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Toby Kamps: "Carey Young: Appearance"

Carey Young, Appearance, 2023

single-channel HD video (from 4K); 16:9 format, color, silent

duration: 49 minutes, 30 seconds

Appearance, British-American artist Carey Young's concise, striking survey at Modern Art Oxford brings together works made between 2005 and 2023 that consider power and the women who wield it. Early text-based pieces draw on Young’s ongoing interest in law as a material and subject for art. Later photographs and videos explore female agency in industry and the courtroom, as well as, in a brand-new series of still images, the similarities between recent Belgian prison architecture and abstract painting. Both bodies of work use the artist’s characteristic economy of means and lush production values to pull the viewer into their devices, which represent a unique amalgam of the conceptual, documentary, and imaginary.

In 2001, while an artist-in-residence at Xerox, Young became interested in law after seeing the company’s lawyers working to reconcile protective patents and creative license. Previously, after earning a master’s degree in photography at London’s Royal College of Art, she worked as a consultant at an international management advisory. After that experience, she used the corporate world’s rhetoric to illuminate its infiltration of the art world, as in the video I Am a Revolutionary (2001), in which she intones the work’s titular phrase while wearing a power suit and being assisted by a speaking coach. Laws, like corporations, Young recognized formed another primary pillar of civilization and were vastly underutilized by artists.

Counter Offer (2008), made in conjunction with a contract attorney, frames an age-old philosophical dilemma as a work of conceptual art. Two contracts, individually framed, hang next to each other. One reads “I offer you liberty,” with the caveat this offer will be immediately withdrawn when a counter offer is made, and that the counter offer will be rejected. The counter offer states simply, “I offer you justice.” Bordering on the no-solution riddle of a Buddhist koan, this diptych exposes an essential paradox of the law—that its precious protections may also be logic games worth only the paper they’re printed on.

Another work, especially poignant in post-Brexit Britain, uses a black line to delineate a space on the gallery floor and a wall text stating that visitors “declare and agree” that they are citizens of the European Union by entering it. Law, Young says, intrigues her “as a form of choreography relating to power,” and she imagines it in visual form in terms of lines: “Law controls our movement, rights, autonomy and agency in the world, whilst also, in certain circumstances, preventing and removing those things.” With gentle humor, this work points out the phantom-limb aspect of law: we feel it, but how real is it?

Around 2008, Young shifted her focus to lens-based work, applying to them the same “what-if” logic and lapidary precision found in her text-based works. The 18-minute, single-channel video Palais de Justice (2017), shot over three years in the gigantic Brussels courthouse of the same name, introduces a feminist critique and an element of what she has called “speculative fiction” into her observations. Accompanied by the ambient din of the building’s marble hallways, Young’s lens loiters in the building’s balconies, stalks its hallways, and peers through round windows in its courtroom doors, picking up incidental scenes and characters. Its focus is almost exclusively on black-robed female judges and lawyers, giving the impression that they run the show. Men appear occasionally, but they seem beside the point, as is the case of one seen at the outset padding down a flight of stairs in sneakers. Time and again, her clandestine telephoto lens catches her subjects, which include a barefoot artist sketching the building, absorbed in thought. When, at several points, the eyes of judges lost in private meditation accidentally meet the unseen camera, critic Johanna Fateman writes, the effect is thrilling: “the pleasure of voyeurism tips into the fantasy of being seen.” The male gaze, Young says, is “omnipresent.” Her choice to focus on female protagonists is a selective vision in the service of equality.

Observation and fantasy also come together in The Vision Machine (2020). This time, Young assembles footage of female technicians at work in “clean rooms” at the SIGMA lens factory in Japan to create a science-fiction story of a high-tech industry run entirely by women. Although clad from head to toe in white, dust-catching suits, these workers, like the judges and attorneys in Palais de Justice, are engrossed in their tasks. Their technological skills and know-how seem otherworldly. One segment, in which a worker stacks glass lens elements in a domelike holder resembling an insect’s compound eye, calls to mind the cryogenic lab scene in Blade Runner. Although set in the present moment, the work argues convincingly that the future will be female.

Appearance (2023), consists of video portraits of 15 British female judges. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” of the mid-1960s, Young asked her subjects to sit against a white background in their robes, sans wigs, in a courtroom armchair while studying their faces, hands, and postures, first taking in their entire figures and then moving in for extreme closeups. The effect is uncanny. These women are accustomed to embodying legal authority and to listening and deliberating with a certain gravitas. Seeing them express their own distinct forms of composure—and concomitant hints of humor, playfulness, inscrutability, or imperturbability—while gazing into the camera and then gradually moving in to study the pulse behind their ears gives new dimensions to the old maxim “justice must be seen to be done” and to our understanding of female power.

Young’s work is hyperrational and hypervisual. Her text works take legal premises to their logical extremes to show the malleability and potential in legal codes. Her photographs and videos pull telling details and new social formations from the flux of life. Her genius is her ability to deftly rearrange the ideas and the stuff of everyday life to envision new realities and possibilities—openings in the (man-made) systems that so often box us in.

– Toby Kamps