Has Ed Young Gone Soft? - Bubblegum Club

Has Ed Young Gone Soft?

When I was a young and impressionable art student, I had the misfortune of being taught by Ed Young. Jokes! 🤣 What’s unfortunate is that the brand of art he taught me to love, complete with the Maurizio Cattelans and Martin Creeds of the world was tailor made for white artists like himself and some of my classmates, but not me. Still—in an increasingly decolonial world, it seems, the only way for the ever culpable white male artist to be radical could be to just say fuck it all. For this reason, I have not yet outgrown Young and his fucky brand of art.

Ed Young

Ed Young

Ed Young is one of South Africa’s best conceptual artists, whose multidisciplinary practice spans over two decades, encompassing painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance, and writing. Known for their intelligence and wit, Young’s pieces can be controversial, sometimes bordering on disturbing and offensive. While his Cattelan-esque hyperreal silicone sculptures are nothing short of spectacular (especially in the context of samey South African art), this text focuses only on his textual work.  

By most measures, Young has been extremely successful and an exceptional representative of hardcore South African art. He has exhibited his work globally, at many lucrative spaces including the Armory Show‘s Focus section in New York. So, of course, I was excited to once again encounter his work all up and through the Investec Cape Town Art Fair (ICTAF), which happened between 16 and 18 February 2024. 

To be honest, we always see a lot of Young at the fair, which can be paradoxical, considering his callous brand. It was intriguing to see a range of his work featured in different stands at the fair. In terms of form, there’s not much range from year to year, particularly in the text works, but that’s what makes them so impressive. While most artists at the fair jump through hoops to make pretty images that entice buyers, Young’s wittiness and IDGAF persona are his peacock feathers and he stays showing at the fair because he sells! One would be hard-pressed to spot other artists who manage the same feat.

Ed Young

Ed Young

Ed Young

Ed Young

The Spanish gallery Suburbia Contemporary, celebrated its 5th year by being the mainstay of Young’s provocative practice at the fair. The Barcelona gallery is currently hosting Young’s solo show If I Only Liked You A Little Bit More And You Liked Me A Little Less. Its director Francesco Ozzola once said they represent artists from diverse backgrounds. One could be perturbed that its art fair crop, Young alongside old pal Jake Aikman, and Amy Rusch, are what’s considered diverse these days, but one can’t deny that this was among the more dynamic booths at ICTAF

What Young does is iconic because of how commercial art galleries and fairs tend to be. For years, he’s been able to sway (perhaps even trick) a pretty superficial art world that is really only interested in shiny, pretty things, to see his plain, black-and-white one-liners as valuable African artefacts. Even in the backdrop of sometimes boringly hyper-political SA art world rhetoric, he manages to both go under the radar and make a splash, becoming pretty much untouchable. 

That said, as these are all text-based works, it can be difficult to maintain variety. Thankfully, on one hand, there seem to be some newer forms of text—variations. In recent years, it was balloons and now there are more neon lights. We see him even experimenting more with subtext, foregoing the punchy obviousness of bygone phrases. The work is becoming increasingly about introspection, broken relationships, loneliness, and remorse. 

Ed Young

Ed Young

Ed Young

Of course, it makes the viewer wonder whether the artist has gone soft. Perhaps, as he gets older, he might be losing that IDGAF, fuckboy flair. It’s not that difficult to imagine Ed Young being or becoming soft because this is the kind of self-deprecating artist that he has always been. He’s exposed his often oddly obsequious body in his sculptural pieces and continuously made a joke of this kind of flaccidity that he maybe feels about himself. That’s all well and good but what happens when our favorite fuckboy finally grows up?  

While the younger Young flaunted his people-hating antics on the main stage, the older artist seems to be grappling with his interpersonal relationships. While it retains its irreverence, there is a subtle softness in the newer work, which is refreshing as the fuckboy gag can become quite one note, especially after two decades. Witty one-liners can only take you so far. So, it’s beautiful to see this new dimension of Young coming to the fore. And even though the text itself may be somewhat soft and soppy, it is made strong by Young’s longevity.

So yes, I do believe Ed Young has gone soft on us, but as a discerning audience, we can appreciate a vulnerable and sensitive artist. Through his evolution, Young is showing us that there is a great deal of nuance in his fuckboy-ness. Naturally, as his practice continues to evolve and he is able to explore more sides of himself, his oeuvre becomes more complex. He may not want you to know it, but Young’s new work reveals that he is no different from the rest of us. Sometimes he’s legendary, sometimes he’s a cunt and sometimes he’s just butt hurt.

Ed Young

Ed Young

Ed Young

Suggested Posts

SA POP ARCHIVE

BUBBLEGUM CLUB TV

Get our newsletter straight to your mailbox