(Photo: Ronit Schlam)

(Photo: Ronit Schlam)

It was an oddly apropos time to be thinking about “high” art and “low” art, which is what artist Doug Young and I discussed at the Van Doren Waxter Gallery uptown just a few days before the all-consuming presidential election. I’d mentioned a New Yorker article that eschewed the line separating left and right in favor of a line dividing “up versus down”: a working class vs. a desk-ridden, urban class.

We were looking at Young’s pieces “Chains,” which are exactly that: carved wooden chains, created in what Young called a “kind of monotonous, boring, really unsatisfying use of my time. It was only satisfying at certain moments,” like when he stepped back to see the enormity of his progress.

Bursting forth from flat-white recessed wall niches, the Chains have an instant audacity, yet a subdued charm: unpainted, unstained white pine. On closer look, it’s obvious how much time went into freeing each link from its previous incarnation as a wood block—while “releasing” it still into the ever-linked embrace of its brothers on each side. Rough-hewn, unpolished, and only one in a long series, the close look inspired backing up again. The sheer scale of the project—two groupings of three chains each, 35 feet long—made one gape.

“This is all coming from the perspective of down here,” Young said, making a “low” hand gesture, “and its being made in the mannerism of folk art which is always a low art—unlike ‘higher’ [art] like painting, sculpture, trained academic work. So using those materials, using those mechanisms, is a way of talking about the problems and the fears of this bottom class.”

(Photo: Ronit Schlam)

(Photo: Ronit Schlam)

When I noted the “arts and crafts” connotation of Young’s current fascinations, compared to his ability as a painter, he said, “What really attracts me to that kind of use of material is not necessarily what is evoked in contemporary terms, but the fact that there is a seemingly insurmountable amount of labor involved,” not unlike his 24-hour banjo-playing performance of a few years ago.

“How does someone actually do something for 24 hours?” he asked. “What do you have as an individual to offer? On a primal level, all you have is your labor. And most people are not in tune with themselves to that degree to use that currency.  My opinion is that many people either don’t value that currency or they feel that they are shortchanging themselves in some way. The idea of work smarter and not harder. But this work/art comes from the perspective of the tortoise and the hare. If you take small bites, and you do it in a disciplined amount of time, you can move mountains.”

soldiers rug

Young’s upcoming solo show at the Lodge Gallery, which “explores the ego of man and the arrogance of governmental power,” will feature work that entangles the reverse-painting on glass technique he has exhibited before with handmade hooked rug work, a medium that isn’t immediately definable. Approaching the works, one is truly struck with the overall images, the material itself obscured from identification. Closer looks don’t always clarify.

Young noted, “the work on glass is creating a 2D image but it’s confounding at the same time. Most people who confront it unknowingly have no idea what they’re looking at. They think it’s a print of some sort, or they think—one person thought it was a TV monitor. There is this quality of otherworldliness. But, it’s also an unbelievably large amount of work.”

War Room

“But some people can’t believe that you would have this devotion for so long to achieve such a great effect — it takes a leap for them to understand that it was made by you, this person, ‘Doug Young’ over here. A lot of people, with the rugs especially, ask me, ‘You had that made in Mexico right?’ I always find that confounding. I personally couldn’t make it, but somebody who makes slave wages could easily make it better than I could? It’s really beyond me.


“That is the main reason why I’ve chosen to use these mediums that are so predominantly associated with folk and craft mentality. Because they are means that are accessible to individuals who don’t have access to anything else except their own labor. And they have that in spades, and usually it’s undervalued. And the best of them can bring value from something that is considered valueless. And that to me is remarkable. And that’s what I am striving to do. They are able to elevate it to high art, and hopefully so am I.”

cave painting raw

Confusing art and politics, I was reminded of the quote from Jerry Saltz: “It’s beyond time for a new generation of art historians not only to open up the system and let art be the garden that it is, home to exotic blooms of known and unknown phenomena. It’s time to work against this system.”

On the other side of the glass now, which system are we working against?

“General Dynamics” opens Nov. 16 at the Lodge Gallery, 131 Chrystie St., Lower East Side.

“Chains” are currently on view at the Van Doren Waxter, 23 E. 73rd St., Upper East Side.

Bradley Spinelli is the writer/director of “#AnnieHall” and the author of the novels “Killing Williamsburg” and the forthcoming “The Painted Gun.”