Contingent Moves

By David Ryan

On encountering Robert Holyhead’s paintings the experience is one of being in the presence of lucidity; of a precision that is both disarming and difficult to locate. Yes, there is clarity to his ovoid forms, wonky grids or angular strips of colour, but the preciseness seems elsewhere. These particular forms might operate rather like a common triadic chord would for a neoclassical composer: As something both familiar and foreign, no longer of ‘structural’ necessity, more a found object conjuring up the complexities of memory and expectation (as happened in Stravinsky, for example, in the 1920’s). Such a comparison might appear strange, but the painter today who chooses to explore the languages of abstraction has to do so on different terms than the inherited ones, while still wrestling with some of the ghosts of the past. Stravinsky demanded a pristine uncluttered environment in which to work in order to ‘de-familiarise’ the toolbox of tonality, and likewise wandering into Holyhead’s studio one finds a similar sense of logic brought to bear upon his own prescribed set of limitations. It is an almost ‘unforgiving’ attention to the demands of the medium, to the craft of painting in its many different dimensions; a navigation through the precarious avenues through which a language is brought into being. Yet the burden of these inherited traditions of abstraction are made light through the very weightlessness of touch, and the game or puzzle-like qualities that permeate these paintings. This sense of play is important, as is the peculiar interface, as the artist himself suggests, between “what the hand wants and what the painting demands.” In identifying a constellation of play, objectivity, and sensibility, it is possible to move closer to this sense of precision and lucidity in Holyhead’s work and its un-locatable quality. 

T.W. Adorno (no friend, incidentally, of Stravinsky or the project of neoclassicism in music) once wrote of the “crackling noise that signals the presence of the plus [of appearance].” This surplus effect in works of art (beyond their given physical elements) was not synonymous, for Adorno, with metaphysical content or mystical veneer, but rather a potential fact of productive forces. We might think that this had been put to rest with Benjamin’s critique of aura, and on a general cultural level that may well be the case, but the domain of painting is still the conflict or tension between appearance and thing. In Holyhead’s work this is expressed by the strange yet complementary fit between the discrete elements and the overall material unity of each individual painting. Unusual in their subtle articulation of this unstable condition somewhere between fragmentation and completeness, this is achieved through an open method of addition and subtraction. Holyhead generates these works in relation to small watercolour studies, which act as a spark or starting point for the paintings, but never completely map out the final works. In one sense these studies have an integral character that the larger works move away from – becoming, as they do, complete in their incompleteness. Inverting, in many ways, the usual relationship of preparatory study to final work, in the latter, we sense much more the different moves and choices which arrive at the concluding image and which sometimes lie just beneath the surface. Form in the smaller paper works is more ‘absolute’ – while in the paintings there seems to be a flexibility, distortion even, of the available forms. This ‘flexural’ approach appears to filter or anamorphosise basic shapes, and yet also results from the embeddedness of the forms within the various physical moves of the process of painting. ‘Painterly’ as they are, it is a cool eye and hand that peruse these relocations on the canvas which both emphasises and articulates their overall surface unity. Spontaneity here gives way to contingency. For this artist, as with many others, the urge toward abstraction is seen as the best vantage point from which to examine the formal behaviour of boundaries, limits, surfaces, and above all, the processes of intention and the contingency of outcome. Holyhead himself talks of this impulse to abstraction as a kind of ‘exposure’ – of making events both explicit and yet self-reflexive. There is something of this when Adorno, in his Aesthetic Theory, suggested that: “Works of art surpass the world of things by acquiring thinghood of their own, i.e. their artificial objectification. They begin to speak when thing and appearance are kindled. They are things which are destined to appear. Their immanent process externalises itself as their own doing, not as the product of human meddling and purposive action.” 


David Ryan

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (1984 version, translated by C. Lenhardt) Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984

David Ryan is an artist and writer based in London.  His extensive writing on art and music includes pieces on Jessica Stockholder, Bernard Frize, John Riddy, Shirley Kaneda, Fabian Marcaccio, Franz Ackermann, David Reed, Katharina Grosse, Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Helmut Lachenmann and Jonathan Lasker for various art publications including Modern Painters, Sammlung Goetz, Munich, Dissonanz in Switzerland, Leonardo Music Journal, San Francisco, Art Papers Alabama USA, Contemporary, Art Monthly and Tempo, London. Catalogue contributions include Hybrids for Tate Liverpool, and Jessica Stockholder/Fabian Marcaccio for Sammlung Goetz, Munich, as well as reviews for London Arts, Artpress, Paris, Art Papers and Contemporary, London.