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Loie Hollowell’s current exhibition at 106 Green, an artist-run gallery in Greenpoint, offers up the results of many years of inquiry into female agency and sexual expression. The show is titled AHHA, a nod to the meditative visual symmetry that characterizes the work. AHHA also hints at a primal aural/oral experience: a laugh, sigh, exhale, or moan, which is fitting. Hollowell’s nine paintings create a space in which the highly stylized intersects with the frankly bodily. Looking at them invokes a variety of pleasure that is difficult to place, and is heightened all the more for its strangeness.
Taking pleasure in painting is of supreme importance to Hollowell. I should know. I’ve been friends with Loie for 28 years (we’re both 32; you do the math) and have spent countless hours in her studio, observing her careful, joyful way of making work. I believe painting is a spiritual practice for her, one that combines intellectually rigorous study with surrender to a kind of metaphysical erotics. We sat down at my kitchen table soon after the opening of her show to talk about what these paintings mean for her.
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Iris Cushing: I’d like to share an observation from the contemporary philosopher Stanley Cavell, from his book The World Viewed: “There may be any number of ways of acknowledging the condition of painting as total thereness—which is perhaps to say that there are any number of ways in which that condition can present itself, many different significances it may develop. For example, a painting may acknowledge its frontedness, or its finitude, or its specific thereness—that is, its presentness; and your accepting it will accordingly mean acknowledging your frontedness, or directionality, or verticality toward its world, or any world—or your presentness, in its aspect of absolute hereness and of nowness.”
I think of your paintings as having that quality of “total thereness,” while also functioning as representations of the body.
Loie Hollowell: I start a painting coming from the self, from my own body — specifically my sexual body, my genitalia. Once the conversation I’m having about the body is established, then I come to color and form and shape. At the same time, I don’t want my experience to determine the phenomenological experience that my viewers have. I don’t know how you or anyone else experiences the immediate presence of my paintings, or the paintings’ representations of the body. The architecture of the experience is there, but how each viewer wants to “decorate” that particular room in their brain is purely subjective, purely experiential for them. I think in this new body of work, I’m really trying to create an openness as opposed to a didactic experience of how one is “supposed” to look at a painting about the body. I’m abstracting the body using a symbolic language, and I think that experience becomes at once really personal for the viewer but also very open. I didn’t feel like I was able to get that when I was making purely figurative, realistic depictions.
IC: So what about that symbolic language you’re using? I see that intersecting vocabulary of symbols and forms in your paintings as representative of several things — like the mandorla, as an example, being a vagina, an almond, and an opening.
LH: The mandorla’s origin is in Catholic imagery. It’s usually found as this glowing shape of light around the Virgin Mary in scenes of the Assumption. I thought it was interesting that all of these historic painters were using it to surround the Virgin Mary, this shape that is, in essence, a vagina. I’ve taken that soft glowing light and made it concrete, a hard-edged form, a pointy-tipped oval. That shape becomes a focal point in the painting, an energy source. It’s the source of light in the painting. It also functions as the clitoris, an essential point of stimuli for the events surrounding it.
IC: We were talking the other day about the implications of depicting women’s genitalia as isolated from the rest of the body.
LH: Well, someone had asked me if I was concerned with the idea of taking the genitals out of context and centralizing them, disembodying them, like Courbet with “The Origin of the World” or other historic paintings that isolate parts of the female body. And I guess, for me, the fact that I have a vagina allows me to paint the vagina however I want, because it’s mine. I’m highlighting it through abstraction. I disembody it from the figure until it moves, hopefully, into a spiritual place. It comes from me as an individual, but it’s about the whole of human experience.
IC: For me it gets back to the idea that these are parts of our bodies that are not only hidden from view, but associated in Western and Christian culture with shame and dirtiness, and the fall from grace, and lust and everything that makes us “tainted.” And the way that you handle them, it’s recuperating them into this place of wholeness. I think of Dorothy Iannone as another artist who does this.
LH: She’s a great linkage for me. I think the two of us are tapped into the same sense of sexual expressiveness.
IC: And something important that you share with Iannone is being unapologetic about that.
So, from there, I wanted to bring up the question of ambiguity. You have these paintings in your show, such as the “Transformation” pieces, that depict a single shape that can be viewed as two or more things simultaneously. I’m looking at “Transformation in Blue and Orange.” The outside shape begins as a penis, and as it gets toward the center, it becomes a vagina.
LH: Do you also see the faces? And the testicles?
IC: Yes! You know, supposedly, it’s not cognitively possible to see something as two different things at the same time. This ambiguity makes a flickering happen between the multiple forms in my mind. Are you doing that on purpose?
LH: Well, I think my work can be viewed “quickly” because of the strong shapes and colors. But I also want there to be a more lingering experience for the viewer. A desire. Most importantly, I want the experience to be deeper for myself in my studio. I want to make the painting more and more complex, and at the same time keep it really simple.
IC: I think this is something that you and I share as makers. We both have this text and subtext thing that we’re aiming for: something that’s on the surface and something underneath. And those two levels are in constant dialogue with each other.
LH: Yes. And I think the paintings that I’m making now come out of a strong urge to have a conversation with historic female painters that I’ve become increasingly more obsessed with …
IC: Such as?
LH: Definitely Judy Chicago. The surrealists Leonora Carrington and Frida Khalo. And Agnes Pelton, from the Transcendentalist painting group. Oh, and of course Hilma af Klint, who was Swedish … but there is something particular about an American sensibility that I am tapping into. I think of women who were influenced by American landscapes, like Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico. Her paintings were so personal and meditative. The sense of touch is so present in her surfaces.
IC: You know, you bring up a lot of things, like touch and pleasure, that can be read as pretty un-intellectual.
LH: I also love the Chicago Imagists for that reason. When I think of them, I think of people who were making work because they had to. The joy of making comes out in their work, and that’s why I’m so attracted to it. There’s a great need for painting that’s made out of passion and necessity and joy. And that happens with people who have an intensive studio practice, who are making every day.
Loie Hollowell: AHHA continues at 106 Green (104 Green Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) through December 13.