After receiving a degree in Religion from Dartmouth College, Penn Young pursued a career as a playwright, producing work in New York, Boston, and Chicago. He was twice awarded a Pilgrim Project production grant, and held long term-relationships with NewTheatre, Boston and POETS Theatre, Chicago. Young initially began painting while still writing, and then made the complete switch to art-making. He has exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the Northeast, including two solo shows at the Clifford-Smith Gallery in Boston, and his work belongs to a number of public and private collections. In 2002, Young was a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
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I met Penn in the early fall, a few weeks before the beginning of his back-to-back exhibitions at Samson Projects. After seeing the retrospective-esque first show, “What I Owe”, which consisted of a wide range of work in sculpture and painting, I was curious to learn more about Penn’s work and what was to come in the second rendition, “I Cried to Dream Again”. Penn was generous enough to have me by his studio in the midst of final exhibition preparations. As he showed me through his two large studios of work, we talked in detail about the influence of his background as a playwright on his art practice, his ability to fluidly shift across different media and methods, and the wide range of motivations behind his work.
Andrea Evans: Penn, thanks for having me by your studio—or should I say, studios. After seeing your work at Samson Projects, it’s a real treat to see behind the scenes.
You came to the visual arts after a career as a playwright. What sparked this switch from writing to painting and sculpture? In what ways has your experience as a playwright influenced your artwork?
Penn Young: I kind of fell into the visual arts. I’m married to Emily Eveleth, who’s a painter, to put it mildly, and a while back she got a residency to paint in Brittany. Naturally I went with her. And it was just too beautiful there to stay in and write, so I went out with her while she painted. And that was pretty damned boring since she just stayed in the same place all day. So I borrowed some brushes, paints and boards, and started painting landscapes. I really loved it, but didn’t think of it as more than something to do while there. But the idea of painting stayed with me once we’d gotten home, so after a while I began again, this time abstract work, since that’s what I’d always been most interested in looking at. I got serious about it very quickly, but still thought of myself as primarily a playwright. There’s a lot of downtime writing for the theater in the periods between writing plays and having productions, and I thought I could paint in those times, and sort of alternate between writing and painting. I did do that for a while, but at a point realized that painting was all I was thinking about, so I figured I’d changed careers without noticing.
I think I carried three things out of the theater, one affecting my overall approach, and two that affect specific areas of my work. The first was a foundation for my personal philosophy on work. A key part of that is an awareness of feeling a sense of obligation to the audience or the viewer. That ethos is deep in the soul of the theater. The words “the show must go on” are not an empty cliché. The deal that lies implicit behind that phrase really sinks into you in the theater, and it’s simply this – people have come to see your work, so you will do your work, whether onstage or off. It doesn’t matter it you feel like crap, had your heart broken or your dog just died. You will do your job and you will do the best job of it you can. That’s powerful stuff. And on bad days, it feels like a burden, but it also a joy to feel that sense of connection.
The second is that I think working in the theater created or fed an interest in creating an experience for the viewer that has some duration to it. Obviously, the time someone spends with a painting isn’t fixed, as it is with watching a play, but I still hope to make pieces that both invite and reward prolonged looking. I think this is part of what brought me to making the multi-part pieces I’ve done, or a show like I Cried To Dream Again. These are things that by nature, should you choose to look, you’ll spend a certain amount of time with.
And the third has to do with something that’s an aspect of a lot of my 3-D work. While I make some sculptures that are made to been seen in the round, most of my 3-D pieces are made to have a relationship to the wall, either hanging on it, leaning against it or standing just off of it. The origins of that have actually always puzzled me. I’d just assumed it was because I’d started as a painter. But in thinking about this question, it came to me that it really relates to the way I visualized plays when writing them. Because the action on a stage takes place in a three dimensional volume, and because the audience members sit at different heights and angles, it became a habit, when planning a piece, to mentally see it through a wide but limited range of angles, rather than fully in the round.
AE: One of the things I’ve noticed in reading about your work is how often people seem to want to connect your work to different past art movements, for example, to abstract expressionism, minimalism, and so on. In our studio visit, you mentioned a comment from a curator who asked you if you were bothered by not having a single signature style. Is this something you identify about your work? Do you see yourself as a “sampler” of art movements of past? Or is something else going on here? Is there a particular interest, curiosity, methodology, theme, or subject matter that you see running through all the work you make?
PY: I work in a lot of very different veins and modes and some for sure seem to borrow from or be departures from methods or modes of past artists. But I don’t think of myself as sampling. Those connections can be seen, but I’m not trying to tie to anything in the past. And it’s immaterial to me whether those connections are seen or not. By the same token, I’m not trying to connect with past movements. I do paintings that are one-color and I make sculptures that are minimal in form, but only because that’s what those pieces need in order to do what they need to do. There’s no attempt to connect to the intellectual concerns of Monochrome painting in one case, or Minimalism in the other. I’m not trying to riff on anything, I’m just fortunate to be making work at a time when a big toolbox has been created by my predecessors. And it’s not just 20th or 21st Century art or abstract work – for a recent painting I spent a lot of time looking at Minoan frescoes and pottery, trying to understand a certain feel they have.
As for a common thread in my work, I think and hope it’s there. It’s hard to pin down, since it’s not a thing I try consciously to put in or follow. What I strive for is that each piece has something to say and that in trying to get that across, I’ve used just the right amount of all the elements, whether that means a lot of colors or only one, or complex forms or something very simple.
As for not having a signature style, the answer I gave the curator still sums it up – it doesn’t bother me if someone doesn’t see right off that I made the piece they’re looking at. What I hope is that if they ask who made it and are told that I did, they think, “That makes sense”.
AE: The relationship between content and form in your work is layered and complex. For the most part, your work is formally quite abstract, but is often derived from very specific influences. The second part of your show at Samson Projects, “I Cried to Dream Again”, centers on Euripides’s play “Iphigenia in Aulis”. In the studio, we got into the details of this body of work: the way that each painting relates to a particular aspect of the narrative or characters of the play. All artwork has these layers: there are the motivations and ideas that brought the piece into being that perhaps only the artist knows, the visual information that comes across in the artwork itself which is interpreted by different viewers, the information that the artist chooses to share via writing or conversation about the work…In terms of your own work, how much of this story, or your personal motivations for making the work, is important for your viewers to know?
PY: The short and honest answer is none.
As I read or watch or listen, some things strike a chord in me. And I look at those to see if anything that has hit me is something I can build a piece out of. That’s to say, can I make something that will evoke the same response in a viewer? If so, it becomes the subject. Then I figure out how to make a piece that creates in the viewer something of what I felt. After the fact I can recall the impetuses, the choices, the planning and the execution, and am happy to talk or write about them if asked. But nothing I have to say or write is, in my mind, even a secondary part of a work.
AE: Related to this, your titles often allude to the content of the work. Would you talk a little about how you title your work, and how you view the role of a work’s title?
PY: Titles are a funny thing. I see them as really just a way to identify individual pieces. Starting out, I gave thought to going with the “Untitled Number whatever” model, but in a practical sense that makes it harder to keep mental track of work. And it felt like doing so would put me in an intellectual camp I didn’t feel a part of. Since most things I did were part of either a fixed set or an on-going series, I decided to go with giving works a title that would be the series title and the piece’s number within it, for example: Destroyed Paintings Number 6.
Then a few years ago I started a pretty massive series on the 20th Century called History. Each piece, and there are both paintings and sculptures, is about a person, a work of art, an historical event or some other thing that either helped to shape the 20th Century or was somehow emblematic of a change that took place in that period. Since each work had it’s own subject, it seemed most straightforward to use the subject as the title. And they include things like Waiting For Godot and The Murder of Aldo Moro.
Up to that time, my works, being named from the subject or for the series, were, in essence, pre-titled. In the last few years, I’ve made some pieces without having a clear subject in mind before starting (all of them 3-D for some reason) and with those, I had to live with each piece for a while before a title came to me that seemed to fit with my response to the work. The Future’s So Bright and You’re My Hero Willie Sutton are two of these.
The title of the second show at Samson came about in kind of a similar way. I knew that the individual pieces would each have a title based on its part in the narrative or on the character portrayed. I spent a lot of time mulling over whether to use characters’ names or not, and ultimately decided that not using proper names created a greater sense of universality to the series. I hadn’t even thought about titling the whole until I realized that it made sense to differentiate the parts of the Samson exhibition. For the same sake of preserving universality, I didn’t want to use anything directly from the myth or the play. I was really stuck for a while on this, but one night I was watching an old BBC production of The Tempest and heard Caliban saying that the island brings on dreams so wonderful that when he woke from them he cried to dream again. And the idea of wishing to cling to dreams in the face of a hard reality resonated with what the series was about.
AE: In your practice, you seem to move quite fluidly back and forth between painting and sculpture. Seeing your work across both media, your sculptures remind me of the object-quality of your paintings, and the paintings draw my attention to your treatment of the surfaces of your sculptures. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of looking at a painting as a 2D surface, but of course, it always exists as a dimensional object in space, something with not only a painted surface, but with sides, a top and bottom, and a back. Do you see a real difference between your paintings and sculpture? How do you determine the appropriate form for the idea at hand?
PY: Having started as a painter who then added sculpting I have to say I see less difference now than I once did. In fact, I don’t see any on the essential side of things, and what difference I had seen was born, I think now, of being more familiar with painting than with sculpting.
And the why of that ties into the second part of your question. Coming up with the proper form is really a matter of being open to what comes into my mind as the right way to handle a given subject. I actually never planned to become a sculptor or even start sculpting. I’d come up with a series, Portraits From The Return, and a group of subjects for it, and in thinking about them felt that the first one had to be 3-D, so it was made as a sculpture. And that piece, Portraits From The Return Number 1, was the first sculpture I did.
The process is a little hard to describe. It involves a fair amount of patience, because I can’t just will the answer to a problem to appear. But at the same time, it’s not a passive process, as I can’t just assume it will come to me. It feels a bit like setting my brain on a task, and then getting out of the way and following it, almost like putting a bloodhound on the scent and seeing where he goes and what he finds.
AE: Craft seems to be of major importance in your work, but how you use it varies depending on the piece. For example, in the “Congenial Awareness” series, you have these clean, precisely made, stable objects, whereas in other works like “The Future’s So Bright”, you have torn surfaces off hollow-core doors, loosely white-washed the interiors, and arranged them in a way that at once feels balanced and unbalanced at the same time. Sometimes, the surfaces of your work are pristine, in others, bits of notation in graphite scatters across the work. What directs the way you utilize craft in different works? How do you view the role of different materials in your work?
PY: Craft and material are both very important to me. I know some things I do look really rough, while others may seem precariously built, but I’m always concerned with making work in archivally sound ways and with archivally sound materials. It’s another one of those obligation things. As for the choices of material and techniques, those come down to what each piece needs. A sharp edged board has a different visual impact than a rough hewn board, and a painting on gessoed canvas isn’t the same as one on canvas that looks raw and unprimed. It’s bit like orchestrating a score. The same notes will hit you in one way played on an oboe and in another way coming out of a piano.
And while I don’t believe in any sort of totemic power associated with materials, I do believe that humans have a great innate ability to get a sense of what something is made of and respond in certain ways to certain materials. That’s why I’ve made pieces of or incorporating natural stone, steel, a range of woods, iron, copper, even bricks, rather than trying to fake any of those. The eyes know.
AE: In your studio, we discussed the relationship between the artist/artwork and the viewer, and how that often differs from the relationship that theatre has to the viewer or audience. You spoke of how in theatre, there is an obligation to the audience, and that in the visual arts this relationship is often/sometimes overlooked. Can you elaborate a little more on this idea?
PY: I wouldn’t say that I think the idea of the artist/viewer relationship is overlooked in the visual arts. Rather it’s that the ideas of what that relationship should be are hugely, even diametrically, different in the theater and in the visual arts. As I said above, in the theater there is a philosophy and ethos that the presenter is beholden to the viewer, that the people on one side of the footlights have a real obligation to those people in the seats. And that’s just something I absorbed.
In the visual arts, and sometimes in the literary world, too, the mode is very much that of self-expression, and there is the idea that the job of the artist is to do what he or she does and that it is up to the viewer to find a way in to the work. I don’t have a quarrel with this in essence and certainly a lot of great work has been made by people operating under this idea. But that being said, I’ve seen a lot of work that is so self-referential as to be opaque. And while there is a hell of a lot of room in finding the balancing point between what each side should be contributing to the experience of a work, there is, I think, a real and unfortunate distortion that arises when too much of the distance is supposed to be crossed by the viewer.
AE: We also talked a lot about abstraction and representation. For the most part, most of your work is on the abstract end of the spectrum, although, you have a new piece for the Samson show that is quite representational. What do you feel that abstraction is able to do or convey, that representation cannot? Why did you feel that the largest piece for the show (“The Sacrifice As Reported to Her Mother”) necessitated the use of a much more representational image (of the figure and the fawn)?
PY: That’s a really nicely phrased question. The choices I make are about function. I generally choose to make abstract work because of the ways and depths in which abstract work can affect the viewer. I see a lot of parallels in the experience of listening to music and looking at a painting or a sculpture. I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far, but I think you can say lyrical music is analogous to representational art, in that, most of the time most of the meaning is conveyed, in one case by the words and in the other case by the imagery. Where with non-lyrical music and with abstraction, the only tools you have for communicating are the formal elements.
And I think if you sidestep the intellectual mediation that’s part of understanding lyrics or reading an image, then you have opened the door to a different kind of connection with the listener or viewer, and one that is potentially richer. I’ve been a writer and I am a painter and sculptor and nothing hits me deeper than music, and non-lyrical music to be exact.
So now to the other half of your question, why is The Sacrifice as Reported to Her Mother a representational work when everything else in the show is abstract? I Cried to Dream Again is a narrative told, or perhaps expressed is better, through emotions evoked with abstract paintings – at least that’s the hope. And late in the story we are told, though not shown, that a miracle has occurred. I wanted to report that baldly and leave the question of its truthfulness to the viewer. Making an abstract piece would mean “stating” it in an emotional vein, and doing that would be expressing my own opinion. By making that single painting representational you could say I’m in a sense asking the viewer “What do you believe happened?”
AE: You are pretty busy right now, with another show up at the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University. Do you have anything else coming up, or will you have some downtime in the studio for a while? What’s next on the horizon?
PY: I feel very fortunate to have the double show at Samson and the show at the Bellarmine, and especially so with the lovely synergy of the timing. But it made for some prolonged crunch time in the studio, especially as the Bellarmine paintings are all new pieces done to tie in with works in their other current show, so I’m actually happy to be taking a bit of a break. On the studio side, I’m planning to try something new for me, a series where each piece starts with an area of color printed on paper that will be used as a ground for a painting.
AE: Well Penn, thanks so much for your time and generosity in sharing your work!
PY: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to have someone look so thoroughly and follow up with such thoughtful questions.
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Penn Young’s exhibition “I Cried To Dream Again” is on view at Samson Projects from November 26 – December 21, 2013. “Penn Young: New Paintings from Art History” is up at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art from November 19, 2013 – January 9, 2014.
For additional information about Penn’s work, visit: