Born Detroit, 1952 / BFA, University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Elizabeth Youngblood’s work combines great personality and remarkable restraint. Typically starting from a monochrome palette and the repeated graphical element of the line, she has utilized her dexterity with fiber, wire, ceramics, drawing, and paper to quietly produce a visually coherent body of work that has continued to evolve over a period of several decades.
Youngblood’s recent show at Detroit’s N’Namdi Gallery, which featured wire and porcelain works of breathtaking delicacy (for example, #1, #2, and #6, all 2013), can be seen as the latest iteration of a trajectory that includes fiber pieces (e.g., 1994’s Black Weaving #1) and a slowly unfolding long-term series of ink on paper works typified by 1998’s Untitled (Early Cone), 1999’s Untitled (Cone with Lines), 1999’s Early Meander, 2005’s Contemplating Bask, and 2006’s Four Holes and a Gash.
Although Youngblood works with a limited set of elements, her work is far from minimal. A more accurate comparison may be the Korean art movement dansaekhwa (literally “monochrome painting”), which focuses on the meditative aspect of art production through the relationship between materials, material and artist, and artwork and viewer. Interestingly, Youngblood has often commented on art-making as a form of communication, starting with her childhood experience of the intergenerational conversation it animated in her craft-immersed, blue-collar family, and later being present in the dialogue with self, and with audience, that her mature artwork inspired. Equally interestingly, Youngblood’s mother had a long- term interest in Asian aesthetics.
Youngblood’s heritage of craft has clearly been a formative influence. In 2002 she told writer Glen Mannisto: “My mother made many of our clothes. She was a maker. In fact, I come from a family of makers. My aunts cooked, knitted, crocheted; my uncle Oliver was a craftsman. He taught me how to make things, how to plan and execute a job so it’s done right from the beginning. So first, before anything else, I’m concerned with craft.” Youngblood still relates to this quote, except she doesn’t see craft as her only major concern; rather, she sees it as just one of a network of interrelated and inseparable concerns, including process, materiality, and design, that collectively determine the quality she is seeking in her work. She talks of weaving a basket-like form from wood strips but leaving it unfinished because she could think of no way to secure one of the trailing edges without gluing—which would be a process outside of the craft and material discipline she was invested in. She also talks of the embedded time quality in her work—time spent experimenting with process and material, or meditating on results.
Youngblood also has a serious professional background in graphic design, starting at Cass Tech, where she attended the school’s famously rigorous commercial art classes. At the University of Michigan, she found the advertising-focused graphic design curriculum uninspiring, instead studying ceramics, but she leveraged the knowledge she had gained at high school to get an on-the-job education working at the university press. In 1974, legendary graphic designer and educator Katherine McCoy suggested that Youngblood come to study with her, and husband Michael, at Cranbrook. McCoy was famous for having a good eye for picking students that would benefit from her unorthodox curriculum. Among the habits that Youngblood learned from McCoy was to constantly question the real meaning of every element in graphic design. She considers that a parallel thought process transferred into her art-making, as exemplified by her constant reexamination of what it means to make a line, and hence the major influence of McCoy’s teaching on her art is conceptual, not visual.
Youngblood’s most recent work has returned to the line with large pieces such as Plinth (2014), in which the span of the paper is deliberately greater than can be reached in a single gesture of the arm. It is beautiful work, and another incremental step in the experimentation that has characterized her highly considered journey through craft, material, design, process, and artistic integrity.
Steve Panton, January 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015