New Dialogues:
the paintings of Robert Holyhead

By Fiona Parry

There is a precision and clarity to Robert Holyhead’s modestly scaled abstract paintings. In one of his new works, Untitled (yellow) (2012), two white triangular shapes jut from the edge of the canvas into a painterly yellow surface. The whole canvas was initially painted yellow and these sharp-edged geometric forms have been drawn into it by carefully wiping the paint back to the white ground. On the right-hand side a more irregular form has been partly wiped away to a lighter yellow, showing a gestural handling in the process of removing – as well as applying – paint, which is central to Robert Holyhead’s work.

The paintings are made quickly over one or two days, which enables, what Holyhead describes as, ‘an equalling out of forms.’ In one of the larger paintings, Untitled (large dark) (2012) a wash of red, blue and black is distributed across the surface in large and gradually descending drip formations. Containing it on either side, two narrow, vertical bands have been marked into the washed surface with a singular downward brushstroke, further combining the three colours into one. Applied at the same time, these two elements appear close to being able to merge back together, making the distinction between them more precarious. Holyhead’s way of working creates a fragile balance and continuity between each element, between geometric form and painterly gesture, and between colour and white ground. A series of white, slightly irregular spheres and rectangles also sit within the space of the painting. They can be read simultaneously as solid white ground and as light, weightless forms within the translucent field. The meticulous removal of paint to get back to the white ground and the subtleties of the edge this act creates, allows the white shapes to become – conversely and quietly – actively applied, creating a continuum with the rest of the surface.

In the introductory essay to an exhibition last year at Tate St Ives and Meade Gallery, University of Warwick called The Indiscipline of Painting the exhibition’s curator, Daniel Sturgis asks, ‘Is there not a real sense that paintings that purportedly look abstract are in part mere representations of what abstract paintings were (and stood for) in the past?’ He goes on to ask how contemporary abstract painters can ‘re-write and interpret the history of their medium so that they can create a space in which to work?’ These wider questions about contemporary abstract painting, which informed Sturgis’ exhibition, resonate directly with how Holyhead articulates his own inquiry. He sees his practice as grappling with how to actively paint in the present moment rather than making pre-conceived ‘descriptions’ or ‘critiques’ of abstract paintings. Even though they are planned and precise, the necessity to execute the works quickly while the oil paint is still fluid – and can be removed and manipulated – is a way of trying to open up a space and time where decisions must be resolved in the moment and the process of painting – whether gestural or geometric – can have an active presence and retain a provisionality in the experience of encountering the works.

A resistance to allowing things to become fixed or repeatable runs throughout Holyhead’s practice: within the paintings, between them, and a step further back in his drawings made using watercolour. The paintings are normally made as a group over a short, concentrated period of time with a specific exhibition and the architecture of the gallery space in mind – for this exhibition at Karsten Schubert a body of eight works. In the, sometimes, long periods between making paintings Holyhead produces multiple watercolours on paper at a standard small-sized format. The drawings are a means of testing out spatial relationships between colour, viscosity, form, edge and scale. They create a continuum as well as a memory bank where existing dialogues and sensibilities can be retained and new ones can emerge. Holyhead handles the drawings like cards to be constantly rearranged and reconsidered, as if from a very personal vocabulary short phrases have been allowed to settle but not become fixed. The paintings are worked out across multiple drawings, with no direct correlation between a particular watercolour and painting.

This method of teasing out dialogues across the drawings is translated into the relations between the paintings as a group. Some retain qualities that have been well rehearsed in earlier works, while others introduce new kinds of relationships between form, edge and application of paint. For instance, in Untitled (Paris blue) (2012), vivid blue, sideways looping brushstrokes shift into a thicker cloudy area of paint, setting up intimate and intuitive relationships in the upper-portion of the painting, which are still held in contraction with a geometric section of white at the bottom. Some works have an elegant poise, while others enter odder territory, such as Untitled (deep red) (2012). Here, small white spheres scatter down either side of the canvas, pulling the swirling ribbon-like brush marks around them like black holes. In this strangely rich and velvety dark red work, painterly gesture is pushed to an exaggerated extreme, in contrast to another very subtle work, Untitled (oxide red) (2012), where the paint appears unselfconciously applied.

Through these dialogues within and between the paintings Holyhead slowly shifts, and unravels, the terrain and terms of his inquiry, more to offer possibilities than search for conclusions. The borderlines between lucidity and a more fluid continuum are constantly being tested suggesting something of how the process of painting can bring into clarity an – often fleeting – abstract sensibility perceived in the world. As Holyhead states, ‘the external world appears in a very complex and unrecognised way… painting is a mediator, really, between me and a very abstract sensibility.’

Notes from a conversation with the artist, October 2012
Daniel Sturgis, ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’, The Indiscipline of Painting – International Abstraction from the 1960s to now, Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, University of Warwick in association with Tate Publishing, London, 2011, p.8.
Robert Holyhead, ‘Looking at Painting: Robert Holyhead in conversation with Anthony Spira’, Robert Holyhead, Ridinghouse and Karsten Schubert, London, 2010, p.14.