Brenna Youngblood Revises the Language of Abstraction

LOS ANGELES — A black and white sweater, a hoarder’s worth of buttons, slip-on shoes, a brittle “No Parking” sign. These found materials interrupt the abstracted surfaces of Brenna Youngblood’s paintings in ways that would probably make Piet Mondrian yelp. Mondrian believed abstraction could only tap into the universal harmonies of life if it shunned the crudeness of reality in favor of simplified forms. His view, utopic and myopic at the same time, left its mark on 20th-century styles and movements, from Color Field painting to Minimalism. In her new solo show at Roberts Projects, the LIGHT and the DARK, Youngblood reassembles and revises the language of abstraction, embedding the traces of everyday living — discarded items, personal mementos — onto canvas and boards. Their inclusion, layered over periwinkle transparent washes and puckering impasto, plunge the viewer into a landscape where memories crash against the formalities of abstraction. 

Brenna Youngblood, “INCARCERATION” (2020), mixed media on canvas, 69.75 x 40 inches (image courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, photo by Alan Shaffer)

Trained as a photographer, Youngblood pulls from a personal archive of images and objects that she has collected over the years. (She is often grouped alongside other West Coast assemblage artists like Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, and Betye Saar.) These paintings, all created between 2020 and 2021, distill Youngblood’s own experience moving through the upheavals of last year, from the coronavirus pandemic to the racial uprisings. 

Installation view, Brenna Youngblood: the LIGHT and the DARK at Roberts Projects (image courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

In “Closure #1” (2021), a muted gray surface is overrun by hundreds of craft buttons that crowd the top of the canvas like polychrome plastic clouds,  reminding me of my own cresting desires from last year, as the propulsive routines of life shifted into a hazy limbo. “INCARCERATION” (2020) retools the texture and movement of a distressed sweater to suggest both the disorientation and absence of an unseen subject. “No More Drama” (2021) presents a bird’s eye view of a dark peppermint landscape whose surface veers from chalky to glassy. Worn shoes appear near the bottom, again invoking the present absence of someone. 

Brenna Youngblood, “Closure #1” (2021), mixed media on canvas, 48 x 36 x 2 inches (image courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, photo by Alan Shaffer)

Youngblood applies a poet’s touch to the surface, crafting sparse mixed-media collages that ripple with the material detritus we encounter daily, but may easily forget. These details, much like the citrusy splatters and geometric shapes they come in contact with, offer an alternative to the Mondrian ideal, where the textures of reality enhance the spiritual dimensions of the work. 

Brenna Youngblood: the LIGHT and the DARK continues by appointment at Roberts Projects (5801 Washington Boulevard, Culver City) through May 15.

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