SMITH Studio, Cape Town
09.05 – 08.06.2019
On the opening night of Michaela Younge’s debut solo exhibition at Smith Studio, ‘Nothing Bad’, myself and two friends walked through the gallery, playing the “game” of identifying ourselves and the people we know amongst the characters that populate Younge’s surreal felted tableaux. This is a game that my brother and I played as kids, too – only with magazines and newspapers – identifying ourselves and one another or claiming objects from a sale catalogue, constructing and collaging narratives through recognition and relation with images. Like these newspapers and magazines, Younge’s work is populated with numerous weird objects and offbeat characters in odd combinations, each with their own potential backstory just out of frame. There’s a sense of familiarity to these characters, like relics from some spectral and incomplete past: out of time and out of place.
This nostalgia is perhaps what gives Younge’s work its uncanny effect. The allusions to childhood memories of books and television shows; the visual references to cartoons and games and the consistency with which these things are shown – quite literally – cut up, disembodied, disemboweled. Almost all of the small, detailed works, portray some form of bloody, corporeal violence. He was well versed in the Zodiac, but his letters were weak (2019), one of the first images visible on entering the gallery, is like a Thomas Gainsborough painting reinterpreted by Don Corleone. Here, the haughty gentry, rendered in felt and embroidery against floral upholstery fabric, proudly display a bull’s severed head while a yellow star twinkles above them.
On the opposite wall is Butchers’ Hooks, Baked Goods and Romantic Candles (2019), in which two butchers and a woman on a horse float among chickens and skinned rabbits. In the centre of the image a man carves a leg of lamb, and below him is a goat with two of its legs cut off. On the left, the other butcher’s entire arm is cleaved from his body but hovers in place, his hand continuing to hold a lantern and his face continuing to smile passively. This is a gruesome image, but the gore is cartoonish in both its excess and its casualness. There’s an Itchy and Scratchy sensibility to Younge’s pictures – childish aesthetics applied to disturbing content – in the arrangement of severed limbs and bloodspots on shirtsleeves, and its portrayal in felt and stitching only heightens its absurdity.
Part of what is both funny and unnerving about this violence is the characters’ appearance of being largely indifferent to these violations of their bodily integrity. Like with cartoons and video games, one gets the sense that these amputations and maimings will reset in the next scene, the characters returning to their appropriate worlds. Canned Ham and Prime Cuts (2018-2019), one of Younge’s weirder compositions, shows a blonde Adonis in repose amongst the meat in a butcher’s display, while behind the counter animal carcasses can be seen through a window. This is one of numerous references to cannibalism, which is presented with an almost charming amorality. There is no obvious hierarchy of human, animal and object – everything is cut into bits, all of the bodies are meat.
The images that don’t show explicit violence are imbued with the abstract threat of it, or imply a violence past: Well Dressed But Unbearable (2018) depicts a fashion show featuring amputees. Choose Your Player (2019) is an exquisite corpse split in two, in which the top and bottom parts of the picture seem to have spun on different axes like the reels of a slot machine and settled on different scenes. The torso of a topless woman is matched to a pair of legs in jeans, sitting splayed on a barstool. A tennis player is roughly connected to the bottom half of a body wearing shorts and flip-flops, while a tennis ball lies on the checkered floor below, obliquely linking these hemispheres.
The sense of dislocation is emphasised by the numerous nods to artefacts from disparate bygone eras, out of place and out of context. Cowboys inhabit the same universe as their campy, fetishistic imitations; a sad ghost watches two smiling dogs humping in front of a man clutching his bleeding chest; devious cherubs taunt one another whilst a portrait of a handsome sailor gazes benevolently from a heart-shaped window in the sky. Much of this pastiche, however, seems to have the commonality of encompassing a distinctly white, North American cultural memory of the 1980s and ‘90s – from the images of high school cheerleaders and famous baseball players, to Santa Claus, the X-Files and references to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks (1990-2017) – itself full of nods to the falseness of happy family narratives propagated in post-war media and advertising.
The ‘80s in North America were marked not only by the apparent triumph of neoliberal capitalism but the emergence of post-modern aesthetics, in which fashion, popular figures (Babe Ruth, for instance) and images (the non-franchise diner; the all-American teen) from the country’s past combined to create cultural media that was infinitely referential. The aesthetics of the ‘80s can be seen reemerging now in television shows like Stranger Things, Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – albeit stripped of their political context of increased social conservatism under the Reagan administration, state-sanctioned racism, anti-Soviet sentiment, the AIDS crisis, etc. These pieces of popular culture do not reference the past so much as a nostalgic ideation of it, resulting in an aesthetic cul-de-sac.
In Younge’s pictures, this world begins to split at the seams and show signs of decay. Its conceit is emphasised by its alienness to the South African context: because of apartheid bans on many films and books and the cultural boycott during the ‘80s, many of this media was not even present here during the time it was being produced, and appeared to the post-1994 generation already imbued with a mythical aura. The juxtaposition of this Americana nostalgia with nods to South African whiteness (two men in 50-50 shirts braaing boerewors, droëwors on the counter in a butcher’s shop) adds a layer of self-awareness to Younge’s work. It embraces the violence and trauma of history as a horrific amalgam which, because it emerges through fictions and fables, perhaps does not need to be specific.