Stone Ridge, New York
Entering Millicent Young’s site-specific retrospective “Alter Altar: 20 Years,” on view in merge’s two newly refurbished barns (through October 15, 2023), is like entering a concise representation of human history. Themes of loss, reverence, extinction, as well as shared humanity and the longing for connection, permeate Young’s detached and poetic presentation. Her use of locally found materials pays homage to the Hudson River valley and the stillness to be found here; indeed, the viewer feels as though she has entered a sanctuary, a place to sit still and let the natural process of appreciation unfold. Attention, like Ariadne’s thread (referenced in one piece), travels from one thoughtful work to the next, leaving rashness behind. One senses that Young has taken the time to hone her technical skills, to tend to her ideas, to let her metaphorical offerings ripen.
On the first floor, one faces Composition for Elie Wiesel, with casts of the sculptor’s hands stretching out from the wall in mudras of supplication and tenderness, searching for assurance. The curving white plaster fingers show vulnerability, juxtaposed with barbed wire wrapped in pages from Elie Wiesel’s Night, which recounts the horrors of the Holocaust. Collectively grieved trauma tries to find meaning in suffering, and so does Young through these works. It is in our nature to impose a structure on something as meaningless as human cruelty, and Young turns to grapevine, clay, lead, earth, wood, horse hair, roots, grass, oak, red iron, charred cedar saplings, rope, fur, sheet music, gessoed boards, steel, threads and gold leaf to find an outline. Across the space, I counted 36 hands and 26 feet: But how many real or metaphorically lived lives do these numbers represent? Young’s fragments seem to stand in for lives lived in silence, sorrow, and anguish, but also in contemplation.
The second floor holds When There Were Birds iv, a reconstructed altar representing ancestral bones and organic life soaring above. Lengths of sometimes extended horse tail hair, which Young acquires from a store in Montana, sway to gentle air currents. Spending time here brings clarity, evoking basic systems of life and showing how disturbance and balance are distributed across a single day. Young’s deliberate method demonstrates her appreciation of such cycles. She works as though she is tending a garden, secreting ideas and then taking them apart for us.
For thousands of years, religion played a major role in human civilization, until the advancement of the Enlightenment in the 18th century raised nature to that sacred space. It all changed again in the 19th and 20th centuries, as human individuality, its neurosis and strivings, became a major object of concern and exploration. In the second decade of our machine-centric 21st century, fragmented digitalization, artificially created algorithms, and curated emotions have become the focal points of daily life. Young works against all this, and in this exhibition, she is shedding her pasts, one layer at a time, as her family history intermingles with concern for the natural world and its current abuse through human action.
Like Minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin, Anne Truitt, Eva Hesse, and Carmen Herrera, Young is preoccupied with the formal representation of inner dilemmas and internal landscapes. She does not, however, subscribe to purely painterly practice; for her, three-dimensionality adds to a ritualistic approach to artistic labor. Young is very much connected to the tragedies and degradations of our time, but she looks for material means of reconciliation and healing. “Alter Altar” leaves the viewer with a lingering feeling of peace gained through close looking (and reading) accompanied by introspection. Poems by Gregory Orr, Stuart Kestenbaum, Rebecca Elson are present throughout, but it is Young’s poetry, put onto the metaphorical altar for us to see and interact with, that makes the statement.