Robert Holyhead – Paintings

By David Ryan

It goes without saying that since the 1960s there has been no ‘vanguard’ or mainstream in painting which, on the one hand, has substantially opened out the parameters of the disciple, and yet at its worst reduced it to a strategic game in order to be ‘seen’ within a voracious market place. Whilst painting has, of late, been endlessly raked over from a cultural perspective and, indeed, from the curatorial ‘positioning’ of various discourses, what seems to be left out of the equation is the question of what painting ‘can do’.  There is no simple or singular answer to this, and we are brought back to the individual painter and how they might provide their own response through practice rather than theory. It is in this context that British painter Robert Holyhead’s significant body of work frames the whole question of what painting is, and what it does, through the particularity of his practice without recourse to the overly self-referential positions of any meta-cultural commentary. While resurgent problems might be seen to revolve again and again around painting: questions of representation, abstraction, time, environment (together with its social and political standing), ‘relevance’, and not least how we might write or think about the activity, Holyhead provides a refreshing pointer to the discipline required to make these issues palpable and sensuously intertwined within the work.  His paintings reveal themselves to be totally committed to, and convinced by, the enterprise of painting. 

Central to Holyhead’s work is an exquisite sense of craft – and this is a word that, previously much maligned, needs some explanation and recuperation in relation to the specifics of Holyhead’s approach.  Craft, in this sense, is not just a developed and accrued ‘technique’ but also a much wider understanding of the processes and contexts of making. It is what Richard Sennett has referred to as the “face-to-face relationship”[i] that exists in the workshop between object and maker, where the making not only shapes the object formally but also generates both meaning and value outside of it.    How the studio is organized, and what is present there is as much informative of how the work is generated as the traces of painterly processes retrieved from the work itself.  In its seemingly forensic organization Holyhead’s studio is carefully oiled ‘machine’ for production.  It enables the work; much the same way as the American composer Morton Feldman once suggested that his compositions required a comfortable chair and the right pen.  Such requirements are necessary subtle attunements to the situation of making, crucial not just to the identity of the process but also the resultant object.   For Holyhead, the space of the studio must relate to light and clarity; his work flow should create an easy accessibility of a particular brush or medium to give the impression of unbroken fluidity, resulting in the “face-to-face relationship” between painter and the painted completely focused and attuned.  As Sennett reminds us, the skill of the craftsperson begins as a bodily practice, and the organized studio as a site for this entails the relationship of bodily activity to its “anchorage in tangible reality.”[ii]  This is, in fact, a crucial point for this artist’s approach both abstraction and form making. 

Holyhead’s work, roughly over the last ten years, has brought to bear this ‘realistic’ approach to materiality and process.  Working with a constrained repertoire of forms initially consisting of blocks, ovoid shapes, and rectangles, etc., the work has tested these forms out in various contexts, scales and processes.  A basic method has been consistently developed over this period of time.  Generally, this consists of two aspects of the work developed simultaneously and in relation to each other: groups of watercolour drawings on card or paper and paintings in oil.  How these inform each other is an important part of this process; there are no direct correspondences between one drawing and one painting.  In this sense, the watercolours, follow a broader approach in order to allow experimentation of form and drawn/colour interaction.  As Sennett, again, sees it, this is part of the day-today workshop exploration whereby, “Drawing stands for a larger range of experiences such as the way of writing that embraces editing and rewriting or of playing music to explore again and again the puzzling qualities of a particular chord. The difficult and the incomplete should be positive events in our understanding.”[iii]  And yet while Holyhead’s drawings would seem to point to a day-to-day problem solving they are neither studies, in a simple sense, nor models for paintings.  They occupy a broader terrain than the paintings, and in this sense, circle around them, influence or direct them, but from afar so to speak.  In contrast, the paintings are specifically contained in groups or sets, unlike the implied ‘infinite’ production of form in the works on paper, the limits of a set in terms of form, scale, and colour are staked out as they progress, but consciously regulated, as in the current 15 paintings in the present exhibition.  This relationship of the individual painting to the collective experience of the group is important to Holyhead’s project. I would also see it as being bound up with his approach to abstraction, where endless productivity or variation is made concrete and specific to the circumstances of a particular piece. 

  “Paint somehow make it more ‘real’”[iv] says the artist about this transition, which also points to an old contradiction, within the history so-called ‘abstract’ painting, as to how abstraction actually works.  It is a question of time as much as form in that the neo-Platonic version – in which early practitioners of abstraction thought they were tapping into a deeper reality of unchanging, eternal form - can be positioned against the ‘actionist’ idea of the ephemeral ‘event’ revealing a deeper meaning to the chance occurrence or contingent form.   In this light we can ask: are Holyhead’s paintings geometric or gestural?  Such a question leads us to the kind of neutrality that is favoured by this artist – where not only does he avoid such easy categorizations but within the individual paintings themselves contrasting elements are held in equilibrium and sustain each other.  If we can see the ‘sharper’ hard edged elements as, at times, approximating the geometric – rectangles, triangles, circles etc., they tend to lose any sense of symbolic or essentialist overtones through Holyhead’s setting them to work pictorially.  They act as pins, wedges, slots, slits, focal points; it is an active geometry found within these individual paintings during the process, with each element activated for the total formation of the work.  This functional and pragmatic sense of form is characteristic, and also a reminder of the realistic turn in his language.  Their neutrality emphasizes the smooth interconnection between parts in the paintings, which is a moment of closure for the process of painting. As Holyhead has made clear the discussion of the provisional in painting can’t be directly applied to his work: “They are not provisional – they are concluded and not to be changed after that point.” A total open form would suggest an incompletion of parts, a lack of balance, or a dominance of one aspect over another.  Holyhead’s paintings are, in fact, the opposite of this in that not only do they require a neutralizing balance sought through a fluid interrelationship, but the individual form is discrete in the context of any particular set or group and bespoke, that is, particular to the individual paintings.  In this sense these works are highly conscious and concluded; and while they may be conceived as a group they are not serial or partaking in any sequential variation, and so each must avoid being merely suggestive but, on the contrary, resolved in its own terms.   An analogy may be made with the notion in modernist music of a ‘once-only’ convention – a set of formal rules particular only to the work in question or to hand, formed out of its materiality and not to be transposed onto another work.  Pierre Boulez developed this kind of rule in the 1950s where the logic of the work would find its resolution directly from its given material means and not to be repeated.  No doubt Boulez was inspired by Artaud’s position that, “An expression does not have the same value twice, does not live two lives…a form once it has served, cannot be used again and asks only to be replaced by another…”[v]

Holyhead’s astute sense of form can only be done justice by looking at individual paintings[vi]. While undoubtedly within each group there are certain magnetic pulls or correspondences or contrasts, each inhabit their own particular space. In the present set, Untitled (Shapes) consists of a freely brushed, intensely pervasive inky blue containing an assembly of eleven rectangles.  These forms have been arrived at through wiping back to the white ground (usually in these works this erasure process is done with either a brush, rag or even finger); as in all the paintings this is done freehand without tape. The rectangles appear to float; obstinate in coming forward although essentially ‘holes’ in the painted surface (and yet this ground is always marked by the absented pigment – always retaining its trace).   As in most of Holyhead’s work we sense a double motion of painting: at once presenting the ‘timbre’ of its colour – rather like adjusting the pitch of a sound - but also the presence of the physical medium through movement: the different twists and turns of the mark and the hand.  In Untitled (Shapes) this latter articulation creates a central vertical spine of darker blue that runs irregularly down the painting; it gives a central anchorage while the painting as a whole retains lightness (the diverse articulation of form in the work between elements).  It is as though Holyhead, who often speaks of poise or a delicate balancing act, has articulated both stasis and motion simultaneously. A direct contrast is to be found in a painting such as Untitled (Joints) – here, a vivid crimson – articulated through a painterly rendition of interlocking segments.  This suggests a series of facets, where boundaries are articulated by the directional brushstrokes that circumscribe the painterly surface within the segment itself.  Two very sharp triangles at top left and right provide a hard-edged pinpointing of the overall space, and underline the perception of the space being wedged or even folded.  Unlike Untitled (shapes) with its floating ‘unlocked’ rectangles – the two triangles tend to recede to provide a ground to the painted crimson forms. 

In Untitled (Cut) a black-grey reveals the complexity of space achieved through various densities of mark and surface area.  We might speak of four individual elements here.   This is a clear example, though, whereby these ‘events’ or elements within the painting become reciprocal and almost impossible to isolate or envision outside of the relations specifically set up within the work.  Here, the space of the painting is established by two narrow bands either side and running the length of the painting. Although clearly brushed, they provide the most solid area of pigment.  Next are two elements that appear pulled apart or ripped (rather like a curtain) – the cut of the title.  These are, again, quite densely brushed and close in tonality to the bands, but each also have, against the asymmetry of these forms, symmetrically placed circles, erased from the paint and ‘incomplete’ due to the running bands of the edges of the painting that interrupt their completed circularity.  The central section of the painting is one of lively vertical brushstrokes – almost a pure sensation of the motion of material or the play of light.  Untitled (Cut) might insinuate the space of revelation – though not in a mystical sense – rather as in certain mannerist paintings where a secondary space is revealed for the sake of pictorial play.  Certainly it is here that painting acts as a combination of timbres (in that surface mark and colour are intertwined) and temporalities.   Holyhead has spoken of slowing the viewer down, and of course, while painting is often spoken of as an instantaneous medium – of being taken in all at once – this belies the excavation of time that every ‘look’ operates or partakes.  Similarly, in the time of their making, a binary negotiation of both precision and action - of pre-meditation and improvisation – is crucial to how these paintings work.  Through the process of wiping, Holyhead, to some extent, covers his tracks; a painting may be repainted over and over while its results wiped back: in fact to allow too much accumulation or sedimentation would sacrifice clarity.  It is a process that cuts back in order to see the internal spatial possibilities that a painting can hold.  Not for nothing does he speak of “piercing the space open”, as one undoubtedly glimpses potential formal interrelationships during the process of painting which may only be leads that have to be ultimately jettisoned. After his meticulous preparation of the ground – consisting of layers of primer and culminating in an oil ground - it is an unusually small window of time: one or two days on one painting, which also give the paintings a performative brinkmanship – they must be resolved in a relatively short period of time.

In one of the more aggressive spaces worked through within this set Untitled (Held) consists of a dark blue-grey which is centrifugally orientated and brushed out at the centre, with four dark grey markers pointing roughly to this central position of the canvas.  Untitled (held) is not about balance or poise so much as a seemingly emergency operation in order to arrive at the form. Untitled (Eye) shows what would happen if, in effect, the contrasts of Untitled (Held) were more tranquilly positioned.  But there the similarities end. It displays an array of marks and directional pulls of gesture and its colour is a sumptuous turqoise-like blue-green. It has a tri-partite division: an elongated horizon with two divisions below.  Each of these sectioned areas houses a small white block wiped from the surrounding colour.  These act as three focal points that rebound across the surface. The divisions themselves create a fan-like figure centrally, but this is an illusion of sorts, as it is where the zones or demarcations have been wiped off against each other or cancel each other out.  This tension through negation or erasure continually makes for a surprising malleability of density, opacity and light.  And in this piece, the configurations of mark appear to conjure an array of partial ghost figures, forms or edges.  Another work, Untitled (Edge) looks to a different kind of tension; it can be seen in multiple ways: two surfaces abutting, or a line articulating the space.  It is an amorphous, indeterminate space, but as in Barnett Newman’s work, or Olga Rosanova’s Green Stripe of 1918, the central edge is both a disruption, a separation, but also a stitching back together of two parts. Erasure is also at work elsewhere here – and it can be the last thing we notice in this work – in a continuous border via the top, left and right that articulates the edge around the surface, apart from the bottom edge which has the effect of broadening this bottom space.

Untitled (level) shows the wiping process developing a snug interlocking rather than interruption or intervention.  The darker grey form is a trough or wedge, holding the differentiated horizontal levels that inform the surface.  On the other hand, a work such as Untitled (Vent) appears to encapsulate the contradictions held by Holyhead’s urge toward unity.  In this sense the colour and the form, the surface, the marks, the addition and the erasure, must work together as a held contradiction.  The colour, its light green, is ghostly, transient; the larger form both rock-like and organic, substantial; the marks weave their way around this form somehow feeling it as a mass.  The thin rectangular bar – erased from the surface – is like a call to order; a reminder of abstract measure.  It holds not just the shape but also the painting itself in a quiet, yet none-the-less palpable, tension. 

Robert Holyhead’s paintings, with their reserved expressivity, consist of more than exquisitely made objects, although they are this as well.   He is well aware that formal decisions determine perception, and will be an invitation to look and discover in a certain way; the life of pictorial forms reflect the life of behaviour in a certain way. This is why his is an abstraction of doing, of agency.  The act in the studio, although solitary in its “face-to-faceness”, is also a means of making things happen and exposing or sharing these events.  Whether it is an edge, a space, or a containment of contradictions, these negotiations are grounded in an ethical everyday reality where we can render these well, fail, redo, but essentially open ourselves to their discovery and gain a certain knowledge about them.  As Richard Sennett has reminded us, “every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking.” It is a question of learning directly from things: “We can understand those processes that enable us to become better at doing things.”[vii] Here, the repetitive ritual of making folds seamlessly onto how we choose to live our lives.


[i] Sennett, Richard, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, new Haven, 2008, p.53

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] All quotes from Robert Holyhead from discussions with the author.

[v] Artaud, Antonin,  “No More Masterpieces” in The Theater and its Double. New York: Grove Press, 1958, p. 75

[vi] The following passages pertaining to selected works are to be seen as a personal recounting, a documentation of individual perception rather than any prescription for formal evaluation or even description per se.

[vii] Sennett, Ibid., p.44