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Carey Young: Appearance

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Carey Young, Court Artist (Supreme Court),2023. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

“Law has been rather overlooked by artists,” said artist Carey Young whose major solo show has just opened at Modern Art Oxford. “It’s a rich and vast subject. Once you start to abstract it, it’s far from the rule-bound, dry bureaucracy that one may first imagine.”

This is an extraordinarily creative and intelligent show, which draws upon her two decade-long research into law and offers timely new perspectives on power, gender and justice. The artist questions, “How does the law feel to us, as individuals, as citizens? How can it touch us? How close can it get?”

UK/US citizen Carey Young (b. 1970), who lives and works in London, specialises in video, photography and text-based works, all of which are included in the Oxford exhibition, incidentally, her largest institutional show in the UK to date.

Understated and strong, broad yet pin-sharp, and thought provoking, I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition. It features three major video works: one is the ambitious new commission Appearance (2023), another her critically-acclaimed Palais de Justice (2017), and shown in a smaller side gallery, The Vision Machine (2020) which has its UK debut in this show.

In the opening gallery of photographic and text works, two instances of her playful approach to visual ambiguity catch me out. The first, a diptych, black and white photographs hung side by side, to invite comparison. Moving closer, the black appears to be a starry night sky, and the white, possibly its reverse? In reality, they are surfaces from two different legal contexts: the ‘stars’ turn out to be pin holes in a law school noticeboard, and the white, the wall of a prison yard.

Carey Young, still from Appearance, 2023. © Carey Young. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Likewise, another moment of double-take, in a blurry group photo of US supreme court judges Young has made a selfie of sorts: you see a feint reflection of her taking the photo imposed onto the mainly male-dominated world of the US court. The line-up of judges includes the first woman to be appointed to the court.

She plays with concepts. She plays with contracts. She plays with appearances. In the eponymous video work, Appearance, specially commissioned for this show, she plays on ideas of judgement, on the relationships between viewer and viewed, judger and judged, between power and portrayal.

Young explains, “The title, Appearance, refers not only to the judging of women on their appearance, but also to the importance of appearing (i.e., being summoned in person) at court, and the formal act in which a defendant submits themselves to a court’s jurisdiction.”

Taking her cue for the work from Andy Warhol’s celebrated 1960s Screen Tests, which in itself was inspired by the ‘most wanted’ ads of the New York Police Dept., the result is a wordless filmic portrait of fifteen UK female judges, diverse in seniority, age and ethnicity - all pioneers in different ways - who sit in their judicial robes (minus wigs, Young’s only instruction to them) looking straight at the camera. We see them enter, sit in an imposing red chair (à la Francis Bacon’s ‘screaming’ popes, after Velázquez’s famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X) and then try to stay poised and still for two minutes. For them it’s an acute test of composure under scrutiny; for us, it’s psychologically compelling, and fascinating in its close-ups of earrings, carefully mascaraed eyelashes, lace, shoes and so on in contrast to the pomp of the robes and tradition; and overall, a profound piece of film-making that teases apart preconceptions.

Carey Young, still from Palais de Justice, 2017. © Carey Young. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Young’s critically-acclaimed Palais de Justice (2017) is also on view, for which she surreptitiously filmed courtroom activities at Brussels’ labyrinthine main courthouse over a two-year period. With female-centric filming, glimpses through circular porthole windows in courthouse doors, and a brilliant layered soundtrack - echoes of stilettos clip-clopping down lofty marble corridors, the murmur of voices, the jangle of keys - she creates a notional otherworldly fiction that women might be running the court.

Exhibition curator Emma Ridgway said, “Young's compelling and intelligently playful work has substantially expanded in scale and ambition in recent years. Her new videos make a valuable contribution to discussions on gender equality, visual perception and the codifications of power. Her latest video work Appearance is a masterclass in the act of seeing, sensitising us to the delights of looking closely at telling details.”

Carey Young: Appearance

Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford

Showing until: 2 July.



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