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.

Sunday, 11 November 2018


Apparently the average person is 38% more likely to like an Instagram post in it features a face that if it doesn't. But my readers are more sophisticated than that. So the following choices - from over 200 galleries and publishers and over 2000 artists at Paris Photo 2018 - includes no faces, not even of animals or masks, but plenty of flowers, legs and new approaches to taking and making photographs.


Richard Learoyd: Live and Dead Poppies, 2018 at Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York 

Richard Learoyd is known for using a room as a camera obscura within which the photographic paper is exposed to produce an entirely grainless, larger than life image with no interposing negative. The subject in the adjacent room, separated by a lens, is most often a person, but he showed only flowers at Paris Photo. On Remembrance Weekend, it seems appropriate to begin with this wiltingly beautiful mixture of the living and the dead. 


Sayouki Inoue: I can't recall my first light, 2018 - NAP, Tokyo

Carrying on with death and birth... Seeing how uncomprehending the eyes of her dying grandfather were, Sayouki Inoue was inspired  to search out the parallel at the other end of life's span: she worked with a birthing centre in Tokyo, so that she could photograph the first five minutes of 20 babies, hot-footing it to the facility as soon as she got the call that a collaborating mother was about to deliver. Here she is holding up a photograph of her grandfather's eyes in front of  those of babies who have just opened theirs for the first time.

Jo Ann Callis Legs on Dresser (ca. 1976-1977) at Rose Gallery, Santa Monica 

This particular set of upended legs appears to be enjoying a post-coital cigarette: it has the wit typical of Jo Ann Collis' varied work over 50 years which is well caught by the gallery's description as reinterpreting reality by 'inserting pleasure and tension into the everyday'. It's one of her early constructed scenes from the series 'Other Rooms', which she has only recently shown publicly.


Adam Fuss - Untitled, 2018 at Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco 

How many new methods can there be left for photographing flowers?  Adam Fuss showed a block of nine plants which he 'fractured' (his term)  by placing them into an etching press before scanning the result. Their juices bleed like water, and a new combination of violence and beauty arises to recharge the age-old use of flowers to suggest the transience of life in the face of death.


Mona Kuhn: Succulents 09 and Bushes 30, 2018 at Flowers, London  

Mona Kuhn's new 'modular series' can be shown in various combinations of two image types: the artfully blurred succulents are decidedly more vaginal than the mid-sections of female nudes - their explicitness reduced by pubic bushes (coming back into fashion, Mona told me) and use of solarisation. Kuhn, who sees the series as a tribute to the woman artists once overshadowed by men, emphasises that Lee Miller discovered the technique made famous by her then-lover, Man Ray. 

Peter Funch: The Imperfect Atlas at V1, Copenhagen  

Peter Funch's latest series conjures a three-way time slip: he has taken vintage postcards of America's Northern Cascade mountain range, which themselves evoked the landscapes painted by the Hudson River School, and returned to the same place to reshoot the views - using the techniques of early colour photography so that they look pre-aged. Thus we look through the consistent effect of our technological impact on how the landscape looks to see  what actual impact - such as glacial reduction - we have had on it.

Alan Ruppersberg: My Secret Life III (Purple, green, orange, blue), 2018 at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Santa Monica

Alan Ruppersberg has often used the colour fades characteristic of many Colby posters (omnipresent in LA during 1948-2012, when the company operated) as the backdrop for his playfully puzzling texts. So he refers to that as part of this self-portrait, in which everything above his waist is hidden in the unfurled roll at the bottom. What it shows is a secret which can only be revealed by purchasing and - potentially - undermining the teasing point of the work.

Axel Hütte: Altenburg, Bibliothek, 2017 at Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg

Axel Hütte is perhaps the most innovative technician among the famous photographers of the Düsseldorf School. He has recently developed the 'glass print', which proves especially suited to 'Imperial', his set of grand Hapsburg interiors from Vienna and surrounds. We see the front of a pane of glass, on the back of which Hütte has printed the image, and a little way behind which lies polished stainless steel. The haunting luminescence caused is subtly different from more straightforward uses of metal, glass or mirror in presenting photographs.

Dorothea Lange: Cable Car, San Francisco, 1956 at Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York / Zurich

Historic work is a significant presence at Paris Photo. The touring Dorothea Lange retrospective is currently at the Jeu de Paume, and - consequently, perhaps - her uber-famous image of a migrant mother was a little too common at the fair. This radically cropped view - in which we don't see a high proportion of any of the several subjects - was a more refreshing sighting. It reminds us that after the depression years Lange continued to document California: she lived in Berkeley from 1918 to her death in 1965.

Lisa Sartorio Here or Elsewhere: Untitled  (War in Chechnya), 2018 - Galerie Binome, Paris 

Ending as we began, with remembering conflict: to counter the numbing and distancing effect of the flood of images online, Lisa Sartorio selected those showing damage from wars occurring within her own lifetime, printed them in black-and-white (to maximise the contrasts) onto Japanese tissue paper and set about teasing the paper so that the initial impact of explosions, fire and smoke was brought back to the scene (Syria with her above, Chechnya below).

About Me

My photo
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.