“We need that soul connection more than ever…”

Paul Zimmerman in conversation with Gillian Holding


Paul Zimmerman: Congratulations on your current exhibition in New York. Tell us about paintings in this exhibition.

Gillian Holding: Nothing is certain or predictable. Nothing is as it seems: Lies have become truth. We are living with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Our world is seemingly falling apart as we encounter a mass of conflicting and contradictory beliefs, values and ideals in our everyday lives.

My response to all of this lies at the heart of these paintings. I find there is always a tension between the drawing and the painting in the process of creating an image. The consequential flux between figurative-narrative and expressive-abstraction allows for ambiguity and a multiplicity of readings. For me, this allows the painting to reflect the uncertainty, fragility and dissonance of the times.

All the works have evolved from imagination and surreal association as I play with and follow emerging abstract shapes. The anonymous figures portrayed are often unreadable, consumed and fragmented by abstract colour forms. I like the way they can’t easily be read but still somehow speak. There is a recurring pig leitmotif in much of my work. The pig is quintessentially ambiguous and the subject of contradictory assumptions and beliefs: intelligent or stupid? Clean or dirty? I see the pigs in these recent works as emblematic of humanity, adding to the ambiguity of the figurative relationships.

Not least, these paintings are the product of a year spent either in lockdown or with greatly curtailed freedoms. In the UK we are living the maelstrom of the Brexit-Covid perfect storm. Brexit has removed freedom to work and travel in the EU, and Covid has removed freedom altogether. So in this body of work, I feel the sense of entrapment and imprisonment bound up in the uncertainty and fragility around me and in their making. All the paintings, and the working process I talk about later, are an allegory of the times we live in.

PZ: What is your artistic process? How do you create your paintings?

GH: I start every piece these days with an open mind and curiosity – and absolutely no sense of direction or outcome. I actually don’t want to know where the process is going to take me. As a human, a painter, a woman, a mother etc etc I feel differently every day and so that’s what informs my approach. I might start with a drawing of a figure from my imagination, letting the brush take me where it wants to go. I don’t control it. I allow it to lead. Then when the drawing is there I usually obliterate it because I want to remove any sense of knowing and certainty. Then I need to rediscover it but in a different form. Other days I start with entirely abstract marks and work until a figure starts to suggest itself and reveals itself. Both approaches result in a tension between the figurative image and abstraction. And aesthetically I’m always in search of happy accidents and I work very intuitively in the final stages. Sometimes a painting may be transformed in 30 seconds of frenzied painting and it’s suddenly there, resolved, when I least expect it. I have to work at leaving things well alone though. The draughtsman in me fights to have a beautifully drawn figure but the painter in me fights to make colour and shape prevail. It’s another constant tension in the whole process: drawing versus painting. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last four years is that trying to think or plan too much when painting is the path to frustrating failure. Abandoning conscious thought and action does not guarantee success but makes it a lot more likely for me.

PZ: Do you have any particular goal in mind when your start a new piece?

GH: My only goal is to authentically follow my instincts and intuition as I set to work within the broad context of my general artistic concerns. I write and read and meditate a lot, so I have a load of thoughts, reflections and feelings running through me most days, on the periphery of my mind as I paint. But the act of painting calls for immersion. I don’t want the distraction of thoughts other than: is this colour/mark/shape working? I’ve found that when a painting is resolved, my concerns are all there somewhere in the end. And it’s fascinating to see how often what I felt in the making is perceived and felt by the viewer.

Submission to Uncertainty, oil on paper laid on canvas, 150cm x120cm x 2.5cm

PZ: How do you know when the painting is finished?

GH: It’s finished when I suddenly feel it; when I have a sense that it is resolved, and there’s nothing I feel I can do to move it forward. But a painting may stay at 95% “done” for a few months before I suddenly intuit what’s needed to finally resolve it.

PZ: Has your practice changed over time?

GH: My working methods and aesthetic approach have evolved considerably over the last five years, though the content and conceptual thinking is broadly the same. I used to plan and do a lot of preparatory work ( a hangover of a fine art education) and make use of a good deal of drawing sources and reference materials. And I used to be much more concerned about theoretically contextualising everything before and whilst I was working. Now I just paint. Theory is still important to me but has become more detached from the actual painting process. The one unchanging element over this last decade has been my constant preoccupation with living in a world of absurdity and uncertainty and paradox.

PZ: How would you define yourself as an artist?

GH: I can’t do labels and definitions! Not least because they are elusive and slippery and so usually misleading. I’ve always lived and worked on thresholds, liminal spaces, psychologically and physically, so I’ve never been able to say what I am. I can say though that my life has always been defined by the creative impulse.

PZ: Which artists are you most influenced by?

GH: Nalini Malani has been very influential in terms of how she deals with the figure, using and redrawing sources. She inspired me to start painting figures entirely from imagination as a way of anonymising figures, facilitating ambiguity and multiple readings. Marlene Dumas is a huge inspiration for her extraordinary paintings of humanity. And William Kentridge for his bravura gestural drawings which push drawing in so many original directions. I admire any artist examining provocative issues with integrity who can at the same time make beautiful and compelling imagery. Great painting with thoughtful conceptual underpinning is actually not that easy to find. Conceptually, I’m influenced by a variety of writers and thinkers. For example, the absurd surreal imagery in an Eugene Ionescu play, or the intense observations of the everyday by Georges Perec.

PZ: Human condition is explored in many of your paintings. How would you define the role of art in our society?

GH: That’s seems such a difficult question right now in these times of crisis. There’s been a bit of a meltdown in the arts in the UK particularly at grassroots level during covid, suggesting that society does not really think it’s worth anything! Yet artists, writers, musicians, they all see and perceive the world in a way which isn’t necessarily unique but leads to an articulation of that seeing in their work which resonates and touches others. We need that soul connection more than ever right now to remind us of our humanity.

PZ: What are you working on now?

GH: I was all set to start a series of large works reflecting my surreal experience of the reality of Brexit Britain. But we are now in our strict third national lockdown: Stay at home, essential travel only. I’ve had to temporarily leave my large painting studio and I’m now working in cramped conditions with limited supplies and limited opportunities for the forseeable future. It’s a depressing metaphor for Brexit Britain! So I’m bringing in the great outside through cramped projections of photos taken in recent years to remind me of what’s waiting out there when this crisis is finally over.

PZ: How does the pandemic influence your work and sensibility?

GH: Being cooped up in a small workspace away from my big studio during first lockdown was hard. So from a practical working perspective I had to adapt a lot. The psychological effects have been more profound. I began to see the figure forms in my paintings were not only expressing uncertainty and fear but also entrapment and imprisonment. I’d read this initially as the powerlessness response I mentioned earlier. Then I came to see it was a literal response to the entrapment and imprisonment an entire nation found itself in. One of these paintings is in the show: in Unconscious Beingness the extremities of the figure are bound and held by the limits of the canvas. I was fascinated to realise this only when these works were nearing completion.

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