Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Toni Youngblood: Calligraffiti

reviewed by Sarah Barth-Jensen

Thank You Mt. Etna by Toni Youngblood

Try to teach a young child how to read and you’ll know just how mysterious the alphabet is. Language comes naturally to children and I think it is always amazing to see how quickly a toddler becomes fluent with sophisticated grammar and words. When they try to make sense of language by looking at the swirls and lines of the English alphabet, however, the process is anything but natural. Soon enough, though, no matter how irrational or arbitrary the relationship between language and alphabet most children master the process and the alphabet becomes a natural part of their lives. In a literate society the alphabet is like a second skin through which we experience the world.

Maybe that’s why, ever since language started being written down, cultures have experimented with different alphabets. These experiments have sometimes been functional, like the straight lines the Phoenicians used because of their writing tool, the stylus. Just as often they’ve been aesthetic, like fashion wardrobes. How else can you explain Gothic script, our love of fonts or the wonderful artistry of Far Eastern alphabets? All of this must be what fascinates artists like Toni Youngblood, who explore alphabets, real or imaginary, as an artistic medium.

Youngblood’s Calligraffiti series, which is now up at Charley Hafen Gallery, is a collection of compact abstract works that uses alphabets, or what look like alphabets, as integral components in layered, decorative works.|0| Abstract artists often talk of “mark-making” so it is no wonder that many of them drift naturally to using our most common mark, the As,Bs and Cs of the alphabet as elements in their work (another local artist who does this is Sue Slade, whose show at Phillips Gallery in June was fabulous).

Encaustic seems to be everywhere these days and for some artists wax is just a way to mask lazy work. But in Youngblood’s painting the encaustic is essential because it allows her to build up layers, into which she paints or scrapes her alphabets. From far back these paintings can look like the patterned work of an abstract expressionist. Up close you see the familiar swirls and lines of an alphabet, but they seem a natural part of the whole surface, rather than sitting on top of the painting, like ink on paper.|1| The alphabets don’t spell out words. Some are just scrawls that give the sense of writing.|2| In other pieces Youngblood uses found materials, like nails, to give off the effect of characters.|3| Or at least they feel like characters — the result of the fact that we have become so used to seeing letters, from the serifs on our computer screen to the scrawl of our doctors’ notes – even if we don’t know what they “say.” In that way Toni Youngblood’s Calligraffiti paintings take us back to the wonder and mystery of childhood.|4|

 

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