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Object of the Week: Map of the World

Brenna Youngblood’s abstract paintings are invariably more layered—literally and figuratively—than first meets the eye. Originally trained as a photographer, Youngblood works with an extensive personal archive of photographs and objects that she collages onto the surfaces of her densely painted canvases. In a 2013 interview she discussed the importance of this textured surface, and the integration of everyday objects into it:

“Surface is and has always been integral to my practice. The transformation of the surface of my paintings mimics objects, materials, and textures from the real world (i.e. rusted metal, wood). . . . I like introducing familiar objects like the light bulb, the door handle, and wood grain. The paintings are ‘a slice of life’, if you will. They definitely reflect the everyday not just for myself, I think for others as well. They are not only for looking at.”[1]

Youngblood is part of long tradition of artists who incorporate everyday objects into their work—we may immediately think of artists like Jasper Johns, with his thermometers imbedded into the canvas, or Robert Rauschenberg, with his photographs collaged onto their surfaces. In Youngblood’s paintings, the objects that she includes often go beyond the language of abstraction and allude to social or political topics. They are, as she says, “not only for looking at,” but speak to larger real-world issues.

In Map of the World (2015), a map of former colonial territories is embedded in the upper left quadrant of the painting, layered over an otherwise abstract, painterly surface. The political borders indicated on the map are long outdated, but the histories of colonialism that they represent still hold very real ramifications today. The sense of these histories bleeding into the present is suggested by the dripping paint that runs off the map, and the patchwork of rectangular forms just underneath that are themselves reminiscent of political boundaries.

We know that maps are never neutral—the distortions that privilege the northern hemisphere in most map projections are ubiquitous and well-documented, and the political claims they represent are contentious at best. However, they also become such a banal part of our everyday life that we stop looking at them critically, or consider what they really signify. In blending the map of the world (or one version of it) with the formal language of abstraction, Youngblood subtly but pointedly refers to these larger issues, asking us to dive deeper into the surface.

– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

[1] Brenna Youngblood, interview with Rosanna Albertini, “Not Only for Looking At,” in Flash Art, September 2013, http://honorfraser.com/pdf/press/2013FlashArtBY
Image: Map of the World, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, map, acrylic, and construction paper on canvas, 60 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.1 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Object of the Week: X

Malcolm [X] . . . preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Legacy of Malcolm X,” 2011

In this work by Brenna Youngblood, a nearly monochromatic black field is punctuated by intersecting white lines, forming an ‘X’ at the center. Engaging in the history of abstraction as well as photo-montage and collage, Youngblood weds vernacular modes of representation with the language of abstract painting.

Upon closer look, this black painting, titled X, is in fact full of definition and color: small specks of red, blue, and yellow appear ready to burst through the topography of the black surface. A trained photographer, Youngblood uses her experiences behind the lens to explore the intersections between image, illusion, and objecthood, often building up the surfaces of her canvases. In this context, the equally precise and messy ‘X’ acts as a spatial element—its white incisions accentuating the black ground. It also functions as an ‘X’—both a letter and symbol of negation—as well as a reference, and perhaps homage, to Civil Rights leader Malcolm X.

Within SAM’s contemporary galleries, this piece is on view just around the corner from Barnett Newman’s The Three. An exemplar painting by Newman, the black and white composition bears certain formal similarities to X, but more interesting is the way in which Newman considered the function of line in his work:

I think of a line as a thing that involves certain possibilities. It acts as a contour and moves in relation to a shape; it also acts as something that divides space. . . . I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time his connection to others, who are also separate.[1]

The New York School artist’s poetic interpretation adds even more meaning when thinking about the lines in Youngblood’s X—that the marks function, formally and emotionally, as both a dividing and uniting element in her work. With the title reference to Malcolm X, as well, the above message of possibility and hope takes on even more meaning in our current political climate—that despite our divisions, connection and unity is possible.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 257.

Image: X, 2015, Brenna Youngblood, paper and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in., General Acquisition Fund, 2016.7.2 © Brenna Youngblood Courtesy the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery

Meet Multidimensional Artist & Prizewinner Brenna Youngblood

We’re honored to share that the 2015 Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize Winner is Los Angeles-based visual artist, Brenna Youngblood, who incorporates symbols and elements—with strong but not-so-obvious references to everyday life—into her sculptures and atmospheric paintings. The Gwendolyn Knight | Jacob Lawrence Prize is awarded bi-annually to an early career black artist—an individual who has been producing mature work for less than 10 years.

Youngblood is a prolific artist with a rigorous studio practice where she experiments deeply with aspects of formalism, materials, and processes. Rooted in photomontage, she builds the surfaces of many paintings at once while contemplating the relationships between each object in formation. Mixed with humor, satire, and pure creative freedom, she embraces her intuition fully as she makes decisions about composition, line, form, and content. Abstract with a nod to conceptualism, figuration, and the real, Youngblood makes painterly work that is visually grounded by architectural, social, and political cues. She often refers to many of these beautifully messaged works as landscapes.

Her solo exhibition abstracted realities, which was guest curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont, SAM’s former Kayla Skinner Deputy Director of Education and Public Programs and Adjunct Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) is on view now through April 17, 2016.

Watch the artist discuss how her pieces explore the iconography of public and private experiences, as well as issues surrounding identity, ethics, and representation. And be sure to visit abstracted realities next time you’re at SAM!