Wayne Youle – The Eyes Have It
essay by Felicity Milburn
Eyes. They’re everywhere. Squinting from a swathe of B-grade movie bandages, boggling out of silhouettes, rolling their whites like startled horses. And in Wayne Youle’s work, it’s not just the corporeal eyes that jostle for your attention; it’s full of ‘I’s too; self-portraits, disguises, mistaken identities, presumed and assumed personas. These varied representations of an ever-altering self have been a consistent theme in Youle’s practice over the years, and he uses them for a variety of purposes; undermining stereotypes, exposing preconceptions and poking fun at his own insecurities in equal measure. Often, they reflect his awareness that how we see ourselves is not necessarily how we are perceived by others.
Growing up as the blue-eyed son of a Māori mother and Pākehā father, and navigating a range of social, cultural and professional circles, Youle regularly found himself in situations where he was considered either ‘too brown’ or ‘not brown enough’. In 2009, Same but different was his wry response to a world that likes to categorise people as one thing or another. It featured two stacks of brown paper bags with hand-cut holes for eyes; one pile stamped ‘Māori’, the other ‘Pākehā’. When exhibited recently, the work was accompanied by a small sign politely asking visitors not to take the bags, since they represented the number Youle thought he might need for a lifetime of trying to fit in. In Cap, beard, backpack, vest, trackpants and sneakers (head, shoulders, knees and toes) from 2017, he presented a plinth full of possessions for an absent person. Although for some the title might have suggested the description of a dangerous offender, each item had been lovingly customised to neutralise any sense of danger – the backpack was decorated with loveable yellow ‘minions’, the vest hand-knitted by his mother in brightly coloured woollen stripes. It was another reminder that things are not always as they appear.
Youle’s latest works arise from his interest in mask-making, both as an indigenous and adopted artistic tradition and as another expression of how we constantly alter our outward-facing selves to reflect or deflect the attitudes of others. In simple sculptures assembled from meticulously finished native and introduced timbers, and a series of deft collages, he acknowledges the significant role indigenous masks played in the development of modern art. When the French empire expanded into Sub-Saharan Africa in the early 20th century, ceremonial objects and sculptures were brought back to Paris as exotic souvenirs. Many found their way into the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro, where Pablo Picasso viewed them in 1907, at the urging of Henri Matisse. He described the experience as ‘a revelation’, and it had an immediate and profound influence on his work. Finished a month or two later, his controversial painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – often described as the forerunner of Cubism – features two figures with jarringly simplified, asymmetrical features. ‘A head is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth’, he proclaimed with all the zeal of the newly converted, ‘which can be distributed in any way you like.’ Youle’s masks are similarly unconcerned with physical conventions, relying on the unerring human instinct to piece together faces from the most rudimentary arrangement of elements. In his collages, features are concealed, obscured and transformed through a series of minimal interventions, lending them an enigmatic quality in contrast with the diary-like confidences offered in their titles, which relate everything from Youle’s memories of having school photos taken with his sister to his first trip to Chicago.
Of course, one of the most memorable masks to be found in modern art is Australian. In Sidney Nolan’s 1946-7 ‘Ned Kelly’ paintings, the 19th century bushranger’s homemade helmet is dramatically reduced to a stark black rectangle. In some works, the outlaw’s eyes bulge from the horizontal opening, in others, the viewer sees through it to the sky beyond, as though inside his legendary iron armour the man himself had ceased to exist. Kelly was always a complicated villain, and an unlikely hero. There’s more than a hint of ambiguity in Youle’s loosely painted self-portraits too; part-brash, marauding bushranger, part-terrified artist at the mercy of circumstance. Masks conceal our identity, but they also offer opportunities to explore other aspects of our personality, and Youle’s reveal at least as much as they disguise.
Youle’s eyes might be staring out at us, but they’re more than met by ours staring back at him, judging his efforts, calculating his success or failure. He’d much rather blend into the crowd than stand in the spotlight and he offers up these alternative personas as a kind of exchange, as though sharing these unseen sides of himself might parcel out the weight of our scrutiny. ‘These masks in my mind would be an amazing extension of my own face if I was to venture out into the world I have chosen to be a part of more often’ he says. ‘‘Confidence in camouflage’ would be my new motto.’