Phenomenal Epistemology (on Evan Holloway)

April 2012

Evan Holloway: Trees, Heads, Molds
Brussels: Xavier Hufkens

Let’s begin with the idea that Evan Holloway’s sculptures usually ask us to negotiate some slippery terrain between raw sensorial data and the possibility of its recuperation and understanding through apparently legible signs and accepted systems—numbers, the alphabet, a color theory chart, one-point perspective, and so on.

This slippery terrain occasionally turns to quicksand.

See, for example, Holloway’s “Trees,” an ongoing series of works in which saplings and their branches found in nature have been reconfigured to “grow” at ninety-degree angles and painted using a particular color scheme.

The colors are applied to these orthogonal branching structures (recently these are bronze castings of actual branches) with a paint called Cel-vinyl, manufactured by the enjoyably alliterative Cartoon Colour Company in Culver City, and typically deploy some logical development from the ground (or base) up—a full spectrum, for example, or a gray gradient.

In Warm Branch, 2012, the colors veer to the hotter end of the spectrum, with blaze orange, citrusy yellow, violet, and fuschia.

Many colors, including these, take their titles from nature.

With these trees, natural order is crossbred with rational—or seemingly rational—order.

Of course, the idea of a natural order is a human construction, too.

Social Epistemology, 2006, is the first of Holloway’s “totems”—a stack of eighteen garishly painted heads with blinking light bulbs for noses.

More recent variants of the stacks comprise ten or eleven heads torquing clockwise or counterclockwise, with the lighted noses blinking or chasing upward or downward according to a predetermined program.

The stacks of multicolored heads inevitably suggest some notion of impossibly multicultural community and, as the artists confides, could bring to mind “public art.”

Many—most?—of the heads are painted a color that bears no resemblance to any skin on earth.

Of course, a stack of heads also raises a question of hierarchy: Who’s on top and—inevitably—who’s on the bottom?

(I considered titling this text “Eleven Heads are Better Than Ten,” even though nobody really believes this is true.)

Notions of community and hierarchy are at odds in these totems, not unlike tree branches and right angles.

The totems represent an idealized order, a resistance to the entropy of the mob.

Yet, the entropy of the mob is always imminent.

In Untitled, 1999, fleshy pinkish-brown bodies—really, body parts—are piled in an sickly (and, I want to say “teeming,” though the sculpture doesn’t move) mass on a triangular wooden structure that calls to mind a wheelbarrow.

For whatever reason, I can’t stop looking at images of this work the way one can’t stop looking at wrecks on the freeway.

(Perhaps this is particularly true for those of us living in Los Angeles.)

More quicksand.

I have to admit when I first encountered Holloway’s work, circa 1999, I was puzzled by the cohabitation of figurative sculpture and abstraction.

Eventually, I understood them as part of the same enterprise, two sides of the same coin.

Holloway has always been associated with some idea of “Los Angeles sculpture,” which he has helped to define as much as anyone.

(And unlike many of his peers, he was actually born and raised in southern California, not far from Disneyland.)

Holloway studied art at UCLA in the late 1990s, where he worked with Charles Ray, who was reconsidering the figure and abstraction, and often at the same time.

Ray, who also tends to be interested in perception at the very threshold of tangibility, described the work of Holloway and his fellow travelers as “re-enchanting the world.”

This version of “Los Angeles sculpture” branches out and then away from several other misfit movements or tendencies that emerged earlier on the west coast like the cool, clean art of light and space art or the funkier, more earthbound junk assemblage of George Herms and Noah Purifoy—or perhaps these seemingly opposing tendencies branched out become curiously entangled after years of growth.

Like Ray, Holloway and many of his peers associated with some new idea of “Los Angeles sculpture” somehow metabolize the history of sculpture while remaining somewhat irreverent toward that history in order to better comprehend the present.

“There are certainly more immediate (and less bulky) ways to represent the world these days,” wrote Bruce Hainley in an essay titled “Toward a Funner Laocoön,” that framed a potent gravitational shift toward sculpture among a group of then-emerging Los Angeles sculptors such as Holloway, Jason Meadows, Liz Craft, Torbjörn Vejvi, and others.

Such a tendency arrived, circa Y2K, on the cresting wave of major technological, social, and cultural shifts—“at a moment when ambitious creative types might be expected to turn to, say, Web design or software development, and in a place like Los Angeles, whose history, economy, and culture are dependent on and structured by the business of virtuality (Hollywood, Disneyland), there is a surprisingly strong interest among young artists in making, well, objects.”

At the height of virtuality, Holloway made a video projector carved out of wood that projected a flat rectangle of plywood on the floor.

Holloway’s body of work is inextricably linked to an ever-evolving history of “Los Angeles sculpture,” but perhaps it is just as fruitful to think about him alongside a broader cast of idiosyncratic characters that seem to defy clear historical, geographical, and medium-specific boundaries, movements: Louise Bourgeois, Ree Morton, Bruce Nauman, Paul Thek, not to mention more recent artists such as Vincent Fecteau, Charles Long, Steve Roden.

What unites this list of artists is not a recognizable style or school of thought, but rather a searching approach driven by questioning, a willingness to get lost in the studio (or in one’s head) before emerging again.

There is, in short, a rejection of fashion in favor of what’s absolutely necessary—often allowing for a certain, appealing sore-thumbedness.

What the work looks like is an inevitable part of the process, but hardly looks inevitable.

“Without Hesitation,” notes curator Anne Ellegood, who has included Holloway’s work in several exhibitions, including “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas” at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2007, that the artist “has taken up such contested, and at times marginalized, practices and genres such as public art and kinetic sculpture and posited his own humble and genuinely alternative models.”

Public art, kinetic sculpture, and totems too.

Thinking again about Holloway’s totems and clusters of heads, I become aware that the “body social” is another kind of abstraction.

Have I mentioned that this artist has a seemingly compulsive tendency to reverse things, turn things—and, by extension, us—upside down, inside out?

Here’s an example: Music of Chopin Performed on the Reversed Piano, a recording the artist made in the year 2000, relies upon a listener’s expectations of Chopin—and, conversely, what it would mean to reverse the tonal structure of Western classical music—in order to derange any sense of fulfillment.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t fun to listen to, but rather: The pleasure of the reversed piano is really the pleasure of thought rewired.

(And now I’m wondering: Is it possible to hear a structure and imagine its opposite at the same time?)

“Often, in the things I make, I engage very specific perceptual or psychological phenomena, and in doing so it is my hope that the strange tricks our organs and language training play upon us as humans, and as a cultural group, can be built into the work,” Holloway noted, referring to a body of work made for his 2008 exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art—a campus that features a major installation by James Turrell, an alumnus. “I want these experiences to induce a mistrust of perception and language as informant to reality. I think I know what I’m saying when I say that, as a sculptor, I’m quite engaged with epistemological concerns…I always present my work in a context of skepticism.”

As I read this, Holloway is pointing to an assumption, perhaps widely held, that works by Turrell and other works by “light and space” artists are somehow aimed at enlightenment—literal and figural illumination—or are otherwise benevolent.

Holloway’s installation at Pomona, in which perforated metal screens hovered a few inches in front of wallpaper comprised of small dots black (a result of spraypainting through the metal screens) was every bit as, well, trippy as Turrell’s light show nearby, but more likely to induce dizziness, mild nausea, headaches—and presumably not satori.

In 2003, Holloway showed a work called A White Hunter is Nearly Crazy, titled after a line in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.

The work was installed in a small back gallery, and appeared to consist of a projected video compilation of clips of the actor Michael Douglas driving around in a blind rage.

The video projection on the wall was an awkward trapezoid, not a properly “keystoned” rectangle.

Mildly irritated by this, I looked up to inspect the projector.

When I looked up I was surprised—frightened, really—to see the projector held captive by a gang of “primitive” hermaphroditic sculptures hanging from the ceiling, upside down, one with coconut shell breasts and a corncob dick.

When Stein writes, “A white hunter is nearly crazy,” everything is held captive by that “nearly.”

There is no escape for Michael Douglas, for us.

Shortly after getting ensnared by White Hunter, I saw Holloway give a lecture.

In the lecture he showed an earlier work titled Spleen, consisting of an orgone blanket draped over a long florescent light fixture, all elevated by sawhorses.

An orgone blanket is used to accumulate orgone energy—a powerful, anti-entropic life force identified by psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s.

To smother a double florescent light tube with an orgone blanket not only negates this energy, Holloway informs me, but produces toxicity, cancer, or, at the very least, bad vibes.

Spleen, named after Paris Spleen, an appropriately titled book of short prose by Charles Baudelaire, is not a sculpture I have seen in person; for this I am thankful.

Still, I’m not sure I actually believe in orgone energy.

The idea of producing bad orgone might be worse than what the sculpture actually “does,” phenomenologically speaking.

The word processing software I’m currently using does not recognize the word “orgone.”

In 2004, the artist titled his solo show “I Do Not Exist.”

Negating, too, is a life force.

Black Light, 2012, is a tall vertical sculpture made from the mold of a double florescent light tube.

Energy, if you hadn’t noticed, is a recurring interest.

“Casting,” of course, is a pun that applies to the mold-making process as well as the throw of light or a shadow.

(One might also become a cast away—or cast aspersions.)

The “foot” of the sculpture—a black, rounded wedge—recalls a shadow or a spill of light, solidified.

Tall and incredibly slender with a giant foot, it’s no surprise that the sculpture slightly resembles a figure by Giacometti, but also the vaguely turdlike castoffs made by Nauman in the mid-1960s.

Another recent sculpture, also suggestively anthropomorphic, features the indentation made in the casting process by a rubber chicken impaled and held aloft by a broomstick.

The rubber chicken is, of course, a familiar sign of humor—albeit one that isn’t particularly funny.

I wanted to say the rubber chicken is a perfect simulacrum—a copy with no original—though presumably a real chicken was brought into the process at some point.

According to the experts at Wikipedia, the exact history of the rubber chicken is somewhat murky, though there is a theory that the poultry prop favored by jesters and minstrels eventually replaced the pig bladder, which was often inflated and attached to a stick.

Holloway’s chicken sculpture is like a sight gag in slow motion, but unfolds differently depending on whether one first sees the chicken (or its plucked impression) or the stick holding it up.

It’s a sculpture with two asses, a joke without a punchline.

A short circuit.

(I’m mixing metaphors here.)

A similar disconnect occurs in an earlier work, Second Law, 2006, titled after the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is a law that explains the tendency toward entropy in physical systems.

Second Law consists of a giant, if rather spindly wheel made from bicycle parts supported by a block on plaster studded with depleted batteries.

Or, perhaps I should say: “presumably depleted.”

“I had piles and piles of batteries I did not know what to do with,” Holloway stated in 2006. “They were not symbolic objects, they were literally little guilt parcels—though maybe, in a larger sense, they’re symbolic of different forms of guilt I have about my privileges. Anyhow, I thought I should use the batteries, so I got this idea of embedding them in plaster, because they would leak into the plaster and end up polluting the sculpture over time.”

Second Law signs inertia, entropy.

Second Law signs action, or at least its potential.

Like so many of Holloway’s sculptures, it asks us to hold two contradictory possibilities in our mind at the same time.

“I’m interested in what happens when belief is temporarily engaged in different ways,” he tells me.

It’s a nice place to be, potentially.

“Now, when I ride on my bike I see batteries on the ground and pick them up all the time. I find from two to seven batteries lying in the street every day.”