John Van Houten

Fine Artist, Instructor, Illustrator

Youth in Crux

The conceptual foundations of my work include the fragility of identity, legacy, and memories, as well as the synthesis of painting and photographic mediums. In my latest project, Youth in Crux, I have unarchived forgotten memories in yearbooks from Western New York in the early 1990s. I removed the photos from the context of the yearbook and painted the situations through a new perspective that involves not only a critical eye but to simultaneously feel the emotions of the subjects. My aim with Youth in Crux was to tap into a collective nostalgic memory and illustrate the time period of youth as critically important to social identity. To do this, I researched the identity crises in young adults as they search for meaning and belonging in a world of spectacle and external pressures. The existential dread that demands we preserve our childhood innocence also underlie my interpretations. My work ultimately examines the misplaced innocence of youth onto a critical time in identity development, when social influences become increasingly important in an aggressive and competitive society.

Utilizing my distance as an outsider to these individuals and their memories of youth, I have co-opted the photographic vernacular to establish a new kind of intimacy with the genre of yearbook photographs. The uncanny, a strangely familiar yet uncomfortable feeling, is the primary aesthetic device used in Youth in Crux. The painting medium is used to remove the photorealism and translate it to something akin to the blurriness of memory, while still maintaining a familiarity to the viewer. With paint, every brushstroke has the possibility to impart something new, which has allowed me to intersect nostalgic photography with the uncanny aesthetic. My paintings depict the subjects falling somewhat outside of the nostalgic frame, which is intended to force the viewer to contemplate these anxieties of youth. These moments in the yearbook photos existed at a time in the young subject’s lives when their identity is being constructed by the social environment. They now exist as nostalgic memorials to potential in expressionistic portraits, or as lost identities in blurred black and white brushstrokes, obscured by the social influences of groups. As the camera captures a slice of time, I have tried to paint stories from an epoch of hidden violence that was in flux to change for the 21st century as a result of our blindness to the critical time of youth.

My paintings are closer to cinema than scientific documentation. In my work, I have chosen to be the director of a reconstructed past, which I curated through my interpretation of the sociocultural environment important to identity. Youth in Crux is a reevaluation of the romanticized nostalgia we feel for the transition from youthful naivete to critical identity formation. Through uncanny representations of our cherished youth, I am revealing the underlying anxieties we experience while trying to find meaning in an aggressive and competitive society. As the camera captures a slice of time, I have painted stories from an epoch of hidden violence that was in flux to change for the 21st century as a result of our blindness to the critical time of youth. Yearbooks and old photographs may exist as misplaced mementos. My paintings are nostalgic to some viewers because of the associations with the universal high school experience—a time many still yearn for. My paintings convey nostalgia, but they also reveal the anxiety of youth, and in doing so they attempt to simultaneously subvert the ideal memories of adolescence.

Lost and Found: An Examination of Youth in Crux, as part of the UB MFA Non-Sequitur exhibition 2018

© 2020 John Van Houten