ANDREW HOLLIS: REALITIES AND OTHERWISE
An essay by Paul Carey Kent
It must be some time since it was any kind of news that photographs aren’t automatic carriers of truth – so much so that the natural tendency to assume that they are, which was probably general thirty years ago, has been largely unlearned. It’s the rise of digital technology which has altered popular instinct, but the case for scepticism doesn’t depend on such developments.
True, photograph have an indexical aspect which links them directly to some kind of origin in a way which cannot be said of painting. But the possible challenges to that kernel of truth are manifold. The growth of popular skepticism is probably linked to how the world might be distorted to the photographic purpose (take Alison Jackson’s photographs of celebrity look-alikes), or the image may be manipulated by airbrushing or Photoshopping. But the connotation of a photograph is also affected – in all innocence, as it were – by the ideological assumptions built in to how and why it is taken; by the time and physical conditions in which it is seen; by the what the viewer brings to the experience; by a title, or a context within a wider body of work, both of which may point to particular meanings.
That much we know, then: there is plenty of space for subjectivity in the apparent objectivity of the photograph. Nor is it news that a painting derived from a photograph can point up all those issues by being explicit about a further transformation: that required to represent the image in the language of paint. We see that in the conceptual trick of photorealism, which feints as if to paint the world, but doesn’t: it paints a photograph instead, and by the sheer effort required to so with the technical exactitude of Franz Gertsch, Richard Estes or John Salt, invests a greater sense of worth in the objects photographed than could the photograph itself. It’s a variant on Duchamp’s exploration of the found object, applied indirectly. We see a different effect in the paintings of Gerhard Richter, Michael Borremans or Luc Tuymans: they concentrate on the aura of the photograph rather than its indexicality; on its connections with memory and its own imperfections; with its rootedness in one time, but relationship to other times.
So, if all of that is given – not perhaps fully played out, but well established – and one comes across a new artist who paints from photographs, one is bound to ask: what’s different here? How has an artist who exploits all that – as Andrew Hollis does – built on the history of engagement with the nature of photography and the limitations of its truth?
Partly, I think, by the clarity of the conceptual framework Hollis brings to his work, neatly summarized in his statement that his paintings can be understood as ‘images of historical non-realities and images of non-historical realities’. Partly through a diverting mixture of painting styles: sometimes informational, sometimes more gestural; sometimes like photographs as source, sometimes emphasizing the photograph as object, witness the curious cropping of the figures in ‘Landscape with Women and Figure’ and ‘Interior with Couple and Photographs’ (in which the couple are more photographic than the photographs). Partly through a distinctive colour world which tends towards a range of greys, consistent with black and white photographs; and a liking for pinks, hinting at the rosy viewpoints of nostalgia.
And partly – quite a large part, I think - by the surrealist-tinged edginess of unexpected actions or juxtapositions. Why are the women in ‘Landscape with Women and Figure’ carrying a sort-of cut-out relief of a [woman]? Why are swans in ‘Oil Barrels with Swans and Columns’ swimming along what looks like a river of oil? What is the role of the sinsister structure in ‘Children with Frame’? One can imagine answers to do with female empowerment, environmental concerns and the nature of constraint in childhood, but the images escape such reductions. There are also striking mismatches between the main goings-on and their backgrounds. Why – as an extreme case – is a boat being rowed indoors in ‘Pool with Rowers’? Why is the wall in ‘Interior with Couple and Photographs’ so obviously not the one on which such a couple would display their photographs? Sometimes the apparent mismatches exploit nods to art history: the ‘Children with Frame’ are set against what could be rusted Richard Serra sculptures, and there’s a suspicion of Richard Diebenkornin the ‘Exterior with Rowers’.
But those, I think, are subsidiary aspects in this particular set of paintings. For me, the main event is how Hollis’s latest images gain their own peculiar resonance through his use of encyclopedias and yearbooks from the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. ‘What interests me’, says Hollis, ‘about images like these is that they were originally used to describe something of significance of a specific time.. In doing that, moreover, the sources doubly echo the modern reception of photography.
First, because printed encyclopedias have, like photographs, a claim to authority, but one which has much less ready acceptance than it once did. The internet has largely taken over their reference function. And Wikipedia – a major factor in that usurpation – is well-known for its subjectivity and the occasional jocular or malevolent inclusion of rogue information. That’s part of the territory of user-generated content, but it also increases the popular awareness of how all knowledge is mediated and constructed in subjective ways. What never quite reached the man in the street through the writings of Foucault and Baudrillard has been picked up through Photoshop and Wikipedia.
Second, such encyclopedias have a more specific presence in time in than does literature as a whole. Just as the indexical aspect of a photograph shows what things were like at a particular moment, a time which cannot be regained and - as Barthes suggested - imports an element of death to its photographic record, so the encyclopedia sets out what is judged to be important and true at a particular time. The information has its own kind of death – its future uselessness – built in.
The combination of two or three elements in each painting amplifies these effects. We don’t know how old the different elements are, and so how far that process towards being out of date has got. That brings in the potential for more contrasts to add to the visibly curious conjunctions, but these contrasts in the degree of ongoing validy of the sources are not so much mysterious as impenetrable. We know they might be there, but we can’t distinguish them.
That resonant double parallel, heightened by conjunctions, is, I think, what gives Hollis’s work its distinctiveness and potency. To illustrate that, it’s worth tracking through the sheer number of different times depicted in a painting such as ‘Water Flowers with Boat’. Starting from the here and now of the viewer, we go back to the still-recent antecedent of Hollis producing the image, back further to the publication times of the encyclopedias used as sources, back a little further to the taking of the photograph reproduced in the encyclopedia, and then back again to the time in the nineteenth century when painting itself was emerging from its primary function of mimicking appearances – for there must be a reference to Monet’s waterlillies, supported by the peculiar purple coloration which echoes the cataract-induced colour distortions in Monet’s late paintings.
Hollis’s paintings, then, aren’t just theoretical ways to examine the legacy of the painted image, nor just provokingly mysterious conjunctions of images – though they are both – they’re surprisingly complex voyages in time across the history of how images are constructed and perceived.