Shared Experience: The Paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht


Rachel Youens, Altar (2010), oil on linen, 22″ x 48″; courtesy the artist

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Pair the work of any two artists and you’re likely to strike sparks of one sort or another. It’s human nature to divine commonalities of temper, style and imagery even if the evidence for them is slim. But what happens when the bonds between artists are self-evident and inescapable? The still-life paintings of Rachel Youens and Sydney Licht announce deep-seated commonalities–working from observation, not least–that nevertheless lead to telling divergencies of form and vision.

Youens and Licht are nothing if not specific in their choice of motifs. The natural world informs Youens’ panoramic canvases. Whether working from corn husks, chunks of stale bread, bundles of fabric or oddments seemingly retrieved from a construction site, Youens favors objects marked by time and use–of age and inutility, really. Licht, too, takes inspiration from discards, but her’s are culled less from nature than from culture: patterned tablecloths, packets of Sweet-and-Low, take-out cups of coffee, the stray piece of fruit and gift boxes, lots of gift boxes.

Visiting the studios of each artist, you might mistake them for undercover sculptors: significant expanses of space are devoted to stuff. Youens’s accumulations of detritus, simultaneously chaotic and impeccably orchestrated, expand laterally across a sizable painter’s table. As for Licht: not far from her easel are pseudo-Minimalist totems, often teetering at imposing heights, assembled from an impressive collection of boxes. But you don’t need direct contact with these objects to realize the importance they carry for Youens and Licht. It’s there to see in the paintings, wherein the physical is confirmed and, more important, transformed into something poetic and meditative.

Sydney Licht

Sydney Licht, Still Life with Pomegranate (2013), oil on panel, 12″ x 12″; courtesy the artist

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Youens trades in abundance, Licht in compression. Youens has stated that she has a need to feel “overwhelmed” by the subjects at hand. A significant amount of the pleasure derived from the paintings is, in fact, watching how she navigates from one object to another, taking into account shifts of texture, rhythm and light. Youens’ brush, brusque but nuanced and given to playful fillips of touch, endows the pictures with a definite sense of choreography.

Licht is more architectonic, frontal and abrupt, not to say “abstract”. Her forms press toward the viewer, creating stepped relationships wherein subtle juxtapositions of space, pattern and definition are rendered monumental and allusive. Licht wields a palette knife with decisive sensitivity. The surfaces of the pictures are densely worked, lush in color and attuned to spare transitions of incident.

Perhaps the strongest attribute that connects Youens and Licht is their relationship with tradition. It’s worth recalling that the still-life, as an artistic genre, is cross-cultural and longstanding, and, as such, points to the unceasing inquisitiveness of the human animal. There’s never been a time when artists haven’t explored the world around them as a means of endowing it with clarity, order and–how to put it?–a measure of grace. Youens and Licht, painters of uncommon probity, tap into that rich tradition and contribute something real to our understanding of shared experience.

© 2013 Mario Naves

A version of this essay appears in the brochure accompanying Sidney Licht/Rachel Youens, an exhibition at Salena Gallery at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University (September 3-27).

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