograph of prison storage lockers, Prison Key Storage, Ghent, Belgium (2023), we can read myriad layers of meaning. Young carefully frames the wall of little cubbies as a disembodied grid. There are numbers inscribed on each little door as well as a seemingly infinite number of dings and nicks. Newly printed numbers have been carefully placed in the left-hand corner of each locker door. This is innocuous enough, except that the engraved numbers are still perfectly clear. We get a sense of the unstoppable machinery of government, half-assedly improving prisoner’s facilities. Probably it started with a modest proposal, poorly subsidized or watered down by graft and inflated prices, resulting in an utterly useless gesture with no actual effect on those it only ever pretended to help. Solitary Confinement Cell, Prison, Basel, Switzerland (2023) presents a disembodied interior photograph of a seat or bed in a room painted a luscious grapefruit pink. The color is momentarily seductive, calming in its womb-like warmth. But as we assimilate Young’s visual process, we notice the small black air bubbles in the foregrounded seat against the smoothness of the wall. This is a cast-concrete seating unit, hard and unmovable. Even with the dusty black cushion, it is very likely awkward and uncomfortable. The color is simply a technique to ensure docility in the inhabitant of the cell, but there is still an overwhelming sentiment of containment and control within the beauty.

Returning to Appearance: gazing into the faces of the fifteen individuals in the video, another thought dawns on one beyond the political/anthropological. Most pictures that we take now depict the subject doing something, not merely sitting. Basing her project on Warhol’s Screen Tests, made between 1964–66, Young revisits why we make portraits in the first place. We look at the sitters’ skin, their hair, the differing shades of cloth in the garments they wear. These are distinctions which begin to supply a few scraps of familiarity with these notable and important people. As with their analogs in painting, we collect enough details in order to form some sense, however wildly inaccurate, of the person at whom we are looking, and as with traditional portraits, these are the details that will live on once the sitters are gone, a sobering thought. In Young’s series of carceral photographs, which evolve into entirely different genres, toward still life and interior landscape, the potential sitters have left the premises; there are no individuals. Instead, we observe their traces, and the traces of how they lived and were treated. By focusing on the details, Young gently prods us to process the contradictions, and the behaviors that are the root cause.

– William Corwin