Saturday, 17 November 2018


Dan Holdsworth: Continuous Topography

Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland

As reviewed for the excellent free site Photomonitor

Screen shot from Continuous Topography

Dan Holdsworth’s presentation in the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art might be described as decidedly simple, yet highly academic.

It’s simple in that there are just two works, with a gallery space each, and they are easily described. Continuous Topography and Traverse (both 2018, but the outcome of five years’ development) are the first films made by Holdsworth, who is known for a twenty year photographic career which has seen him travel widely to capture remote places in an often sublime meditation on man’s relationship with the environment in the Anthropocene. Both films present glacial landscapes. In Continuous Topography we see 11 minutes of what looks like 3D modelling of ice on Mont Blanc, seen from various angles as the camera tracks around above the scene. In Traverse, we appear to be flying over an Icelandic glacier for seven minutes at a steady speed and constant height and angle. That said, the simplicity is partly brought about by this being just the first of two linked solo shows: ‘Spatial Objects’ will run 18 January 17 March 2019 – with 16 sculptural representations of single pixels marking unique points in space as the ultimate contrast to the grand aerial views of Part One.

Installation view: Continuous Topography (one of two screens)
The background to the films is academic because it turns out that a lot of research lies behind the techniques used to capture their startling detail. That is appropriate to the NGCA’s new home, alongside the National Glass Centre and attached to the University of Sunderland (which has assisted in marking the show with a spectacular and learned large format 300 page book which places it in the context of a critical assessment of Holdsworth’s whole career). Moreover, Holdsworth – in what is a first for an artist, so far as I know – has sponsored a PhD student to assist in developing the techniques used. Mark Allen is a geomorphologist, and the approach he has helped develop is the latest in ‘photogrammetry’: intense ground level fieldwork, using thousands of photographs, enables high-end software to correlate the measurements of each patch of land and model the site in virtual space. That virtual model is what we see animated in Continuous Topography.

To call the show ‘academic’, however, is not to say the experience of watching is dry and uninvolving. The glaciers of the French Alps prove surprisingly jagged and dramatic, and though millions of data points are involved in defining their geography, something of a see-through effect remains, so that the ice’s shapes look in turn, like moss mottled onto rocks, the clouds which they literally are (of data) or even smoke. The appearance is, appropriately, of impermanence. Traverse, too, fits in with the tradition of the natural sublime. Just as awe-inspiring sights shown in a way which – even in our image-saturated age – makes us see afresh, these are striking films.

Screen shot from Continuous Topography
Nor is the show so simple once probed. The number of issues raised make Part One alone deceptively complex.

It is easy to assume we are looking at films of landscapes. That would be the natural result of seeing Holdsworth as pushing forward the tradition of indexical lens-based representation – a history with which all his work explicitly engages. In fact, neither film fits. Continuous Topography’s virtual model isn’t driven by photography as indexical representation so much as its newer GPS-driven character as a means of mapping exact times and places. It is, in that way, a highly accurate representation of reality, but this landscape-as-object doesn’t look as we would expect. In Holdsworth’s words: ‘I suggest structures through the process of making the picture, rather than representing them’. 

Installation view, Traverse

Traverse is also a simulation: a monumental panorama made by digitally stitching together a huge number of images captured by drone. What we see isn’t an aerial film, but a film tracking over the digital combination of many drone-shot photographs. Technically, such a construction might be compared with Penelope Umbrico’s accumulation of internet-sourced photographs or Idris Khan’s multiple layering of images rather than Ansel Adams’ more straightforward engagement with nature.

Detail view, Traverse

The two digital journeys across ice are smooth and silent, which also removes us from the actual experience on the ground. According to Holdsworth, who has spent days hiking across Alpine and Icelandic glaciers, it is hard to navigate, given the treacherous surface and the possibility of treading in hidden crevices, and often noisy due to the ice creaking and occasionally collapsing explosively. There are also occasional glitches: Holdsworth points to an interesting difference between scientists and artists in how they deal with errors: scientists want to suppress them or explain them away, artists are more likely to welcome them as a means of exposing the process of construction and place of making. Both films might be said to visualise what we sense exists, but could not previously experience visually. They are photography as a type of scientific investigation. As Holdsworth says: ‘I want to bring a new world into being, using new means of becoming’. What we have is a 21st century means applied to what – prior to the 21st century – had been widely assumed to be a timeless landscape.

Colour, light and scale prove hard to pin down. These are colour processes applied to an essentially monochrome landscapes; Holdsworth very rarely shoots in daylight, making it hard to assess what kind of light we have here; and it is difficult to be sure of the magnitude of what we see. Continuous Topography is projected on screens which fill a large room, yet one can imagine that the models could be of microscopic elements. Traverse is shown on comparatively small TV monitors, reinforcing the possibility that these scenes might be reduced in scale, but in fact the strip continually traversed is several hundred metres across.

That question of scale has resonance. It is impossible to forget, looking at these landscapes, that they are disappearing rapidly due to global warming – that the primordial planetary processes they model are now affected by human activity. Both landscapes are much flatter and less extensive than they would have been a century back. Holdsworth sees human history spelt out in that change: ‘The industrial revolution is in the glaciers’. NGCA director Alistair Robinson sets it out clearly in his catalogue essay: Holdsworth’s work speaks to the shifting contours of ice, the vast vistas of pre- and post-historic time and our own transience, and the fragility of our ecological niche ‘made more poignant by the state of knowledge we now have about where our destructive behaviour may be leading’.

Both films are shown twice on separate screens: starting simultaneously, but running in opposite directions. That takes some puzzling out, as they seem quite different until you come to the point at which they match. That double presentation suggests a cyclical process, taking the viewer into geological time and putting me in mind of how the Big Bang led to an expansion which, one theory posits, is set to be reversed in the enormously long run through the Big Crunch – in which the average density of the universe is sufficient to halt its expansion and initiate a contraction back towards its originating state. That would be the end of the world, were it not that other threats – climate change, asteroids, the explosion of the sun – are so likely to get there first. What if you ran the cosmology backwards, I wondered, noticing how this is a show which takes you to unexpected places…


For further viewing:

Spatial Objects

Dan Holdsworth’s solo exhibition ‘Continuous Topography’ at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art continues until 6 January 2019 (to be followed by a second show 18 Jan – 17 March 2019 of Holdsworth’s ‘Spatial Objects’)

Friday, 16 November 2018


Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian : 1969
The Tate St Ives iteration of this joint show with Turner Contemporary achieved unanimity among reviewers: some wonderful paintings, but a maddening non-chronological hang chopped up into sections – emphasis on the edge of the painting, seeking unity, use of scale, tendency towards asymmetry – of which they could make little sense. Now Patrick Heron has arrived in Margate (to 6 January 2019), with the vivid addition of a set of gouaches made in Heron’s last days in 1999, which occupy a central space cut off from the schema.

One of the late garden paintings from 1999
Contrary to that received opinion, the mixing of paintings across periods didn’t worry me at all. Not only did it infuse painting-to-painting variety and facilitate cross-decade comparison, it also made a refreshing change from the rather hackneyed linear path of initiation, development, consolidation and late style. That would have emphasised the then-radical but now oft-told story of the move from figuration to abstraction, which was not Heron’s central concern: for him it was all just painting. To quote him in 1955: ‘Merely to observe is to subscribe to the heresy of realism; and merely to project a rhythm is to subscribe to the opposite heresy of non-figuration. Great painting lies between the two and performs the functions of both.’

Christmas Eve 1951
Yet the schema applied is tendentious in two ways. First, it is unconvincing as an account of what is essential to Heron. Second, insofar as they apply to Heron’s work, the issues are tackled across most of his work: little is added by the placement of particular works within the four categories.  Take the edge of the painting. I like Heron’s thought that it is at the edges where our visual understanding switches out of the painting and back into the dimensions of the real world, making it ‘the springboard for all compositional reality’. But in practice Heron seems as attentive to the edges of forms inside the painting as of the edges which define it (see, say, early Jo Baer for a full edge focus). Perhaps that would have been a better formulation.

                              Camellia Garden 1956
And in so far as forms do sometimes cluster at the margins, that fits Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969 but surely not his early figurative masterpiece Christmas Eve 1951. Yet the latter is in the edge section and the former is not. Heron produced few symmetrical paintings – you could make a case for the stripes of Green and Mauve Horizontals: January 1958 and the all-over effect of Camellia Garden 1956 (both, oddly, deployed in the section on asymmetry) – but he did tend towards a symmetrical balance of forces, so I wouldn’t see this as a radical resistance to the norm. Examinations of scale and unity are on the other hand, rather general: it is hard to think that any good painter will not be concerned with those.

Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969
What struck me more than any of those categories were two formal features which vary considerably across Heron’s career: the extent to which he allows raw canvas to stand in the finished picture (which steadily reduces through the 1950s-60s, and then increases through the 1980s-90s) and the degree of textural variation within a painting. Heron’s most widely commended body of work is the so-called ‘wobbly hard edge’ abstractions of the 60s and 70s, which cover the whole painting with one layer of paint only, so that the proximity of the canvas produces an even and intoxicating underglow. It is often pointed out that Heron used small Japanese brushes to make these works, believing in his words that surfaces worked in this way ‘register a different nuance of spatial evocation and movement’. So, it is said, the viewer’s experience is quite different from a distance than from when close enough to see the brush marks. In fact, it is often impossible to make out the brush marks, even from a foot away. Rather, Heron explores a full range of textural mixes: in Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian: 1969 only the violet has prominent brushstrokes from close up; in Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969 all the positive forms show marks, but the negative form readable as background does not; in Big Complex Diagonal with Emeralds and Reds: March 1972 – September 1974 marks are visible across the whole surface from fairly close, while in the transitional Four Blues with Pink: July 1983 brushstrokes are rougher so that they can be seen from some distance. The variety which Heron generates in this way is a significant factor in that period’s appeal.

Four Blues with Pink: July 1983
What could have been done? Heron was unusual in his being a prominent writer as well as painter, and there are quotations from him scattered around the walls. For example, touching on issues of unity and scale, Clement Greenberg opined that Heron should make his forms more central in Violet in Dull Green: July 1959, the better to achieve ’at once-ness’. Heron replied that initially there had been ‘only the violet lozenge in the middle of the dull green ground. But I felt that this denied explicit and particular scale to the picture. It made it into the signal, a sign, which might have existed on any scale from that of a postage stamp to that of an ocean liner’s design. It removed the explicitly 4ft x 5ft-ness of the picture! So I let the surrounding square discs return.’ A primarily abstract show can and become too easy to pass across quickly at the level of sensation. Reading what Heron thought he was about is the perfect way of adding substance and slowing the visitor’s path down. In fact, once I concluded that the curatorial schema were best ignored, I realised that that was pretty much the show we have, and went on to enjoy it accordingly. I suggest you do the same.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018


Melanie Manchot: 'White Light Black Snow' at Parafin to 17 Nov

This capture from 'Cadence' comes from four minutes which makes good use of a drone to capture a lunged horse to make a cosmic drawing in the snow. It's the only film in this superbly choreographed show, which concentrates on Manchot's photography, with a light upstairs and dark downstairs supporting an impressively handled glut of other oppositions: fire/ice, vertical/horizontal, black/white, object/image as well as dark/light and above/below.

 Jan Henderikse: Mint at the Cortesi Gallery to 20 Nov

Dutchman Jan Henderikse is a long-term practitioner of emotionally charged accumulation with a Zero-tending aesthetic. Cortesi has a fine survey covering 60 years and ranging from number plates to bars of soap to shredded bank notes. ‘Untitled’ 2017 bitter-sweetly conjures celebration through the detritus of its passing, and also provides a nice word: these are champagne muselets (from the French museler, to muzzle). 

Rashid Khalifa: Penumbra: Textured Shadow, Coloured Light at the Saatchi Gallery to 19 Nov

This walk-through grid maze is from the series 'Penumbra' 2018 The Bahrain artist Rashid Khalifa's recent series of colourful constructivist riffs on the mashrabiya operate through interpenetrating maximimalist geometries. They're inspired - like rather comparable strands of Rana Begum's work - by the light and colour of walking along the street, and are as good a reason to visit the Saatchi Gallery as the typically patchy main show 'Black Mirror'.

Michael Sailstorfer: Tear Show at KÖNIG LONDON to 19 Nov

Michael Sailstorfer’s first UK solo show is impressively orchestrated. He combines heavy electronically controlled drumming with the lightness of tears in 21 lipstick paintings and 100 glass tears. The two come together satisfyingly in the film ‘Tears’ 2015, in which giant teardrops fall from the sky with sufficient velocity to destroy a country house in eight minutes. Hypocritical weeping at the damage done?

Suspension: A History of Abstract Hanging Sculpture, 1918-2018 at Olivier Malingue Gallery to 15 Dec

Suspension stands in for psychological tension as Karl Shapiro's constuctivist 'Untitled' 2014 takes on human form. It's not often you see a new category of exhibition, but  Olivier Malingue can claim that for this 12 artist survey, with more on display in Paris. 

Sue Williams at Skarstedt to 24 Nov

Seven new works provide a treat. 'All Quiet' 2018 looks abstract from a distance but mixes doodly figuration of personal and political resonance: houses, testicles, filing cabinets, an obfuscated Pentagon and a DIY model of it, unfolded... These delicately bombastic elements may hint at Trump and his slippery notion of truth, but Williams told me it's only indirect because 'he gets enough publicity and makes you throw up'. 

Yelena Popova: Her Name is Prometheus @ l'étrangère 
to 3 Nov

The chance to rearrange an interactive sculpture-come-non-competitive-game (as demonstrated by the artist herself above) epitomises this show of heavy issues presented lightly, as the parts can make up the plutonium atom and the colours are for  'danger'. Likewise a female Prometheus, the great physicist Lise Meitner, synchronised swimming and nuclear fission all feed in to various works..

Paul Anthony Harford at Sadie Coles Davies Street to 10 Nov

Paul Anthony Harford's 'Untitled (artist attacked by gulls)' is typical of the many seaside graphite drawings with a surreally rudderless undertow made by Paul Anthony Harford (1943-2016) who lived in Southend and Weymouth but was no outsider but always refused to exhibit his work.

Rodney Graham: Central Questions of Philosophy at Lisson Gallery to 3 Nov

Rodney Graham's typically recursive new lightbox 'Vacuuming the Gallery 1949' 2018 sees him pretending to be a gallerist hoovering up with pretend late 40's abstracts which turn out to materialise in the gallery. We're left with such questions as: 'wherein lies Graham's art?' and 'why is there no real carpet, the more so as Lisson's other space currently sports one for Rodney's non-brother, Dan?' Add plays on the philosopher AJ Ayer, Popeye's tattoos and an Arabic translation of Robinson Crusoe, and there is plenty to ponder here.

Prevent This Tragedy @ Von Goetz to 14 Nov

This, the last show in Von Goetz's expanded  space at Brixton, allowing space for nine artists to contribute substantial exploration of materiality and abandonment in a post-industrial setting. Unusually for a none artist group show, all seem like highlights: credit to  Jodie Carey, Nika Neelova, Evy Jokhova, Jim Woodall (shown left to right above), Simon Linington,  Frances Richardson, Vasilis Asimakopoulos, Simon Callery, Andrea V Wright and the curators, Martin Mayorga and Vanessa Murrell.
Martin Maloney:
Field Workers at JGM Gallery to 26 Oct.

'Baba Yaga' 2013 is one of ten monumental combinations of figure and landscape with considerable zing and such abiguities as vegetation which could be headwear and bodies through which we may be seeing the land. Their basis - Slovenian 'field workers' awaiting passing lorry drivers - adds to the disorientation.

APT + ONE at the APT Gallery, Deptford to 14 Oct

In which 41 artists from the Art in Perpetuity Trust studios each show alongside an invited artist, throwing up many compelling - and indeed, apt - conjunctions. As illustrated, studio holder David Webb's painting on a game board is paired with his guest Tom Hackney's 3D depiction of the moves in a chess game.


Hugh Mendes: Autorretrato at Charlie Smith to 13 Oct

For a decade Hugh Mendes has been combining still life (of a newspaper clipping, here imagined) with portraits, and his new show also amounts to an intellectual self-portrait through his versions of how the 13 painters who have meant most to him portrayed themselves. 'Obituary: Egon Schiele' sees him fresh faced and less tortured than usual. Hugh explains that this is the only one in which Schiele looks directly back at the viewer, something he wanted in all the faces.

Loie Hollowell: Dominant / Recessive at Pace Gallery to 20 Sept

'Double Hemisphere (Ovulation)' is one of the many not-so-abstract - indeed, sexually explicit - sculpturally-shaped paintings in her show at Pace. Hollowell's own notes on a preparatory drawing mention butt cheeks, the drip drip time of month, and speculate that 'two solid red dots would look too much like buttons'.

A Romance of Many Dimensions at the Sid Motion Gallery to 22 Sept 

Matthew Barnes, Hannah Hughes and Abigail Hunt make for an interesting group show in which a painter, sculptor and photographer by training all converge on means of collage. Matthew Barnes presents his photographs in effective sculptural ways: 'Palace Walls' 2016 sets an image of security fencing on such fencing to suggest that a royal residence has become not merely an empty facade, but just the facade of protection.

About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.