THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
Nate Young’s “Cleromancy,” the new show at the Monique Meloche Gallery, is a resurrection tale. From materials to intention (plausibly ascribed but ultimately undivinable), the exhibition registers as a spirited meditation on the buried and unearthed.
Young uses horse bone and graphite (representing horse bone), as well as calfskin and dirt. Three objects (Exhumed, Grave Goods, and Internment) house some of those bones behind plexiglass within an LED-lit walnut enclosure.
The bones, we are informed, belonged to the horse that Young’s black great-grandfather rode North during the Great Migration after his escape from jail. There was, in the artist’s telling, a literal disinternment.
The three objects, looking almost like your grandma’s old speaker system from afar, at close range form a dimmer, grimmer, and necessarily unscientific variation on the sort of now-controversial anthropological exhibits displayed at the American Museum of Natural History and similar institutions.
Eye-straining text describes the buried history of African-American horseracing in the American South, which Young links to his ancestor’s story. In the old myth of American migration, the rugged individualist seeking freedom on his horse was supposed to look like John Wayne, or whoever John Wayne happened to be chasing. The new myth, though equally stylized in this remembering, is believable when represented as an organic outgrowth of America’s actual history. Even when he relies upon representational artistic techniques, Young resists the rigid limits of physical and social science. Like a concave mirror, his work enlargesand distorts to display certain facets of lived experience more clearly.
The actual process of cleromancy involves the casting of lots. Instead of being chalked up to blind chance, the results are attributed to God or some other spiritual force. Young develops this relationship between apparent randomness and scrupulous design in Casting 2 and the Divining series. Realistically rendered horse bones are arranged in what appear to be arbitrary positions near or partly within dark gray clouds. Whether or not the configuration is actually random, the acts of gathering, drawing, and framing them were not. Here again, a wish for rebirth is expressed using the sacralized remnants of the past.
An untitled piece plays out the formation of myth within the voids left by death and forgetting. A yellowed radius and/or ulna, the equine equivalent of a human arm bone, rises from a square of dirt in the center of a walnut plinth. This is juxtaposed with another drawing of a bone, again arranged in a seemingly random position behind a spreading gray cloud. Depending on your mood, the horse bone and drawing can be a zombie’s forelimb magicked from the grave or a new myth in bloom.
In movies, resurrections seldom go off without a hitch. The dead like to stay dead, even though the living want them back. This pattern holds true for Young. In short snippets of cursive text connected by a network of vortical lines, the artist describes how new information he learned about his ancestor changed his original memory and the story that he had constructed.
The horse that Young’s great-grandfather rode in on was apparently stolen. Though nothing can be proven, there are hints of an abandoned family. Certain key artifacts, though perhaps still extant, can only be furnished from the artist’s own memory or imagination. Another death entombs some answers forever.
We will always have more questions about our ancestors than can be answered. After all, there will always be enough past to swallow up you and any bones you uncover. That does not mean that the search lacks purpose. Unanswered prayers may still offer peace of mind because ritual can be gratifying in and of itself. Ancestor worship will always exist in some half-buried form because we can always choose to give thanks for (or curse) our mere existence.
Through Young’s efforts, the materials and imagined processes cohere and yield something more than the sum of their parts. As its name suggests, “Cleromancy” is a well-cast production.
Nathan Worcester is a writer living in Chicago. He has a B.A. from the University of Chicago where he too once rode a horse, though nothing mythic came of it.
Nate Young, Untitled, 2017, Walnut, horse bone, graphite on paper, dirt, plinth: 50 x 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., drawing: 30 x 12 1/2 in.
Nate Young, Grave Goods, 2017, Gold leaf, walnut, plexiglass, horse bone, spray paint, LED, 28 1/2 x 16 x 6 in.