Emily Young: Britain’s Finest Living Female Sculptor
During an Autumnal conversation with my godfather, a number of subjects relating to art (Rothko; Salvator Mundi; Louvre Abu Dhabi) were superseded by something quite different, something quite captivating: Emily Young. I had not previously encountered her work – the loss is all mine, her sculptures possesses a spiritual calmness akin to that of my two great heroes: Poussin and Rothko.
Young was recently called “Britain’s greatest living sculptor” by the Financial Times. This is a remarkable accolade if one considers the immense influence of artists such as: Sir Anish Kapoor; Richard Deacon; Rachel Whiteread; and, Antony Gormley.
Young’s work speaks for itself, the stones sing: an ancient melody scored with contemporaneity – a uniqueness in art and life.
Young differs in a fundamental way to the two artists I have previously written about, Rachel Howard and Robert Lenkiewicz. Howard and Lenkiewicz both received formal training from Goldsmiths and Central Saint Martins respectively, Young, by contrast, left Chelsea School of Art after two months. Young, who was born in 1951, left London in the late 60s to see the world. This may sound like the quixotic vision of an unmoored youth, Young’s journey, however, drew more from the pedagogic ambitions of the Grand Tours of yesteryear than the unshackled misadventures that are more common today. Her travels exceeded the European scope of the 18th century and she travelled extensively through the USA, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and China. It was through the expansive and diverse array of cultures exposed to Young during these years of travel that she began to form and cultivate a broad view of art and its history.
She started carving in stone in the early 1980s, gathering her raw materials from quarries around the world. This is a significant point of departure, the exclusivity of her medium, her betrothal to the elemental qualities of stone, marks her apart from sculptors such as Kapoor, who works with materials such as steel or wax, and Whiteread, who records negative space using concrete. Young is also remarkable on account of her devotion to the act of carving. She remains undeterred by the physicality of carving stone and is not afraid to voice her disdain for some of the YBAs who design pieces to be carved by assistants. As I mentioned in my piece about Howard, the act of creation imbues the work with an intimacy between artist and artwork, a dialogue, if you will.
I have said that Young’s works sing. I use these words with intent, her sculptures elucidate more than just the visual poetry of form, there is a deeper resonance that echoes from the hearts of the stones themselves. There is a meditative quality to the strength of a stone, the physical consequences of celestial design. One need only think of the menhirs scattered across Western Europe or grouped together as megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, to recall the ancient powers ordained upon stone. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that these menhirs were the last remains of an antediluvian world ruled by giants.
Young is deeply aware of the natural power imbued within stone and the relationship between the earth, stone, and, with her facilitating the role of medium, humans. There is an ambivalent collaborator in all of her works, nature. She tackles unpredictable quarried stone, celebrating the imperfections of her material as the quality and personality of her work develops around the geological history of the stone as well as the contouring achieved by wind, rain, and plant life.
“There is a story told in every piece of stone that is more magnificent than any creation myth, so when I carve into the stone I’m imposing my own tiny moment on it, I put a little modern consciousness back into nature”
Her human faces emerge from the recesses of the stone, in a manner that recalls Michelangelo’s Prisoners or Slaves on display at the Accademia in Florence. The stoic visage of an undefinable human, noble and archaic dissolves into the elemental surface of the stone – the identity of these figures created as much by her work with chisel, saw, and diamond-edged tools as by geological accident. The contrast between the smooth, worked finish of her half-faces with the cracks, veins and coarse edges of her materials is compelling. When faced with these Ozymandian visions it is difficult not to stop and meditate on the nature of time, memory and man’s relationship with the earth.
In 2012, Young set up her studio and home in the Convento di Santa Croce, a seventeenth-century monastery in Southern Tuscany that was originally built for 21 friars. The monastery had largely fallen into disrepair until, in 1968, parts of it were restored by an English interior designer called Adam Pollock. The vast building and grounds is an ideal space for her work. Further to this, the dilapidated state of the monastery, in the vein of a Joseph Gandy painting, anticipates the temporal quality of Young’s work.
The convent setting of her workshop is fitting, the thoughtfulness and reflective qualities of her works lends themselves to sacred setting and she is featured permanently at Salisbury Cathedral, St Paul’s Churchyard outside the eponymous Cathedral, and St Pancras Church. Her work also featured at the recent Venice Biennale, her forms were sheltered within the cloisters of Madonna dell’Orto, a fifteenth-century catholic church.
From one cloister to another, Young’s sculptures will be the first contemporary sculptures to ever be shown in the cloisters of New College, Oxford at the end of March.
I implore you to visit her website, here you will be able to find a multitude of excellent reproductions not just of her sculptures but also of the Convento di Santa Croce and of her in the act of creation.
Emily Young’s sculptures will be on display in the New College Cloisters in Oxford between Thursday 29 March – Thursday 27 September 2018.