Millicent Young seeks a new mythology through primordial totems

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Millicent Young’s “Not Known [(un)furl],” composed of grapevine and horse hair is currently on view in her show “Known/Not Known” at Chroma. Millicent Young’s “Not Known [(un)furl],” composed of grapevine and horse hair is currently on view in her show “Known/Not Known” at Chroma.

I was completely captivated by Millicent Young’s radiant show at Chroma Projects. Composed of horsehair and found wood, Young’s work thrums with nature and speaks to ancient mysteries that our modern selves can only dimly grasp.

“The known, the unknown, and the unknowable is a trinity that has been with me a very long time,” Young said. “What is folded into this work, the mystery is also the unknowable. I am interested in contributing to the vocabulary that will tell a new collective story: a new mythology that redefines mystery, sensuality, beauty, stillness, and imagination as crucial to our earthly co-existence.”

For Young, the mythology we’ve had in place for thousands of years is failing us. “We are now on this precipice of destruction,” said Young. “Something is wrong here and so in thinking about a new mythology, I thought to myself ‘we can’t possibly know what that is,’ but we have to go into that place of not knowing, that place of uncertainty, that place that every artist goes into, and every mystic goes into.”

Young began clipping chunks of hair from horses of hers that had died as commemorative relics. She continued this practice in the remote part of the Piedmont where she used to live, snipping off parts of the tail of a deer she’d come across that had been slaughtered in a wanton, rapacious, and illegal way (out of hunting season), as a means of honoring these wild beings, later incorporating the fur into brushes and rope.

One day, after the hanks of horsehair had been hanging around her studio for quite some time, she decided to incorporate some of the horsehair into a wooden sculpture she was working on. At first, it was an ancillary material used like string to bind the work together. Gradually it moved to the forefront as she began to see the potential of the material, the process of gathering it, the way it behaved, how it responded to light, and the rituals around washing, preparing, and finally using it.

Perhaps because we’re accustomed to it—seeing it in violin and cello bows and such—horsehair has none of the creepy overtones we get from human hair woven into Victorian funerary jewelry or hung in great clumps in installations by contemporary artist, Sheela Gowda. Horsehair is clean, pure, and quite simply beautiful, with a peculiar evanescent quality that makes the strands almost seem lit from within.

Young stresses that her fascination with horsehair didn’t stem from her being a horsewoman, although she has ridden all her life—that was kind of irrelevant. She is drawn to it because of its physical quality and she uses it in her work as a potent stand-in for nature.

“We live now in the wake of a Cartesian paradigm,” Young said. “The loss of stillness, imagination, critical thinking, and sensuality are collateral damage in the epidemic of global destruction we have wrought. Collectively, we continue to behave in our destructive ways in spite of the facts. Art and Earth define us as human beings. The rupture of connection with either renders us senseless and therefore only brutal.”

For Young, art is the answer to this “narcosis that numbs us.” Transformative, art—both the making of it and the experiencing of it—gets us back in touch with our inner selves. Young has turned her back on technology, embracing a natural rhythm and approach. Her work is labor intensive and in toiling on it hour after hour, drilling holes, threading hair, pulling knots, she produces work that “forms itself” and “contains the precise moment, emotion, thought, and gesture of its making.”

Looking at the ethereal “Not Known (continuum)” and ravishing “Not Known [(un)furl],” I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s a “thereness” there. A poet friend of Young’s calls it “the large,” the thing that is greater than the self. I hesitate to use loaded terms, but I will venture to say that it’s something quite holy: the presence of the absence of the horse—and as Young would hope—of nature itself. I was reminded of an article I read in The New York Times (“Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” Eric Weiner, March 9, 2012) about the Celtic concept of “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth is particularly narrow, affording a glimpse of the divine.

“Sit in this extremely uncomfortable place of what’s going to happen next,” said Young. Staring at the blank page if you’re a writer, at the blank canvas if you’re a painter, or for a sculptor basically you’re sitting in an empty space without even materials and that’s the space of not knowing.”

Aside from the elegiac feeling we get looking at these pieces knowing what we know about the state of our fragile planet, perhaps their inherent holiness has something to do with the fact that Young was working on them as her father was dying. Having been through that journey, ushering a beloved parent (actually two) from this world into the next, I can tell you it is a sacred task that brings you right up against the thin membrane separating our existence from that unknown other.

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