The name Alice Pixley Young sounded familiar to me, and it should have: I have reviewed her work twice for aeqai: “Looking Glass: Work by Alice Pixley Young” at the now closed PAC Gallery in March 2012 and as a part of “Wounded Home,” a group show at the Lloyd Library and Museum in August 2013.
After viewing her immersive cut paper, cast glass, video projections, sound, light, and shadow installation, “Fearful Symmetry,” at the Taft Museum of Art, I reread those reviews and a couple of sentences from 2012 piece stood out: “Young assembles tableaux to explore ‘duality, mystery, and the possibility of a different experience of reality.’ She uses ‘found and altered objects’ to function ‘as visual talismans and touchstones between a shifting reality of memory and fantasy.’” 1
Much of that must have come from an artist’s statement or some other gallery material. That’s one thing. The second thing is that it could easily describe Young’s installation at the Taft made seven years later.
To decipher the meaning of the “Fearful Symmetry” installation, I turned to the written material provided by the Taft, an unsigned brochure/gallery handout. A single sentence sums up the installation: “Pixley Young brings together her lifelong love of Hudson River School landscape paintings, 2 her fascination with architectural structures erected in the landscape, and her experiences in America’s natural places.” You don’t need to know much more.
Young’s installation in the Sinton Gallery is part of a program of presenting local artists who are charged with creating new works in response to the Taft’s permanent collection, the house, or those who lived there. Associate Curator Tamera Muente oversees the program. In Young’s case, she was particularly drawn to the paintings of Turner, Whistler, and Corot but no mention of the Hudson River School of painters.
The Sinton Gallery is only 225-square-feet, and you can take in the entirety of Young’s “immersive installation” from the doorway, but you are enticed in. The artist had based her artistic practice on drawing, but she moved to three dimensions because she wanted to “inhabit the space in my paintings and drawings. I wanted to create an environment the viewer could step into.” 3
So step into the darkened gallery. Projected on the right wall is a video of wooded hillsides, which seems nearly drained of color, shot through the metal struts of North Carolina’s 55-foot-tall Albert Mountain fire tower. From the entrance, it is seen obliquely; in the gallery you can confront it.
The video is projected in two overlapping and canted parallelograms. Framing it in the geometric shapes negates the expansive nature of the landscape. The camera slowly pans the landscape and then pauses to allow time to savor the scene.
Covering the back wall and reaching from floor to ceiling is a curtain of silhouettes of a fire-ravaged forest, backlit to suggest dusk. The artist was inspired to make silhouettes by seeing Yellowstone’s forests recovering from wildfires when she was at Wyoming’s Jentel Artist Residency Program in 2013.
The silhouettes are hand-cut from black industrial roofing paper, perhaps an allusion to the fact that paper is made from wood pulp, should you wish to go so far.
In the center in cast-glass is an oval surrounded by an antique frame. The uncredited brochure writer describes it as a mirror splitting the curtain in half. I saw it as holding the two sides of the curtain together, like an outsized brooch.
Video images are projected on the oval’s surface, which “reflects” an ever-changing succession of mirror images that converge, absorbing the other, or retreat, disappearing outside the frame. To torture the brooch interpretation, it may be seen as a cameo with the carving changing magically.
In one sequence, upright lines appear in the center, but when they are teased out, as if the focus has pulled back, it is revealed that they are telephone poles.
In another series of images, two towers with slightly concave sides and mushroom tops meet in the center, making a complete, and very phallic, tower. They continue to come together, are subsumed, and disappear.
There are two ways to view this oval: as a mirror reflecting the world or as a portal to other worlds. It’s an effective way for Young to express duality, but I found the object jarringly out of place formally, especially in photographs where it stands out starkly against the backdrop of the decimated wood at the end of day.
There is also an aural component to “Fearful Symmetry”; it includes natural and the manmade sounds. There is bird song but also industrial sounds, such as the roar of a plane, a noise that is virtually impossible to escape that no matter how far from civilization you wander.
The third element of the soundscape is an ethereal melody produced by Young on a keyboard. The mix of sounds reinforces the artist’s focus on nature and man’s intervention with it.
Again, relying on the brochure about the installation, we learn that Young has been inspired by William Blake. The title of the installation, “Fearful Symmetry,” comes from one of Blake’s best-known poems, “The Tyger.” 4
There have been volumes written about Blake and myriad interpretations of his poetry, sometimes focusing on the smallest of details. “Fearful symmetry” has come in for its fair share of commentary. In relation to Young’s work, the brochure offered this explanation: Blake has “described the perfectly designed yet fearsome creature as if it were forged from fire by a blacksmith.” 5
That is poetically stated in the fourth stanza. But that didn’t illuminate why Young chose these words so I did a little (very little) Internet research and found a rather odd website called Schmoop.com. It offered a CliffsNotes-type examination of “The Tyger,” including a line-by-line analysis. Schmoop says, “‘Fearful symmetry,’ is a very nuanced quality to have. ‘Fearful’ references the scariness of a tyger, but also alludes to the sublime.” 6
Sublime. Just what I was looking for.
Young’s symmetry might be between the sublime and the mundane, nature created by God and man’s own work. But sublime is also a word associated with the Hudson River School and subject of intense study in the 19th century.
The unnamed brochure writer describes Blake as conjuring “the spiritual power of nature and the darkly transformative tide of the Industrial Revolution,” and finds that, “The natural and industrial worlds similarly collide in the video and sound elements of Young’s installation, which juxtaposes landscape with human-made forms, and natural beauty with human-caused disasters. These opposing elements remind us of nature’s fragility, as well as its resilience.” 7
I really couldn’t say it better.
But the fact that I have relied so much on Young’s and others’ words to talk about her work brought up one thought: Why doesn’t the work itself communicate more directly with the viewer?
You can answer that yourself.
— Karen S. Chambers
“Fearful Symmetry: A Multimedia Installation by Alice Pixley Young” through December 1, 2019. The Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-684-4516, taftmuseum.org. Wed.-Fri. 11 am-4 pm, Sat.-Sun. 11 am-5 pm. The Taft is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Admission: members, youth (18 and under, active military, free; adult $10 in advance, $12 at door; senior (65+) $8 in advance, $10 at door; children (18 and younger) and military free. Sun. free.
1 Karen S. Chambers, “Looking Glass: Work by Alice Pixley Young,” aeqai.com, March 2012.
2 This source of inspiration makes it a perfect accompaniment for the upcoming exhibition of “The Poetry of Nature: Hudson River School Landscapes from the New-York Historical Society, which opens on October 5 and runs through January 12, 2020.
3 “Fearful Symmetry: A Multimedia Installation by Alice Pixley Young,” Portico, Fall 2019,Cincinnati, Taft Museum of Art.
4 The Tyger
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
5 Fearful Symmetry: A Multimedia Installation by Alice Pixley Young,” Brochure, Cincinnati, Taft Museum of Art, 2019.
6 “The Tyger by William Blake,” Schmoop.com.