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Whoever said you shouldn’t wear your heart on your sleeve was wrong. That was what kept going through my mind while looking at the sumptuous exhibition, Frank Holliday: See/Saw at Mucciaccia Gallery (closing on September 30), curated by Carter Ratcliff. Originally scheduled to run earlier this year, but interrupted by COVID-19 and the lockdown, the show recently re-opened, and I — for one — am very glad that it did.
Holliday does not wear just one heart on his sleeve: he wears many. Their signifiers include a loaded brush; juicy and feathery paint strokes; the buttery materiality of oil paint; and its capacity to evoke scarred flesh. His pantheon is populated by such forerunners of abstraction as J.M.W. Turner and Claude Monet, alongside the American artists, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and Joan Mitchell – all painters who employed what Clement Greenberg dismissively termed “the Tenth Street touch.”
Holliday seems not to have gotten the memo to remove all evidence of the hand from painting and make something that looks mechanical, which is all but a given these days.
Wielding his loaded brush, Holliday first draws in paint on his large canvases. He seems to consciously embody Harold Rosenberg’s definition of “action painter,” in that the physical making of the work is essential to what the viewer sees.
This is what is remarkable about Holliday’s decision to work in this tradition: at no point did I feel that he was being bombastic, ironic, parodic, or self-consciousness, which by all critical accounts — from Arthur Danto to Thierry de Duve and Hal Foster — is currently required if you plan to apply a gestural paint stroke to a canvas. Unless your brush is loaded with irony, whatever you paint with it will be illegitimate.
Holliday proves this long-held view wrong. He is what you would call a modernist abstract artist in love with gestural painting — a fish out of water. And yet, the paintings — with their searing reds, icy blues, warm yellows, and creamy whites — seem neither old fashioned nor nostalgic, and that is what kept me looking.
Why don’t his paintings look old hat? How are they able to come across as fresh? What is it that makes these paintings his, and not derivative versions of historical works that have inspired him?
For one thing, the paintings are not mannered, nor do they rely on a signature gesture or brushstroke. If Holliday is channeling Abstract Expressionism, he has connected with lots of artists with none becoming a dominant influence.
Each of his works is defined by the variety of their often clashing clusters of brushstrokes. They suggest that Holliday has absorbed a lot of possibilities from gestural painting, as well as made them his own. He doesn’t seem driven to find a mark or a support that sets him apart from the Abstract Expressionists, nor does he seem to be impersonating one, which I find refreshing.
While figuring out what Holliday’s paintings had in common, and what makes them unlike anyone else’s, I made the following observations. Holliday paints in layers, and with each layer, he is likely to use a different-size brush to make a group of distinct gestures or marks, or a solid abstract shape. He does not appear compelled to scrape down a layer and start over: there are no signs of angst in his work.
The paintings are incremental. We see evidence of the previous layers, often in thinner paint along the edges, where splashes and drips are visible. He paints one layer over another. The layers do not necessarily fill the entire surface or completely cover what is beneath. He seems to have no plan, nor does he favor a particular resolution. He makes open-ended process paintings. There are a lot of subtle but noticeable stylistic differences from painting to painting. They are not preoccupied with reiterating flatness, a common feature of Abstract Expressionist paintings and other movements working in the wake of Cubism.
This is what further distinguishes Holliday’s paintings: he does not knit them together, as Philip Guston did in the 1950s, nor does he hammer down the space to a flat field of marks. Nature does not seem to be one of his sources, as it clearly was for Joan Mitchell, especially after she settled in Vétheuil, a small town near Claude Monet’s former estate in Giverny. He is not obsessed with making the surface work.
Given his red-dominated palette, I don’t think it is implausible to suggest that one of Holliday’s subjects is conflagration – a world consumed by fire. It might be the heat of passion or anger, or the unleashing of destructive forces. While I do not think it was Holliday’s intention, the work feels in tune with the times and the effects of climate change in Oregon and California.
In “Bloodshot” (2019), horizontal and diagonal brushstrokes literally register Holliday’s act of pulling the brush across the wet canvas. We see red brushstrokes make a hairpin turn and go back in the direction from which they came. We see blues and yellows, earlier layers of paint, the suggestion of sunlight and sky, within the painting’s interstices and around its edges. A white-splattered mark rises from behind the topmost red strokes on the painting’s right side, forming a zigzag that presides over the surface. Beneath it, we see a scattering of dark red drips.
The painting’s layered space, which opens up appreciable evocations of depth, shares something with the paintings of Norman Bluhm, who has long been considered a “second-generation” Abstract Expressionist, but who, in the mid-70s, began defining something that sets him apart from his cohort. I feel that this is what Holliday, who is in his early 60s, has done.
There is a narrow reading of Abstract Expressionism that culminates in the work of its first-generation practitioners — Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt. But history is never that neat, nor do possibilities end because someone announces that they’re over and done for. Pat finales happen in direct-to-video movies, not life.
The fact is that Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Norman Bluhm — all of whom painted gesturally — made strong work long past 1970, the year Newman died. Pierre Bonnard was making great work in the 1940s, in the middle of World War II, long after Impressionism and Post-Impressionism had been superseded by a host of movements.
In Holliday’s paintings “Cardinal” (2017), “Cherry Bomb” (2018), and “Red Tide” (2019), we encounter searing outbursts of red pigment; turbulent atmospheres of lush and vigorous marks; dense, scarred clouds; and flowing streams of viscous paint. The layering together of different kinds of brushstrokes and materiality, the evocations of space and interior light, and the shifts from one kind of mark to another, fills the work with feeling.
Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher with the memorable hound dog face, famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” A lot of people in the art world seem to have ignored Berra, preferring the comfort of foregone conclusions. Holliday isn’t one of them.
Frank Holliday: See/Saw continues at Mucciaccia Gallery (520 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 30. The exhibition is curated by Carter Ratcliff.