Pity the young art star. Anointed in art school on the basis of little more than potential and nerve, the next big thing finds adulation a cruelly expectant spotlight, demanding a soft-shoe that usually takes years to learn: confident gestures of artistic persona, co-ordinated work processes, perfectly timed subject matter, all leading to a quantity of fully mature, wildly saleable work – novel enough to stay hot, but consistent enough to retain its recognizable signature. But if that artist, as well as the work, is still in progress, and if that talent needs to burn a wasteful, aimless path before arriving at the red-hot centre of its time – as talent often does – the early attention can quickly turn from boon to burden.
Brenna Youngblood, whose prolific recent show at Honor Fraser (where she landed after a stint at heavy-hitter Margo Leavin) was entitled ‘The Mathematics of Individual Achievement’ (sharing an acronym with its central piece, a painted miniature jungle gym structure bearing the legend ‘M.I.A.’), seems to be daring viewers to read her new work as a reaction to her star turn in just that role. And, in fact, the blunt political and personal commentary of her early photo-collages and paintings seems to be, if not missing in action, then pushed to the edges in the new work, newly wary of whatever trendy representations might have contributed to her initial hype.
To be sure, the dry wit and sensual brio that gave her previous work such palpable distinction can still be found. Idiosyncratic motifs of decrepit ghetto iconography – generic beer, Ellisonian light-bulbs, cheap wood veneer, old upholstery, fried eggs and burnt toast, obsolete TVs – meet sardonic titling in pieces such as 40 Couches and a Rug and Food Pyramid of TV (both 2011). These still lend much of her work an intimate if acerbic sophistication about the contemporary visual condition of many urban African-Americans, among others, as if Mark Bradford had a more cynical, more inward younger sister.
But the bulk of the show was a record of Youngblood’s continuing march away from direct critique and direct representation (she began as a photographer), toward something more abstract. Inspired by her old elementary maths textbook, she interspersed her paintings, on altered, often stelliform wood panels, with precise but homespun arithmetical symbols made of wood scraps. The intent seems to be to make of the show a series of abstruse but crude equations, asking what, exactly, all these formal adventures might add up to in a world in which all individual achievement must be quantified, early and often.
Youngblood is already too sly an artist, though, to be just nursing private resentments. That world of shabby and judgmental materialism also seems to threaten, in her work, the potential of rational control, of representation, of colour itself. Out of some of her rusted or faux-gilt canvases, splatters and cracks of crimson life show, welling up like hopeful human blood, through the wallpaper of urban decay. But as soon as it does, her own prankster’s intellect casts shadows of doubt again, as in the two paintings called Holding Midnight (2011), which, by affixing black doorknobs to a painted galaxy, hilariously doom certain human ambitions, our reaching for the stars, to two-dimensional failure.
These tensions end up subtracting as often as they add, however, and ‘The Mathematics of Individual Achievement’, despite its surfeit of work, didn’t quite show the control that could ensure an effect commensurate with its big impulses. It’s too soon to tell whether the exhibition, having dramatized its own failure to compute as a kind of in-joke, means that Youngblood is driving straight toward radical new frontiers, or that she’s just lost on her way there.