Escher Meets Allegory in Robert Young’s Deceptively Simple Paintings

The exhibition’s title, “A Corner Reserved,” plays on Young’s curious use of -like, architectural imagery and the cool personas of the characters he features in these environments. The complexity of Young’s work is belied by reservations over disclosing his methods; in a 2012 artist’s statement, he wrote, “I’m generally not very purposive, intentional or goal-oriented.” Nonetheless, his work is highly detailed and enigmatic.
Absolute Signal, a gouache-and-watercolor painting from 2002, is one of Young’s sparest compositions—a relative quality. A frame presents the image in a gold and gray border. A series of intricately patterned, irregularly shaped mattes in pink, gold, and brown close in on a bright green tree at the center. The calculated, geometric planes counter the branching  forms.
Other paintings appear simple and representational, but are exceedingly complex. View With (2002) presents an interior space that becomes more and more challenging the more one looks at it. The piece  is deceptively simple, depicting the inside of a home, emphasizing careful, architectural lines and perspective. While much of the image focuses on two adjoining rooms in a home, elements such as doors and windows interrupt the scene in unexpected places, breaking up the composition and adding layers to an otherwise ordinary scene. 
Paintings such as Axis Mundi (2011-12) and Untitled (2014) use similar perceptual tricks, while also melding interior and exterior space. Mystique Povera (2008-09) reveals some of Young’s varied influences, from a Renaissance-era woman clipping her toenails with scissors, to a woman in traditional Japanese garb eyeing the central, martyr-like figure who is surrounded by religious iconography. The personages are couched in an abstract background made from a patchwork of color, with vegetation peeking through, and storefronts in the distance. This pastiche of styles and mores present here demonstrates the various inspirations that come into play.
Filled with entwined art historical and metaphorical narratives, these elaborate pictures build into lush tableaux of color and form that beckon viewers to appreciate their intricacies and decipher their narratives.
—Stephen Dillon
Robert Young: A Corner Reserved” is on view at Odon Wagner Contemporary, Toronto, Apr. 2 – Apr. 25, 2015.