Robert Holyhead



Not on display

Robert Holyhead born 1974
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 460 × 306 mm
Purchased 2011


Like all of Holyhead’s paintings preceding it, this work is modest in size and of portrait format. The canvas was prepared with thick gesso, on top of which the oil paint was then applied in differing degrees of saturation. The composition is dominated by the presence of a yellow abstract shape that extends vertically against the white background and along the centre of the canvas, connecting the top and the bottom. This zigzagging shape vibrates and changes in fluidity and intensity, with a murky yellow at the top that progresses into a brighter, cleaner hue nearer the bottom. The clarity and determination of the central shape resembles variants of geometric abstraction and concrete art. The boldness of this work contrasts with another painting of the same date, also Untitled (Tate T13410), the canvas of which is almost entirely covered with a translucent film that shifts in hue from pale brown to carmine to ochre.

Light in touch and spare in composition, Holyhead’s formal arrangements are precise, indicating a carefully thought through decision-making process. ‘I’m quite fascinated by precision’, the artist has said, ‘the cleanliness of the paintings might have something to do with the fact that the decisions and history in the surface are invisible.’ (Quoted in Karsten Schubert 2010, p.12.) In his works, forms and shapes gradually emerge as he applies thin washes of oil paint that are put through a continual process of subtraction in which the artist removes the paint with a dry cloth until a composition is eventually arrived at. ‘The paintings and the surfaces’, he has explained, ‘are set up to allow me a certain type of generosity, which gives me two days of wiping back the paint … The surfaces I prepare in advance deteriorate and fall apart if I continue to wipe back the pigment.’ (Quoted in Karsten Schubert 2010, p.12.) This adds a certain pressure to the way in which a painting must be resolved; decisions have to be taken within a certain time frame, which results in the artist discarding a number of works. Using unidirectional brush strokes, as well as exploring the effects of the gradual fading of tones from dark to light, Holyhead’s compositions evolve according to their own generative logic. In his words, ‘the painting must not become laboured or overworked, but should stop at the point when it achieves a fragile sense of cohesion.’ (Quoted in Karsten Schubert 2009, p.4.)

This painting belongs to a series of works that Holyhead produced during the summer of 2010 which focuses on subtleties within his own vocabulary of painting: for example, the treatment of a particular edge against its adjacent surface or the dialogues between forms within these edges. His paintings are investigations into abstraction and in his work there are traces of geometric abstraction, colour field painting, minimalism and process painting. However, more than trying to conform to a style or to pose a critical response to these practices, Holyhead’s work is concerned with the different ways in which abstraction can still be represented in contemporary painting. ‘The more I think about abstraction and painting’, he has commented, ‘the more I understand that what I’m trying to make is a painting. I’m not trying to arrive at a conclusion.’ (Quoted in Karsten Schubert 2010, p.12.)

The inspiration for Holyhead’s work thus derives from the medium itself, namely from the preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of space, surface, shape and colour. However, the work is also rooted in the artist’s observation of the world around him:

I pick up on things that are a little bit peculiar and that exist awkwardly in the world, that are already abstract. It’s much more to do with seeing something which becomes abstract in my mind over time before becoming a motif in the studio or eventually a gesture or form in a painting … My work doesn’t have any particular reference points outside of itself yet external influences creep on as I make it. As such, my painting presents both a type of personal language and some familiarity with the world.
(Quoted in Karsten Schubert 2010, p.15.)

Further reading
Robert Holyhead: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Karsten Schubert, London 2009.
Robert Holyhead, exhibition catalogue, Karsten Schubert, London 2010, reproduced p.25.

Carmen Juliá
April 2011

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