Hong Kong born 1956
Castiglione's Dream Summer 1995 - 96
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, digital print, synthetic polymer paint and oil on canvas
In 2014, the National Gallery of Australia acquired one of the most important works to be painted by Australian artist John Young. Castiglione’s dream is the grand summation piece of Young’s critical series Double ground, which explores the complex geopolitical and psychological experiences of the people who make up the complex Chinese diaspora in Australia and globally.
A painting of mesmerising beauty and subtle disquiet, it works on our perceptions on many levels. We glimpse a sense of a grand history painting with a narrative we cannot fully grasp, as panels of seemingly random images float over what appears to be a classical Chinese landscape painting. Young writes in his studio notes, ‘This is a personal work, yet the experiences retraced may be one common perhaps of many in the diaspora; memories, sentiments of departure and severing from an old culture, the denial and indifference to the loss, the anxiety of an unknown new land, and the reality and hardship on the new shore’.
Young was born in Hong Kong in 1956 but was sent to Australia at the age of eleven, fleeing the violent political disruption brought about by the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1967. After studying philosophy at the University of Sydney, his early forays into painting engaged with minimalism, resulting in his polychrome paintings of 1989–93. But, like many artists of the postmodernist era, minimalism and abstraction could not provide the visual possibilities required for complex issues about identity, memory and lived experience.
Castiglione’s dream digitally reproduces a section from One hundred horses painted in China in 1728 by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Milanese Jesuit missionary to Peking. The image quite deliberately appears to fade away before us due to the artist’s application of a milky glazing. Of his technique, Young comments, ‘The layering of white “porcelain” glazing is also a literal expression of the fading power of the grand narratives … and [is] replaced by the seduction of kitsch … The grand narrative literally fades, and is superseded by fragmentary kitsch’.
Hovering over the classical landscape are painted panels, their iconography taken from a disparate array of stock images. For example, the rocky landscape in the top-left corner is taken from a 1980s Chinese travel brochure and the crouching nude is a rendition from John Everard’s 1952 book Artist’s model, which was a standard-issue guide for art students and professional artists in the late 1950s.
The painting resonates like a dream: a sequence of images floating over a narrative that, although fading, leaves us with a powerful sense of unease. In relation to others in the series Double ground, Young has described this work as ‘the more ambitious attempt in articulating a psychic landscape. My concerns are and always have been with the recognition, severing and reawakening to old or distant cultural values and resonances. This may, I suspect, have something to do with my own voyage of coming to Australia on my own to live at the age of eleven’.
Lara Nicholls, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 82, Winter 2015