Written By Peter Frank, Art Critic and Curator
DEBRA HOLT: ECSTATIC IMAGES
Expansive in her experimentation, Debra Holt is highly methodical in her search for results. Willing to employ a wide variety of media, Holt habitually seeks expressivity in form, but form not so abstracted that it abandons its imagistic associations. Indeed, the images, and materials, on which the artist bases her works remain visually and sensually evident, permeating her compositions and preventing them from disappearing into their particular medium, whether it be photography, sculpture, painting, installation, or otherwise.
Holt’s preoccupation with the vagaries of form unites her seemingly disparate works in decidedly different media. Working in two and three dimensions alike, she effects transformations of natural, supposedly familiar things – clouds, branches, sprays of water, the surfaces of lakes – into abstractions that at once estrange and heighten the identity of her subjects. Holt relies on a deceptively simple device, mirror-imaging. But she chooses the images to mirror very carefully, making sure in all cases that the whole is markedly different from the sum of its two parts. The effects are surprising: space burgeons or contracts, shapes escape their boundaries, a normal thing becomes something new and peculiar. The metamorphoses are often uncanny.
In fact, there is an unseen as well as a seen technique at work here, at least in Holt’s photographs, the body of work on which she currently concentrates. In shooting her subjects, Holt takes many consecutive photos, rather than one “perfect” one. She then compresses these sequences, with their myriad slight variations, into single, unified images. In their multiplicity, these secretly composite images acquire an eerily vivid sense of atmosphere and volume, the effects of time approximating the effects of stereoscopic sight.
In this approach Holt can also be said to approximate the pulse of nature. Her claim to a “keenness for the earth’s natural elements and its atmospheric changes” bears out in these meditative portrayals of naturally occurring phenomena – phenomena we take for granted, but appreciate anew when our attention is directed at once into and around them by the kind of intensity an artist like Holt brings to the task of seeing.
There is a very particular kind of “mindfulness” at work here: instead of disappearing, the subject burgeons – transforming, to be sure, but becoming ever more present, almost iconic, its volume both obdurate and embracing, its space intimate and infinite at once. Holt’s is a Western kind of transcendence, more Gnostic than Zen; it has mystical resonance, but apotheosizes rather than obscures the object of contemplation. At best, the viewer becomes one with the viewed, not with the unviewable. Holt does not simply privilege the eye, but relies with a fervency unusual even for a visual artist on the human propensity for looking, rewarding our gaze with apparitions of dreamlike proportions and impossible, but suddenly real, sensuality. Hers are realizations of a peculiarly optical ecstasy, not merely lovely or desirable, but so irresistibly alluring that the pleasure is instantaneous and surrender takes place at the moment seduction begins.
“I am nature,” Jackson Pollock once protested, trying to convince his interlocutor that, as a human being, he was not outside nature looking in but inside nature looking all around. If anyone’s art now drives home that point, Holt’s does. Her works, most recently – and vividly – her photographs, show us nature from the inside – and pull us back into nature before we can give it a second thought. In Debra Holt’s art, we are nature.
Written By Brian Appel, New York Art Critic and Writer
Mirror Mirror On the Wall—Debra Holt’s
Meditations on the Transient Nature of Vanity
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4
Like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and many other female protagonists of fairy tales, Debra Holt’s passionate labyrinth, “Mirror, Mirror On the Wall”, (2008), explores the intricate relationships between the body, eroticism, power, and the transitory nature of life.
Five human skulls of varying age, gender and race, arranged in a half crown around the centerpiece of an antique mirror create a sensation not unlike that of looking into a grave in which the dead were floating, as though they wanted to ascend toward the gaze of the spectator.
The viewer of course is reflected in the mirror, both doubling themselves and developing a kind of narcissistic gaze—their own physical presence, their peculiarities enabling them to represent ‘the other’. With the title of the work inseparable from the piece itself, are we the evil Queen of Snow White fame who wishes to have her identity as the most beautiful woman confirmed by the mirror? Or is it art that acts as a mirror, forcing one to re-examine oneself in relation to the existing world?
Certainly our own thoughts about self, fate and existence become central to the work. Do we not, in at least an unconscious way, seek the absolute, unchangeable answer to our own identities each time we look into the mirror?
Only in the world of art does beauty exist as something unchangeable, fixed and immortal. Everything else in life is mortal, degradable, losing beauty. Only Snow White is able to live ‘happily ever after’ with her Prince. The wicked Queen and the rest of us, like overripe fruit, are forced to be mindful of death. “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” [Isaiah 22:13].
In Holt’s self-reflexive oeuvre, the means of representation itself becomes an important subject. During the twenty years preceding the Skull series, Holt extensively explored both photography’s relationship to nature and painting’s relationship to photographic conventions drawing primarily on her own images. In an equally ambitious project, she also addressed the nature of abstraction, or “pure” painting, from gestural expression through cool monochrome.
“Mirror, Mirror” continues these investigations combining borrowed imagery with beautiful handling. It looks to the familiar still life genre of the Northern tradition, as exemplified by Hendrick Goltzius’ seventeenth century vanitas painting (“Vanitasstilleben mit Totenkopf in Nische”). Goltzius skull and candle remind us that time is fleeting and death always imminent, that one day we too will be extinguished, sharing the fate of the anonymous man/woman we contemplate.
Holt’s attraction to this centuries-old form is not surprising. Death has been a consistent theme throughout her career, most recently with her photographic diptych, “Explosion 1”, (2009), depicting a mysterious, ever-expanding smoke explosion billowing out toward the viewer from a midnight-black ground.
“Mirror, Mirror” suggests a gripping paradox: the vanitas genre and sculptural installation both imply immediacy, while art itself endures, even transcends time—like the books in the Goltzius still-life, the sculptural installation promises immortality for its creator. A powerful tension between the present moment and its passing has been created. Holt’s refined, even removed handling paradoxically evokes strong feelings of loss. “Mirror, Mirror” is a complex, elegiac sculptural installation, a meditation on remembering, forgetting, and the relentless passage of time.
The Skull series had their debut at the SCOPE New York City Art Fair in March and will be shown at the NEXT Art Fair in Chicago in May. Holt’s recent photographic images and video sound installation are on view at Abba Fine Art until the end of May.
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