The Beginning Answer 

By David Ryan

Robert Holyhead’s paintings bring to mind issues of balance, of poise, and of being finely tuned. Yet the balance and poise is not that of the simply decorative and ‘handsome’ fit. They possess something off-kilter, an inkling of the opposite of being balanced. And likewise, this sensation of fine-tuning is the product of a searching quality, of finding the right tonality, density or colour temperature. Each element suggests its own autonomous centre while ultimately resisting total integration within the particular composition, and yet simultaneously they forge relationships with the other components. This resistance makes the balance all the more precarious, alive and convincing. Surface in the paintings is persistent, and Holyhead creates an effortless mobility across these surfaces. They possess a shallow space and are never allowed to build up into a heavy synchronous layering. This is because they require this space to breath, unimpinged by an excessive simultaneity of events. In this sense, for Holyhead, painting is both a gathering and a clearing. Gathering in the sense of bringing things into view, assimilating and collating aspects of the rich history of abstract painting. At the same time they clear the surface of clutter, reducing and refining what is gathered, what is pictured in the frame or space of the painting. Each work appears to move towards a point: a point of maximum clarity and lightness. It is this aspect that underpins this sense of form being poised or positioned at a moment in time – a fragility of form implying or containing its possible collapse or moment of undoing. Some of the forms in Holyhead’s work appear to have a geometric parentage. Traditionally geometry has represented ideal form, or has suggested a pure sign value used akin to some linguistic ground. And yet, the distant resonances of geometric elements in these paintings are treated ‘in process’ rather than idealised objects. They are morphed, becoming edges, fragments, or are doubled, echoed, and twisted. Despite the urge to reduce and to clear, Holyhead maintains a commitment to perceptual links or sparks outside of the paintings. Not for him the kind of practices where a pre-given schema are exploited for their almost neo-modernist blankness. Nor do the paintings partake in an elaboration of a mask-like meta-language where meaning is pursued through the arm’s length of a theatrical style. Rather, they ask how things work visually, how things can be put together, and how abstract forms or relations can become transformed into an expressive-continuum resonant of our day-to-day visual or perceptual dealings. In the late 1960s Umberto Eco asked how, semiotically, painterly conventions arise. Taking Gainsborough as his reference he asks, “How is it possible to represent a man standing and a lady sitting under a tree, a calm landscape with clouds and a cornfield behind them, a given light and a given mood [?]”[i] Not only is it remarkable that painting can do such a thing, but the fact is that it can break through rigid codes and conventions in order to do so, but not without having absorbed those very codes and conventions: “A painting can never afford to be entirely the fruit of an inventive transformation [from an initial percept]. It must offer various clues: stylizations, perhaps some pre-coded combinational units, a number of fictive samples and of programmed stimuli. Thus by dint of a series of complex adjustments, the convention is established.”[ii] Thus, one set of conventions dismantled makes way for a new set. And yet we can reverse Eco’s schema away from the conception of an original perception that has to struggle with a coded language in order to renegotiate that language. As is the case with Holyhead, the codes and conventions themselves can be renegotiated and reinvigorated in order to create a new platform for fresh perceptions. After all, nothing can be so highly coded as abstract painting in the early years of the 21st century. And Holyhead infuses these ‘pre-coded combinatorial elements’ with a motion that accentuates both a cohesiveness and polarisation of elements and forms. This is what unsettles these images allowing them to gently refuse sitting within a particular niche or convention. A heightened sense of time results from the immaculate surfaces, and gesture is not expressive here, but rather works to accentuate the time of contact with the surface (nor is this always clearly ‘readable’ in the final image). Ultimately, despite its past guises as utopian harbinger, rationalist scientism or expressionist foil, for Holyhead abstraction appears to offer the last vestiges of a visual intimacy, a place of quiet surprise and attention to nuance.


David Ryan  2008

[i] Umberto Eco, A theory of Semiotics, Indiana University press 1976, pp 249-250

[ii] Ibid. p.252