A Space of Encounter:
On the Paintings of Robert Holyhead

By Anna Lovatt

Throughout its history, abstract painting has been accompanied by a certain kind of hyperbolic rhetoric. From the utopian pronouncements of Kasimir Malevich, to the death-knell of the medium sounded by Alexander Rodchenko; the narratives of abstraction have been epic and heroic, driven by a quest for the ‘ultimate’ painting. During the 1980s, Yve-Alain Bois went as far as to suggest that ‘the whole history of abstract painting can be read as a longing for its death,’ identifying modernist painting’s task as one of mourning.[i] For Bois, this task was most productively performed in the work of Robert Ryman, while the postmodernist abstraction of Sherrie Levine, Peter Halley and Philip Taaffe constituted little more than a manic recycling of moribund abstract modes. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we have already witnessed the so-called ‘triumph of painting’, indicating that these grand narratives still hold sway in some areas of the discourse.[ii] Yet this triumphalist rhetoric seems inappropriate when describing the work of certain contemporary abstract painters. Some, including Mary Heilmann and David Reed, have eschewed categorization for almost 40 years, while various ‘neo’ abstractions have come and gone. Others, like Tomma Abts and Mark Grotjahn, have emerged more recently, in the still indefinable moment after ‘postmodernism’. While their work is diverse, it shares an approach to abstraction that is more committed than heroic, calling for a critical response that is measured rather than hyperbolic.

In a recent essay entitled ‘Abstraction and Intimacy,’ W. J. T. Mitchell has suggested that abstract painting today invites an ‘intimate’ mode of address, a relationship based on friendship and kinship rather than idolatry or desire.[iii] It is within this context that Robert Holyhead’s paintings can be most productively located. Trained as an artist during the 1990s, his work is far removed from the epic gestures of modernist painting and the ironic postures once associated with postmodernism. Instead, it is concerned with the day-to-day continuation of abstraction as a practice; a ‘guardianship’ rather than ‘critique’ of this painterly tradition.[iv] In Holyhead’s work, possibilities are explored without recourse to a definitive answer; judgement is suspended in favour of a riskier, more speculative approach. His work ekes out a space for abstract painting that stubbornly resists incorporation into the grand narratives and categorical ‘isms’ that have structured the history of the medium.

Since moving to his current studio in 2005, Holyhead’s paintings have become lighter in touch and sparer in composition—partly in response to the bright, uncluttered nature of his working environment. While earlier canvases were entirely covered in serpentine lines or geometric forms in bold, sometimes clashing colours, the recent paintings are more restrained compositionally and chromatically. There is a sense that something is being withheld: a feeling heightened by the expanses of white ground left uncovered, or the traces of colour at the canvas-edge, where paint has been meticulously removed from the surface. Instead of having a distancing effect, however, this reticence in the paintings prompts an attitude of curious enquiry in the beholder, inviting an intimate mode of looking that can be described in terms of the ‘encounter’.  Most obviously, Holyhead’s paintings invite close engagement due to their modest size, or rather, their scale in relation to the human body. Portrait-oriented and limb-length, they establish a corporeal relationship with the viewer that brings with it a sense of familiarity. Yet this intimacy is unsettled by a certain structural or chromatic awkwardness that pervades the paintings, making them difficult to place. Asymmetrical and decentred yet neither impulsive nor random, Holyhead’s formal arrangements have a kind of unfathomable precision, indicating a decision-making process that remains inaccessible to the spectator.

The works in the current exhibition are part of Holyhead’s ongoing investigation of a set of intersecting yet divergent and shifting painterly possibilities. Although consistent in certain aspects, the paintings resist interpretation in terms of a unifying concept or overriding theme. Instead, each one asks to be considered individually, as a specific response to a particular situation. One of the larger paintings is traversed by three green horizontal bands, equally spaced but slightly off-centre in relation to the frame. Before drying, each stripe has been dragged vertically with a brush to produce a broader, fainter rectangle where the paint is more thinly spread.  Another large canvas is notable for the extreme subtlety and complexity of its surface. The ground is almost completely covered with an opalescent film that appears to shift in colour—from rose, to yellow, to brown—and finish—from matte, to cloudy, to gloss. Yet this variable field is held fast by the incisive clarity of its outline, a shape both puzzle-like and puzzling in its exacting oddity. In two smaller paintings, forms are haunted by their predecessors: the traces of shapes applied to and removed from the canvas, leaving a fainter afterimage. These surfaces become palimpsests, but instead of reading as ‘mistakes’, the paler forms suggest alternative possibilities, giving the works an irresolvable, transitory quality. This provisionality is central to Holyhead’s work, which poses overlapping sets of questions instead of advancing towards a single, conclusive answer. Yet each ‘question’ is carefully considered and thoughtfully presented, so that the open-endedness of the paintings can never be confused with an unbounded or improvisational approach to their making.

Each painting is the result of visual impressions accumulated within the studio and beyond, tested but never fully planned in small works on paper. These watercolours are arranged and reconfigured within the space of the studio, in relation to one another and the larger paintings. This lengthy process of looking and thinking speeds up once each work on canvas begins—the oil paint providing a limited timeframe within which to apply, thin and wipe back the colour while retaining an essential clarity of surface. When paint is removed, the process is scrupulous and labour-intensive: in some works the colour is carefully lifted off the surface with a brush, in others it is dragged into an alternative shape, or precisely wiped away to leave a razor-sharp edge. Rather than reading as gestures of negation or erasure, these precise manoeuvres constitute a meticulous ‘editing’ of the paint on the canvas, a process that demands extreme concentration, accuracy and control. Crucially, as Holyhead points out, the painting must not become laboured or overworked, but should stop at the point when it achieves a fragile sense of cohesion. Translucent brushstrokes that initially appear free-floating and ephemeral are anchored and pulled taut by the exactitude of their placement, so that instead of hovering over the ground, they appear on closer inspection to be imbedded within it. It is this tension between fluidity and fixity, lightness and deliberateness of touch, which captures the curiosity of the spectator and makes the paintings so compelling.

Some of Holyhead’s recent works are characterised by small marks or spots which interrupt the surface, functioning simultaneously as points of anchorage and ‘glitches’ in the visual field. One canvas bears the remnants of a reddish-brown paint that has been wiped, rubbed and scraped from its surface; giving the colour a distinctive, worn-out look. Towards each corner of the canvas, paint has been deliberately drawn off the edge with the artist’s thumb, framing the work with eight clean notches that punctuate its weathered surface. These ‘glitches’ catch the eye with their peculiarity, dragging the gaze back to the material specificity of the painting. Yet they also tug at the memory, creating a strange, unplaceable sense of familiarity about the works.  On one level, they indicate a tradition of abstract painting that emphasises the edge of the support—the work of Jules Olitski or Jo Baer, for example. On another, they resonate with everyday things—ubiquitous, non-specific rectangular surfaces punctuated by hinges or clasps. This impression of functionality recurs in another 2009 painting, in which four spots of blue paint are precisely arranged over a blue rectangle at the foot of the canvas. Against this solid, geometric form, the spots appear weightless, incidental even. But at second glance these points seem to push through the ground, underpinning the painting as if integral to its structure.

In his essay, Mitchell describes such anchoring points in terms of a kind of punctum or wound in the abstract composition: ‘the hook that arrests the beholder, activates the picture, and allows it to look back.’[v] Mitchell’s comments draw on a long tradition of thought in psychoanalysis and visual theory that seeks to explain the uncanny intimacy of certain modes of pictorial engagement.[vi] The examples he uses are rather literal—abstract paintings with lozenge-shaped ‘wounds,’ or even signs suggestive of ‘eyes’—but they provide a basis for thinking about the more ambiguous ‘glitches’ I have described in Holyhead’s work. Whether the ‘glitch’ is a literal point or punctum—like the spots described above—or a kind of awkwardness more difficult to pinpoint, something in each painting invites further enquiry. Not all abstract paintings suggest this mode of looking, which I would describe in terms of an ‘encounter’. More often, we might ‘view’ or ‘survey’ a painting, be ‘immersed’ or even ‘assaulted’ by it. While the first two experiences involve a kind of visual mastery that comes with distance, the latter suggest a proximity that is either pleasurable or intrusive. The ‘encounter’, on the other hand, catches the subject off-guard—in a sudden, intimate moment of self-conscious recognition. The work unfolds in a proximate dialogue with the viewer that can never be fully resolved, setting Holyhead’s work apart from much abstraction of the past, and with its attendant language of emphatic ‘conviction’.[vii]

In place of certitude and finality, Holyhead’s paintings evoke a subtle yet persistent questioning, while engaging the viewer in a curious space of encounter. This attitude of enquiry is also a critical tool, with which to probe the possibilities of abstract painting today. Although Holyhead distances himself from a polemical ‘critique’ of the medium of painting, his work embodies a more subtle kind of criticality. True ‘critique’, as described by Judith Butler, is not a process of fault-finding, but a moment of questioning which ‘requires that we break the habits of judgment in favour of a riskier practice that seeks to yield artistry from constraint.’[viii]  This combination of risk, enquiry and the deferral of judgement resonates with Holyhead’s practice and the kind of critical response it necessitates. Resisting assimilation into the familiar narratives of abstraction, this work seeks out an uneasy space for painting’s continuation: forfeiting finality for provisionality and displacing certainty in favour of a more open-ended process of painterly exploration.

[i] Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Painting: The Task of Mourning,’ in Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993, p.230.

[ii] Here, I am referring to the three exhibitions titled The Triumph of Painting held at the Saatchi Gallery, London, in 2005.

[iii] W. J. T. Mitchell, ‘Abstraction and Intimacy,’ in Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.238.

[iv] Notes from conversation with the artist, April 2009.

[v] Mitchell, p.236.

[vi] The idea of the punctum has been previously deployed by Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Hal Foster, amongst others.

[vii] See particularly the writings of Michael Fried, including ‘Art and Objecthood,’ in Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998.

[viii] Judith Butler, ‘What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,’ in David Ingram ed., The Political: Blackwell Readings in Continental Philosophy, London: Blackwell, 2002, p.226.