GOSSIP FROM THE PALACE
30.10.21 - 25.11.21
Like an outsize Gulliver washing up on the strange shore of Lilliput, several giant figures make a bold appearance in Michaela Younge’s new body of work, radically disrupting the established scale of her voyeuristic vistas and introducing a dizzying new interscalar perspective. The artist reserves the right to zoom in and go King Kong on the whole situation.
Daringly explicit in scale, A young man’s ghost appreciates beauty is a witty comeback to the centuries-old genre of the reclining female nude. Here, a featureless male nude reclines against a background of petite and delicate flower patterns, his naked penis in limp repose, further devaluing the waning social capital of the large, hard cock. But what a coif! Making the most of her medium, Younge seems to have taken particular delight in fashioning the coils and curls of her subject’s silken pubes to maximise their tactility. Historically, when it came to the reclining female nude, pubic hair was kept resolutely out of the picture. Apparently it signified the woman’s own demanding sexuality, which could be experienced as threatening. But like David Hasselhoff’s fulsome mullet in the original 1980s TV series Knight Rider or Freddie Mercury’s moustache, these pubes contend for icon status. A little winged cupid hovers above the nude’s splayed thigh, shooting tiny arrows of love into his torso. Unlike classical reclining nudes, in which the woman’s body was often distorted in the direction of perfection in order to produce an image of extreme seductiveness, here anatomical correctness is almost purposely just off the mark; a bit queered, skewed and fuzzed over.
Meanwhile, in When the church-bells go, so do gunshots Younge re-imagines and re-purposes the female nude as a goliath in fishnet stockings stomping all over the petty and sordid affairs of the city in a scene that calls to mind the 1950s sci-fi horror movie Attack of the 50ft Woman. A little pedestrian cowers like a baby on the pavement beneath her terrific, looming crotch, while she impales another pathetic citizen with the heel of her mighty stiletto.
And in Heaven I Feel Small But Still I am Here a small red devil with a whip prances about on the back of a giant naked vixen while two rats look on like lusty visitors from a fairy tale—perhaps the dutiful rodents who pulled Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage gone rogue. Here, Younge has devoted particular crafty effort to reproducing the small bloody welts in the woman’s flesh where the devil has whipped her ass. A diminutive still life of plump pears hangs on the wall in the background echoing the finely crafted juiciness of the prominent ass cheeks. The homeliness of the floral quilt and of the medium of felt and wool itself puts a dampener on this perplexing porno scene in which a female artist knowingly replicates the well-worn mechanics of the male gaze. Or does it? If the erotic is ‘the borderline between respectability and non-respectability,’(1) then Younge’s work toys with the limits of what we will, in the contradictory cultural climate of #MeToo, consent culture and the quantum hike in mobile porn streaming, allow ourselves to experience as sexual within the realm of the aesthetic. Moreover, to whom does the plaintive title of this work apply? The woman, the mice, or some hovering assemblage of feeling that the entire felted scene produces?
Parody, satire and friskiness make weird bedfellows in Younge’s woolly world of banal human ditherings and halted sexual peccadilloes. As a ‘bizarre lexicon of human congress,’ they recall the work of the Dutch/Netherlandish painter of the 15th and 16th centuries Hieronymus Bosch. Her outlandish scenarios invoke the same voyeuristic desire to linger, bend in and observe more closely the bizarre details of human behaviour that have been so finely conjured by the artist. Some have interpreted Bosch’s 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' as an admonition against fleshly and worldly indulgence—a warning against lust. But, as Sally Hickson has argued, ‘Bosch’s depiction of humans cavorting in the elemental world of God’s creation, seems less inculpatory than simply a commentary on the fact that there’s little to differentiate [man] from animals from plants.’(2)
‘God’s creation’ is long buried in the apocalyptic mess of natural and technological detritus we encounter in 'The Last Glistening Sediments of Old Sentiments'. Litter and deceased sea creatures pepper the shoreline of the luxury pleasure resort and the yacht’s sail is in a state of spontaneous combustion in 'Maiden Voyage to Nowhere Good'. Even so, plants (mainly pot plants) and animals (monkeys, rabbits, rats, birds, dogs, cats) are a perennial feature in Younge’s work, pointing to an inescapable folkloric entanglement between humans and other living beings. In her vignettes, humans and animals visibly share a fundamental beastliness; yet the animals have been domesticated or reduced to cutesy simulacra of themselves. In 'He's a nice guy, but I wouldn’t want to be his friend, or his daughter', a Dalmatian sits alongside an armchair covered in Dalmatian-print fabric, which begs the question: which do humans value more; the animal or the hide? The dog has had little choice in their circumstances and seems casually non-plussed by the fact that they happen to have found themselves in the middle of some kind of suburban sex-romp standoff. The taxidermied bull, meanwhile, has been reduced to a mere object on a plinth for a momentary performance of virility and conquest.
In another cosy scene, a nuclear family appears to have checked into one of the many rooms in the motel in our heads. In Room 016: He was married to sorrow and had little patience for domesticity the parents take a moment to exhale on their sexless single beds, while the girl watches telly in a state of protracted adolescent entrapment. The family dog is too bored even to watch television. A gory blood splatter on the window evidences the small winged bird of freedom having come to the end of its days here. Meanwhile a contradictory stranger in a pink rabbit onesie and red stiletto boots asserts that not all life is lost in the long game of family compliance. Viva la kink!
Despite the sardonic social critiques woven into their surfaces, Younge’s felt canvases withhold judgement. All hell may be breaking loose, but a libertine aura of permissiveness, experimentation, naughtiness and dark-whimsy prevails. As the stitched graffiti on the elevator doors declares: ‘Nothing Bad.’ This motto was also the title of Younge’s first solo show and is something of a steadying mantra for the artist. In 'Room 024: The warmth of companionship eases life’s hardships' a racially-diverse threesome finds itself perched on the edge of unspeakable acts of sexual healing in a motel room with puce walls and a pink Flokati carpet. A woman in a black lace lingerie bodysuit poses awkwardly on the edge of the red bed, while a dude in a leather police cap holding a baton/dildo faces the wall exposing his chunky back and pert ass-cheeks, and another wearing a dog collar looks on awkwardly. A misplaced clock gloops off the edge of the table, marking the breathless seconds as in Salvador Dali’s 'Metamorphosis of Time'.
1. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, (London: Routledge, 1992), 103.
2. Sally Hickson, ‘Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights,’ in Smarthistory, 9 August 2015, accessed 22 October 2021, https://smarthistory.org/bosch-the-garden-of-earthly-delights/.
Text by Alexandra Dodd