Artforum review – Karsten Schubert, London

By Barry Schwabsky

For this exhibition Robert Holyhead showed ten small to medium size abstract paintings, each Untitled and dated 2009. All but one of the paintings feature white and a single other color, although this additional color is present both as a highly saturated hue and as a paler, washier one–in other words, they use white, a color, and that color mixed with white through its having been applied to the white ground and then wiped away. In the one exception, the second-largest pf the paintings on view, about which more later, the colored parts of the painting appear as an uneven mix of two colors, so that certain passages of the very watery blend favor a pinkish-purplish tinge, while others lean more toward brownish yellow.) This coloristic dialectic of opposition and synthesis is articulated at a formal level through figure/ground relations. That might sound tediously academic, and at times the paintings’ historical self-consciousness threatens to swamp them, but Holyhead shows that there is still plenty of juice left in exploring the fundamentals of painting–if you come at them from a tangent.

Looking at a painting starts with a glance–in the present case, with the instantaneous recognition that one is being presented with loosely adumbrated, quasi-geometric shapes on white ground. But does this count as looking? Maybe that really comes only after the simple glance, with a revision of the generalized recognition that comes with it. With Holyhead’s paintings, this second look is likely to start from their edges, with an oblique gaze, rather than from their surface, with a head-on view. It’s hard not to notice those edges, where the smooth skin of the paint that covers the canvas folds over the angle created by the underlying stretcher. Here there seem to be hints as to how a painting was made, signs one might hope to read in search of its internal narrative–the way the color spreads farther along than one would have thought from looking at the painting head-on, for instance–but the clues are hard to read. These works seem to be about painting; about interpretation as much as perception. They refuse the category of geometric abstraction to which the first impression assigns them–yet neither can they efface that impression. The resulting tension often enough feeds into the paintings’ call for an alert attentiveness on the viewer’s part­–especially when the colored shapes become more imposing in scale in relation to the whole rectangle, or when they are symmetrical rather than off balance. Unlike the paintings of, say, Sergei Jensen, they don’t gain strength when they flirt with a sense of slightness or what Raphael Rubenstein recently called “provisionality.” Yet the strongest of the paintings is the aforementioned outlier, in which the figure-ground dialectic is complicated by allowing the colored portion of the painting to be seen as a mix of distinct hues rather than different shades of the same one. At the same time, the single complex area of color, which intersects with all four sides of the canvas, no longer appears as a self-contained shape but as a field of movement; a simple figure-ground dichotomy is no longer even relevant enough to be deconstructed (as in other paintings). Dropping rather than worrying at this issue allows the painting to become more expansive without losing its tautness.