Artforum: Critics' Picks – Karsten Schubert, London

By Sherman Sam

Robert Holyhead’s paintings are determinedly slow and contemplative. In keeping with their thoughtful nature, most of the works in his latest solo exhibition are relatively small, although some seem to suggest a much larger scale. In general, Holyhead combines a geometric or architectonic silhouette with a gestural wash, usually of a single hue. Once the structure of these paintings has been decided, they are created quickly, taking just a few days. Tension enters the works via the combination of his visual structures’ relative stillness and his gestures’ dynamism, yet an overall serenity remains.

His is a painting of suggestion and inflection. For example, a small red piece (all untitled, 2010) could suggest a bridge or mountain range or dam, with its sharp arching wave shape, situated low on the picture plane, while the “empty space” above crackles with the energy of a scumbled gesture and wiped paint. It brings to mind the fireworks in Whistler’s famous painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1872–77. In the largest work on view, eight half circles seem to slowly drop downward against a drippy gray-blue field. The simplicity of this painting belies its subtle, and satisfying, charm. Raised near Birmingham, UK, and now based in London, Holyhead describes his work in the accompanying exhibition catalogue as a possible dialogue with one who is “thinking through painting.” In the end, these are very ordered and “rational” objects, but located in an uncertain place, one of things we feel we know but can’t quite grasp.

Sherman Sam