East City Art Reviews—Trevor Young: Seeing in the Dark

By Eric Celarier on October 6, 2020

Trevor Young’s current exhibition, Seeing in the Dark, on view at Addison/Ripley Fine Art in Georgetown, updates his series of dark, dusk, and dawn vignettes of seemingly abandoned landscapes. Unpretentious in its delivery and its subject matter, Young presents us with gas stations, overpasses, and billboards that appear in the still night air, reminding us of the constructed world we live in. In a time where haphazard images are often jumbled together for the viewer to contrive some meaning, here is a collection of works that does not demand any definitive understanding, while still maintaining a strong voice. Young reflects the contemporary condition, one that never truly sleeps.

There is no denying the ready connections between Trevor Young and the artists Ed Ruscha and Edward Hopper, with whom he is frequently compared.  But what these surface similarities miss is Young’s focus, which is less concerned with the repetitions of modern symbols or the angst they might bring, than with connecting us to our present-day environment. When specifically asked about his influences, Young names neither of these artists; instead, he cites mid-20th century American photographers, like Edward Steichen, and 19th-century American painters, like Frederic Edwin Church. This may  be because Young paints actual places, which are neither advertisements for the conveniences of his day, like Ruscha’s Standard Station Series, or props for theatrical scenes of existential isolation, like Hopper’s lonely painting, Gas. Though often informed by photography, he is just as likely to sketch his scenes,  thus recasting our topography in his own way.  Young  is not “capturing something and moving on,” as Ruscha puts it; he is catching and releasing these moments on his own terms.

How else could one explain so many pictures of vacant billboards? If Young  were a Pop artist, he would find it hard to let such an open invitation to exploit these commercial signs for social criticism.  Yet, in many of Young’s paintings, like Hot Day Baby, these are empty. Whether it is the minimalist execution or the angle at which the image is depicted, Young’s work prompts questions about what we are seeing. Is it an electronic mall marquee that happens to be between sets or is it a static, triangular sign, meant to be read from either direction of the highway, blurred only by our position to it?

Like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s overexposed theater screens, there seems to be no set message in Young’s paintings. Sugimoto’s photos of palatial movie theater interiors, empty of human occupation,  expose time, place, and material objects for us to ponder. By eliminating the commercial intrusions, Young forces us to reckon with the light itself.  Thus, his work does not represent a condemnation of where we live, but an intimate moment shared with it. In his own words, “My work focuses on these places because I am drawn to the spatial relationships and specific light found in them.” He continues, “Embracing the darkness of night, when these environments are empty, the artificial light radiating from these places becomes intensified and emphasizes the solitude of these structures.” We know these spaces, but Young seems to ask do we appreciate the particular aesthetics they represent?

Hot Day Baby, oil on panel, 8” x 10”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

Young has declared that, “there is something extremely beautiful about how manmade structures break above the horizon line.” We see evidence of this notion in Wet Drive-By. Here he has laid down a silhouette of trees against a red background sky, interrupted by the inner glow of a pumping station. This is where nature meets the world we have built into and around it. To some, the painting might appear cold and lonely, but this would be an impatient reading. There is a richness of handling that betrays a special sensitivity to these overlooked spaces.

Working from drawings, memory, and photographs, Young is giving us more than a sterile snapshot.  He is, instead, giving us an impression of what it feels like to have been in that place at that time. “There is an underlying excitement that is created through the hum of energy-driven sources of artificial light and natural light,” says Young. This isn’t just any fuel retailer, it is a distinct sight, set at a specific hour, creating a vignette that honors the fact that all vision is constructed. The copious amount of paint and the gestural dabs of the brush renounces a synthetic or mechanical treatment of its subject, demanding that we take note of  Young’s involvement with it.

Wet Drive-by, oil on panel, 24” x 24”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

Sometimes the simplest things can  have the greatest impact. Brand Red is among the smallest and most abstract works in the exhibition, yet it packs a lot into its tiny, 8” x 10” panel. Showing no more than the red stripe of a service station canopy tethered to the bottom of the painting by four legs, the directness of these shapes can easily be read as an attention to style over content.  While one can see the push-back against  an exact rendering in the impreciseness of its brushwork, we can still make out the subject matter with ease. Given the sight lines, there is plenty of excuse to leave people out of this picture. Young admits that, “I find the human form distracting because it adds a narrative element to the work.” Perhaps Young, like his named influence, John Sloan, needs to distance himself from the socially responsive readings of his work which such figuration could bring. Young, like Sloan, seems to be looking for a kind of gritty realism rather than a strong social statement. Stripped of inhabitants, it is surprising how much of a story the imagination can invent to fill the void left by their absence. Even depopulated as Young’s paintings are, intuition can imply that these areas are more occupied than they immediately appear. This is why the painting does not read as alienating. We can be sure that at least one person was there to record this place—the artist—and the sympathy that he has for places and objects like this   are all over it.

Brand Red, oil on panel, 8” x 10”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the Addison/Ripley Fine Art.

Trevor Young’s Seeing in the Dark allows viewers to explore the world we live in its quietest moments. Drawing on his unique perception of the radiating light of suburban architecture, he gives us  a considered perspective of the areas we live in, while still leaving us a jumping off point for our own personal connections or aversions to them. By refraining from merely  copying what the camera’s eye might frame, Young digs into our environment to pull out what we may be missing when we are asleep or simply not paying attention to it.

Seeing in the Dark runs through October 17 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art located at 1670 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington DC 20007. Call 202-338-5180 or email the gallery to schedule an appointment to view the exhibition.  Gallery hours are Tuesday–Saturday from 11am to 5pm.