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“An Allegory of the City of Nottingham after Robert Holcombe” (Leftlion #87, March 2017)

28 Feb


The latest issue of Leftlion magazine, officially published on March 1st but already out and about in all the usual pubs, venues and locations around the city, features cover art in the style of Robert Holcombe, but with an end result that is not actually part of his official body of work for a wide variety of reasons. As an explanatory note inside the issue points out about the artwork and its authorship:

“Explaining the authorship of this month’s cover might take a while. It’s an allegory of the city of Nottingham made by Wayne Burrows in the style of the entirely fictional British artist Robert Holcombe (1923 – 2003), borrowing elements from Holcombe’s Folklore Series work The Innocents III (1974). Making the cover image became a game of ‘how many blatant Nottingham references can I squeeze in without including a single actual thing from Nottingham?’. Ranging from the obvious (Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Arthur Seaton minding Owl Man‘s owl) to the slightly less obvious (a Bramley apple, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow, the xylophone of Xylophone Man) and ending up with the occasionally random (a mongoose, a fish-man coelacanth), we hope you’ll have fun trying to spot them all.”


Holcombe’s Folklore Series work, The Innocents III (1974), was actually one of the first collages made in the fictional body of work that has, since around 2010, continued to grow and be refined, extending both backward and forward in time from that early focus on the work that Holcombe was making in the later 1960s and early 1970s. The collage featured in an exhibition titled Wunderkammer curated by Jennie Syson during the British Art Show fringe festival Sideshow in 2010, and in a few other places between 2010 and 2012, and while the collage itself either no longer exists or is lost (I’m not sure which applies myself) a scan made at the time documents it:


As you’d probably expect, any resemblance between the two compositions (mainly seen in the central stone megalith and the lunar presence) is completely coincidental. It was only after the Leftlion artwork was complete that its familiarity and a certain sense of deja vu jogged my memory and led me to look again at The Innocents III, which evidently carried a little of the same DNA. Despite that passing similarity, it’s also clear to me that the 2010 image is made in a style from which Holcombe’s work rapidly developed into something else entirely…hence The Innocents III having a current status that places it as, at best, very much marginal to his canon, and perhaps, at this point, outside it.*

An Allegory of the City of Nottingham (after Robert Holcombe) [2017] is not designated as Holcombe’s work either. Its making as a commissioned piece, following a set format and including thematic links to the interests of the magazine whose cover it appears on, means that it not only has differences in technique to Holcombe’s signature approach, but its subject matter simply doesn’t fit into his chronology. Or, to put it another way, I couldn’t contrive a persuasive reason why Robert Holcombe might have taken such an interest in Nottingham, nor how he would have come to include allusions to aspects of the city that post-date his active period by decades. It’s also the second work of its kind to exist fully outside the Robert Holcombe canon in this way.

The first, The Naming of Clouds, was made to a brief for reproduction as a print to be handed out during performances at Somerset House of two works, Cloud Workers and The Naming of Clouds, by Philip Stanier and Penny Newell. The brief for this image (and the grid of 28 postcard-sized images making up a performance score that accompanied it) was based on Newell’s PhD research into representations of clouds in art and literature, and Stanier’s imaginitive response to that research, though within this I was free to flesh out the structure as I liked, with no specific instructions given beyond an initial diagram that positioned the basic elements of the landscape and specified the divisions into ‘flesh’, ‘nature’, ‘machinery’, ‘cloud’ and ‘mathematics’ within the cloud itself:


Making The Naming of Clouds in 2016 had already helped to define the separation between Holcombe’s fictional body of work and any collages that might be made for other purposes using the same archives and materials, and even some of the same methods, in my studio. For that reason, the effort of trying to bend the Leftlion image to fit Holcombe’s body of work in some way was a step that I could simply skip. The work, then, exists in a different kind of space and is allowed to be exactly what it is – an allegory built around a spatially unsettling constructed landscape, populated with both allusive components and objects present as much for purely visual reasons as reasons related to the meanings hidden away elsewhere in the image. It’s a sort of variation on an eighteenth century conversation piece: a picture designed solely to catch the eye and offer some sort of diversion.

*The Innocents III (1974) tenuously remains in the margins of Holcombe’s canon, perhaps, because it might have been nothing more than a failed experiment, a study he carried out in an idiom that is plainly more an exercise in the style of its particular mid-1970s moment than a work made in line with Holcombe’s own developed stylistic trajectory.

Notes From A Hospital (19 – 23 June, 2016)

8 Aug


This place asserts itself first as a very ordinary space, as though it’s been purposefully designed to seem mundane, to take the edge off its real function with a veneer of domesticity, something between a dated suburban show-home and a school dining hall lined with beds. I try to pinpoint where the dread I’m feeling comes from. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of this mustard yellow stripe crossing the grey linoleum floor tiles, or the slightly discoloured white panels of this suspended ceiling, where small swarms of black pin-holes prick through to varied depths, each taking its arbitrary place in the beige constellation. A cobweb strains and slackens like a parachute canopy, a delicate diaphragm of white glowing thread where a steel window-frame opens to the blue sky outside. A cloud the shape of a gigantic wolf’s head drifts over the low-rise rooftops of the hospital buildings across the visible courtyard. Florescent tube lights glare inside glazed plastic boxes, blue marble-patterned curtains trembling against the partly opened windows… Mainly, the dread lies in the medical machinery that returns repeatedly to the ward, measuring blood pressure, squeezing the upper arm like a velcro python. The machines attached to these needles and drips flood us with antibiotics, painkillers and saline solutions, extract blood samples. These machines test us, seek dark shadows in our lungs, root out the signs and patterns of destruction in our own cells.


Inside A&E I see my own blood collect inside syringes, glimpse scans of my own ribs, examine the stock market graphs of EEGs and pulse readings as I’m assessed and reassessed then run through further tests, just to be sure. I’m given painkillers and injections, laid on a trolley and wheeled out into the cavernous bay where our ailments align like vehicles taking spaces in a supermarket car park. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning. An elderly man with the visible bruising and dried blood traces of a head injury is asking for food with an incongruously posh accent, as though making announcements on the BBC in 1966. A youth, who it seems had collapsed in the street, is surrounded by a retinue of drunk friends whose red eyes startle in the stark florescent light. There is the intimacy of an elderly husband and wife acting as though they are in a private space, as though this might be almost routine, as though they might switch places on the gurneys night after night. A wall-mounted TV scrolls adverts and a scarlet ticker-tape of rolling bad news. There is a coffee machine somewhere, though it’s not clear where. And where else would one stranger approach another with the words “I need to take some of your blood” so regularly and with such bluntly pragmatic intent to see the action through? Extraction might be coded into this space. Does the PFI that rebuilt it once now draw rents from these aluminum and white plastic fittings, these oxygen canisters and uniforms, leased-back strip-lights and polished concrete floors, wooden desks and blue curtains?


In this refrigerated room the machine hums quietly among the pipes and platforms, the windows of the observation chambers. Always seems strange when the operators of a system clear the space before it operates, leaving you alone inside it. This is the CT-scanner with its turquoise floored, aquatic waiting room, its looped TV channel discussing accidents – a man trapped under a car ploughed into him by a double decker bus, a surfer in collision with a jet-ski on a rolling wave, collusions of random chance and sheer misfortune followed by miraculous recoveries. When I’m wheeled along the corridor with its peculiar scent into the presence of the monolith – like the central pierced stone of Men-an-Tol – I’m conscious of the solstice, of the fact that I’d planned to be elsewhere, at a solstice celebration, and instead lie here, my back pressed in its thin gown against a cold metal slide, my arms stretched back above my head as I listen for the voice that emerges from the white machine telling me to breathe in, hold breath, breathe normally, its magnets whirring inside the white casing like the drum of a washing machine, circling my upper body, scanning everything, from chin to groin, slice by slice, till somewhere, on a screen behind those black glass windows, I’m reconstituted, replicated in a three dimensional matrix. This might be the altar of some alien pagan cult, exploring the limitless recesses of the body’s interior.


Everything tastes of this one solution but I don’t know what this taste is, how to begin to describe it. Everything smells of it but I don’t know exactly how I’m taking in the scent, what the components of this fragrance are, only that in the combination of taste and scent it blends a sickly sweetness with a metallic edge – is something complex, alien and impossible to place on any previous axis of sensory experience. Mercury and over-sweetened rhubarb? Silicone in custard? A compound of artificial sweeteners and metal shavings? Copper coins sucked through a soft cloth steeped in pine fragranced shampoo? The contrast – for this is what they call that weird solution here – is intravenously administered. I’m told that I’ll experience the illusion of wetting myself, that a soft warmth will seem to spread from my groin to my knees and waist. The woman beside the machine is reassuring, has told me already that this isn’t real, but it will, she insists, feel very real in the moment it happens. This is standard procedure, to be expected, she says, and it will pass once the moment does, be entirely gone and half forgotten even by the time I leave this room. It is not, she insists, anything to be concerned about.


I understand that this machine reads my body better than I, who inhabit it, can. The machine is driven by electromagnetics and x-rays, sending its resonant frequencies through my cells and fibres, my soft organs and hard bones, slice by slice as I pass through its open circle. The body inside the machine, my body, is kept at the refrigerated temperature the machine requires. My nostrils and the back of my throat are filled with that indefinably synthetic alien substance, still to be properly named or described: silicone and rhubarb with saccharine, uncooked pastry in cleansed sump-oil, white truffle in volcanic sulphur, spinach steeped in phosphorus and copper sulphate. How do I even begin to describe this after-taste? I’m conscious that this is primal machinery, machinery geared to extract a fully illuminated body’s interior, an imprint or double lifted from my own flesh for remote examination. This is a revelation of the inner self: not those hypothetical coloured lights, the auras and chakras beloved of the New Age, but the true inner being of flesh and fluids, nerves and ribs, veins and arteries, alveoli and heart-muscles, in all of which life flows, a low-level electric charge like the static thickening in the warm air that precedes a thunderstorm. Where clouds gather inside any image produced, wherever new cells or growths appear, fear must always follow, to clot and accumulate among the relentlessly shortening hours and days…


When I return to the ward, when I’m pushed in a wheelchair towards the empty bed by an open window overlooking a small lawn where pigeons and blackbirds peck among the freshly-trimmed grass in a late evening sunshine I’d half forgotten was out there, I’m approached by a tall Jamaican-Nottingham girl with Nefertiti features and a crown of lilac-dyed braids tied up in a tight sphere on her head, like an Egyptian sun-disk. She wraps my arm in a velcro pressure gauge, takes a blood sample and pulse: unlike every other nurse I’ve so far encountered she follows the electronic reading with an old-school press of her fingers to my wrist, silently counting while looking at the small dial of a watch. She seems in charge right now, but tomorrow I’ll be chatting to her and discover she’s still two months from qualifying, and she’ll laugh when I tell her she seemed to be the authority on the ward in the first half-hour I spent on it. “I was just trying not to seem nervous”, she says. “Didn’t figure I was doing any kind of good job at it”. And there it is, our disconnection, me oblivious to her nerves, her oblivious to whatever I was feeling just then, swept into her presence on the medical process that had already led from ambulance to A&E, from there to a holding ward, and had now landed me here, on a specialist male respiratory ward in another hospital, her long fingers taking the pulse of the one wrist still unmarked by cannula needles. It’s 7pm already and she’ll soon disappear as the night shift drifts in, as new ranks of nurses, new cleaners and carriers, wipers, bathers, sometime wound-dressers and carers arrive, one after another: all those who’ll see us through till morning, one way or another.


He was a big man once, a hard man, most likely, judging by his talk at times, the kind of man who carried his own name – M.I.C.K – inked on the four finger-knuckles of his right hand, where it remains visible among the bruises and needle-punctures, the dressings and swellings. He’s lost 25 kilos these last 8 weeks, he’s said, and the medical staff have confirmed it – 25 kilos gone from his bruiser’s bulk while his features soften into vulnerability and panic under the brute force of whatever illness has its hold on him. When he’s angry, he verbalises his feelings in terms set by a physical aggression of which he’s no longer capable: “a crack on the nose”, “a punch in the mouth”, “a kick in the balls”. Right now, you can only imagine what he might have looked like ten or twelve weeks back, the big fella and hard-man he remains in his own head despite this new reality where he’s bent double, depleted, fighting for breath over a white plastic bed-table while his grey skin hangs, exposed and flabby, in the folds of his unbuttoned pyjamas. When noises come from him, gasps and wheezes and cries, nurses from Spain and Trinidad, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Slovakia surround him, hook up the nebuliser or IV drip, ameliorate his pain for a few more hours, but it’s clear that he resents this dependence, is reduced and rendered weak, yet knows there’s nothing to be done with this need but to accept the help and rail against how disgusted he feels with himself at needing it. The women, the nurses, too pragmatic and pressed to be fazed, get on with it and keep going, as the world always does in the face of our humiliations.


Then there is the beauty of this woman with her attentive expressions, working to understand the post-stroke broken language of a 64 year old man with close-cropped ginger hair, a man returned to a kind of meta-childhood, whose wife and sole carer died a year or two ago, clearly aware of the chasms constantly opening between his movements, words and the thoughts behind both. He gets up often, paces, performs a kind of dance to re-learn the co-ordination of his limbs and extremities, placing his feet in a grid pattern that he repeats, over and over, on the chessboard of grey and mustard coloured linoleum tiles on the ward floor. In conversation, when he can’t find a word, knows but can’t retrieve it from his blighted vocabulary, there’s a laminated book of prompts he shuffles through in his big hands until something clicks and the conversation continues, like a car being repeatedly jump-started on a driveway. This woman, her features falcon-sharp, her fringe cut on a ruler’s edge across a forehead framed by tousled brunette and blond-highlighted hair, is listening to him. On her wrist is a playing card tattoo: the six of clubs, a grid of clenched black fists, its significance to her entirely unknown to me, perhaps anyone. She has the air of someone who’s been through more than one life, that who she is now is only the latest draft of a work in progress, which seems to be all she has in common with the man she’s talking to. Whatever he was before this, before the stroke hit him and his wife’s death cut him adrift, neither of us can know.


It is my final day here, though I don’t know this quite yet. Right now, I am viewing a range of potential futures, measuring my current difficulties against the struggles of others – who have no reliable address, whose health is free-falling far beyond any depth reached by mine, touch wood and so far. Men whose lives are in some sense already mostly lived, what highlights there were securely fixed in the territory of the past. Who, then, is more or less fortunate here, and is this, or anything, even measurable or, at least, measurable in these terms? Let us imagine that the dividing line between this world of hospitals and medical procedures, this world where control is relinquished, half in terror, half in relief, this world of quietly dealt-with deaths behind curtains, of being woken from restless sleep at 3am to be plugged into an antibiotic drip, to wake and sleep among all the humiliations a body can inflict on the spirit inhabiting it…the line between that world and another, a world that is none of these things, a world where the illusion of control is granted…that division seems fragile as the tissue in an exposed lung. One here is well enough to leave but waits on the availability of sheltered housing; another aged 87, reads the Daily Mail in bed, having fallen through a table a few days ago to end up here, immobilised. Yet another is tethered to his bed by a plastic oxygen tube, alternately pacing out the limits of his leash and flipping through the sports pages of The Sun. For a few hours more we are all here, on this respiratory ward, distracting ourselves with the thought that there might be more years ahead, or some purpose to those that have gone already, taking all our breaths and heartbeats, our best efforts and worst errors, and dragging them all out to sea with us, as a tide gathers stones on its long withdrawal from a pebble beach.

Men an Tol

From: Robert Holcombe’s Telekinesis (c.1954 – 1957)

6 Jul

Telekinesis II (1955)

“The game begins when the children, in whatever numbers are available when the desire to play takes hold, form a circle and focus their collective attention on a point in the ground at the dead-centre of their gathering. Each child then imagines the ground opening, mentally invoking a wound or vulva, a mouth or eye at that single point in space. Once the correct degree of focus is achieved each child in turn joins with the song that will slowly grow in volume and force as it passes repeatedly around their human circle, sometimes in the form of an elaborate but instinctively formed round, sometimes as a massed single chant as all the voices present merge into one:

Open, open, turn this earth to mouth,
Show coral lips and ivory teeth,
Cleave this ground to bring forth life,
Slice this stone with a surgeon’s knife.

When the required mass of vocalisation and psychic focus is accomplished a slowly expanding oval will appear in the air, its appearance not unlike a shadow’s penumbra surrounding a brighter central area. Witnesses have variously described this initial apparition as alike to a tiny nebula or cellular form hovering an inch above the ground, its circumference widening at an even rate. After a few moments this portal – for this, it is said, is what has been conjured – reaches its maximum dimensions, as determined by the numbers within the circle, then raises itself to conclude a smooth ascent somewhere around the average waist-height of those comprising the circle that has invoked it. It remains stabilised at this height for as long as the chant is sustained…”

Telekinesis [Brides] (1956)

Telekinesis [The Forest] (c.1954 - 1957)

Robert Holcombe: Tarot Series (1971 – 1973)

28 Jul

“The Tarot has always intrigued me, not because I believe it has any supernatural, occult or divinatory properties, but for precisely the opposite reason: that its symbols are empty, ambiguous and contradictory, and in being so seem to absorb whatever meanings or interpretations we wish to project into their random alignments. In this, they have something of the same quality found in art works that transcend the time and context of their making – not because they contain anything innately transcendent but because they remain ambiguous and open to interpretation for all times and potential viewers. Perhaps my own Tarot series is an exercise in this kind of randomness. The cards it contains mean nothing, in themselves, and any reading of their faces is as valid as any other, beyond a few very rudimentary cues and prompts. Yet in meaning nothing they may also be open to the kind of interpretation that will seem to signify psychological and personal insight…”

[Robert Holcombe, unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, 1975]

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)


Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

Robert Holcombe: Folklore, Ritual and the Modern Interior (1955 – 1975)

13 Feb
Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Exhibition opens at Xero, Kline & Coma, 258 Hackney Road, London E2 from 7 – 9pm on Thursday February 13th, then runs for four weeks, from 15 Feb to 9 March (gallery opening times are Sat/Sun 12 – 6pm). 

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [RH: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi (1984)]

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [RH: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art between 1948 and 1951 and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in the city of Leeds. His early, if oblique, involvement with the Independent Group continued into the 1980s, and he maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared.

Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was generally usual at the time. The consumerist excesses of the Immersions series (1970 – 71), the inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors elsewhere, alongside the many disturbances of ordinary spaces that colour the whole body of work, all suggest an artist with a satirical as well as unsettling and surreal take on the emerging society and politics of his age.

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Immersion VII (Le Festin) [1971]

Keren Goldberg’s comments on this exhibition in Art Review can be found here.

Robert Holcombe Exhibition Guide (Syson, 2013)

22 Dec

The Family Bible & Other Fables: Works from the Robert Holcombe Collection (1948 – 1978) is a fictional retrospective exhibition, offering a selection of around 70 works from the three decades of collage held by the Robert Holcombe archive. It’s on display at Syson Gallery and Antenna until January 31, 2014 (the gallery reopens on January 8th after the Christmas break).

The Modernists - Diplodocus (1967)

“I am fascinated by self-erasure. The more stridently our world demands that we prize individual uniqueness and choice above the connections between us, the more obvious it becomes that we choose one poor print from a very limited range. Still, paradox is our friend. We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1984]

“The question of identity is fascinating. I evade myself. I use only found materials on which I leave no obvious mark and I reconfigure them under an identity that is not mine. But each work generates a fingerprint, anonymous to the casual glance, yet so revealing to one prepared to enter that very particular labyrinth that no escape from identification seems possible without gloves…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1973]

1964 programme

ROOM ONE (Timeline, 1948 – 1978):

Unidentified Artist: French etching showing a murderous priest in a storm, 1825.

The origins of this image, or its path into Holcombe’s family, are not known, but Holcombe’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, notes that it was hung in his childhood bedroom, and he took it with him when he left home to study at the Slade in 1948. Clearly, something in this mysterious and violent scene – a portrait of a priest murdering a woman with an axe in an Gothic landscape racked by lightning – resonated with Holcombe, and its influence, both in specifics (the cut tree in its disjointedly theatrical space) and broader terms (its generally unsettling atmosphere and ambiguous message) can be seen in much of Holcombe’s own work. Booth acquired the picture on Holcombe’s death, and notes that by 2003 he would have had it close for pretty much the entirety of his eighty years.

Ozymandias (1948)

This small collage is one of only a handful of works to have survived from Holcombe’s early years. This image, derived from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of 1818, was made and framed the summer before he left Leeds to begin his studies at the Slade.

Corset (1951)
Revolt (1951)

An unrelated pair of early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued. Letters of the time suggest that, by 1951, he had developed a particular interest in the possibilities of colour screen-printing and was concerned with questions of printing as an element in graphic and interior design. It has been suggested that he was already moving away from fine art as a focal point of his interests by his second year at college, which – if true – would be consistent with his decision to pursue a very different career path to his contemporaries after 1955.

Gothic Conversation: A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel (1952)

A small work, explicitly indebted to Max Ernst and the conventions of Surrealist collage (see also: Corset and The Reading Room of 1951: a sly nod to Ernst’s Loplop also appears in The Kiss, made during  1957). A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel  is significant in bringing together the biological, religious and pop-cultural (here, specifically cinematic) elements that would define much of the work that followed. The atmosphere here is also notably similar to that seen in the anonymous 1825 print he had brought with him to London.

Gothic Conversation: Telekinesis I & II (c.1952 – 56?)

It is difficult to date this unsigned work in two parts with any certainty, but stylistically it closely resembles the work he was beginning to make in the mid-1950s, just prior to and following his return to Leeds in 1955. Many works like this were produced, initially as part of a series of Gothic Conversations, and this group appears to merge, around 1965, with the often similarly-toned and themed Folklore Series.

Marine (1955)

Marine (1955)

“I have no recollection at all of what was on my mind at the moment of creating this, nor any memory of the location of the landscape towards which this strange but real sea creature, whose identity I have also forgotten, directs its gaze. It feels as though I dreamed the whole conjunction and woke one morning, surprised to find it among my papers…” [Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, 1962]

Marine is one of many images made between 1953 and 1966 based on plates from Stoddard’s Portfolio, a popular collection of photographs showing the sights of the world published by The Werner Company of Chicago and London in 1893. Because the publication ran through many mass market editions over the years, by the 1950s it appears to have been a cheap and versatile source of backgrounds for Holcombe’s early collages. With only a few exceptions, he is drawn to generic and anonymous imagery rather than the more distinctive kinds of photography that were available to him had he wished to use it.

The Kiss (1957)

An unsettling image made from an equally unsettling illustration in John Bull magazine, The Kiss is notable for its anticipation of what would later become the Ghost Pornography series around 1978, in the use of fabrics as a spatially disorientating device, and for its sly nod to Loplop, the bird-like Max Ernst alter-ego who appears in many of Ernst’s collages and paintings from the 1920s onwards. Holcombe signs the work ‘GH’, Gene Harrison, and his own use of a dual pseudonym (the other is ‘MH’, or Michael Harrison) suggests a self referential joke about such avatars may be at least part of the meaning of The Kiss. This may also be reading too much into what is, after all, mostly a genuinely disturbing image of dysfunctional romance.

Untitled (1957)

This untitled image is notable mainly as a very early precursor of a technique that would later be pursued in a more systematic way, in this case the Biological Camouflage series of 1973 – 78. It is also rather unusual in Holcombe’s work for utilising an unsigned watercolour (said by Elizabeth Booth to be a small mountain landscape by a Swiss amateur painter and mountaineer, Mattheus Theobald) rather than a generic tourist brochure photograph, as the base for its visual manipulation. The painting itself was purchased from a street market during a holiday in Swabia during 1956 so is likely to have been bought with the purpose seen here in mind.

Gothic Conversation III (The House in the Forest)

The Radiation Chamber (1958)
The House in the Forest (1964)
1964 Programme (1964)

In The House in the Forest, a fractured moon hangs among the dark trees of a wood in which a famous Workers’ Centre built in Moscow during the 1920s plays the part of the traditional folk-tale cottage. Whether Holcombe intends the juxtaposition of folktale and revolutionary architecture to be read as hopeful or satirical is difficult to tell. He is certainly known to have been conscious of the interesting work being made behind the Iron Curtain (he is thought to have met Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow in Paris during 1963, and dedicated the Krakow suite of 26 collages to her in 1964) and, for similar reasons, to have been acutely aware of the problems faced by the residents of these only nominally socialist states.

The Modernists (A Haunting) [1965]

The Modernists: A Haunting (1965)

The Modernists series is a loosely themed group of works created by Holcombe between 1965 (when the prefix is first used in a title) and around 1976, when the last works appear to have been made. Unlike more consistent series, like the Krakow portfolio, or the later Biological Camouflage and Ghost Pornography cycles, The Modernists images are linked only by their interest in the thematic subject matter and imagery of modernity itself, drawing heavily on design, fashion, architecture, film and other related material. The variousness of The Modernists also allowed many one-off devices and experiments to be included: A Haunting appears to sow the seed and anticipate a technique that would be much more systematically deployed in Ghost Pornography fifteen years after it was first made.

The Modernists: Idyll (1966)
The Modernists: A Lawn (1966)
The Modernists: Jack London’s Study (1966)

Holcombe’s levels of activity appear to have fluctuated over the years, though before 1981, when he abandoned collage altogether, there are no lengthy breaks in his pattern of working. The beginning of The Modernists cycle in 1965 does appear to have had a liberating effect on him, however, and his productivity between 1966 and 1968 is large and sustained, though unlike other sequences, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. A somewhat darker outcome of this visit was the explicitly anti-fascist portfolio of monochrome images known as Images Portugaises: Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional (1961) in which the blandly appealing propaganda scenes circulated internationally by Salazar’s government were overlaid with illustrations from manuals of surgery, skin disease and machinery.

Folklore Series: The Passageway (1966)
Folklore Series: Canada (1966)
Folklore Series: The London Transmission (1966)

Concurrent with The Modernists beginnings in 1965, Holcombe had also begun making work under the general title Folklore Series, a vehicle for dark, fairy-tale like and explicitly surrealist images of enigmatic scenes and presences. Where The Modernists series develops a kind of ambiguously Pop-inflected aesthetic clearly influenced by the burgeoning young consumer culture of the mid to late 1960s, Folklore Series tends to maintain a pre-war set of concerns, notably with the uncanny and ritualistic, and its images feel more like a subtle linear evolution of the concerns seen in Holcombe’s 1950s works than a new direction. In works like The Passageway, the emphasis is very much on disturbance.

The Modernists: Diplodocus (1967)
The Modernists: A Family Luncheon (1967)
The Modernists: Afternoon (1967)
The Modernists: The Lady of Shallot (1969)
The Modernists: Primavera (1970)

The Modernists series continued to dominate Holcombe’s output during the next few years, and some of these are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the archive. Diplodocus (1967) has become something of an emblematic Holcombe image, its constructed space inhabited by a dinosaur skeleton seemingly revealed to us by an archetypal sixties girl whose outfit matches the curtain she draws back. Intended meanings and symbolism are mostly fluid and enigmatic. Holcombe’s decision to construct a series of 78 Tarot images in 1971 was justified with an observation in a letter to Paolozzi of 1972: “The Tarot reader works not by supernatural means but by allusion, as users intuitively read oblique symbols for personally applicable meanings. I believe art operates in exactly the same way, becoming meaningful only by an intuitive process…” Much in Holcombe’s Tarot Series is echoed in The Modernists, where some symbols – often sexual or political – are clear, others left completely open-ended.

Folklore Series (Christ of the Termites) [1969]

Folklore Series: Christ of the Termites (1969)

A more enigmatic response to the religious theme, here a photograph of a church interior is occupied by a termite mound, seemingly built in homage to a hovering mathematical shape. The lunar rise in the foreground of the image, strewn with thorns and roses, is an early, and therefore inaccurate, image of the moon’s surface. It’s noteworthy that several other Holcombe works of 1969 (see also: The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City) have lunar themes, probably inevitable at the high watermark of the Space Race, when after ten years of anticipation and competition with the Soviet programme, NASA’s Apollo 11 mission finally placed humans onto the lunar surface in July 1969, and (Holcombe noted later) “marked the end-point rather than a real beginning for all the promises of Space exploration our generation had been raised on”.

Folklore Series: The Innocents I (1972)
Folklore Series: Black Sun II (1973)
Folklore Series: On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975)

Many of Holcombe’s 1970s works, particularly those in the Folklore Series, develop an apocalyptic tone, often reminiscent of the scenarios found in the dystopian Science Fiction cinema of the same period. In Black Sun II (1973), Home (1975) and On a Hilly Landscape Near the Welsh Border (1975), post-war domestic residences seem oblivious to darkening skies and hovering tumours, while The Innocents I (1972) shows a child, isolated in some bleak alien landscape. Elizabeth Booth has suggested that this image may be an oblique reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, first published in English in 1943, and probably read by Holcombe during his convalescence in Malaya in 1944.

The Modernists: The Wedding at Cana (1974)

A similar technique is used here to that seen in The Family Bible series, but both the source images (here, rather kitsch mid-1950s photographic tableaux of scenes from the life of Jesus instead of the more delicately coloured engravings of The Family Bible) and Holcombe’s treatments are less reverent and, at times, border on the kind of comedy later seen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). The Wedding at Cana presents the disciples as attending a bachelor party where the light of Jesus is the glowing shirt of a 1950s washing powder advert. Holcombe, in adding deliberately provocative and inappropriate items to the scene, seems to be partly venting against the puritanical Methodism of his boyhood, but also asking how, in an age when every festival and ritual in the Christian calendar has become an opportunity for consumerism, anyone could seriously object to a collage that simply shows what these events now look like in the homes of those most likely to be offended.

Ghost Pornography: Gilt (1978)

This is the earliest image in the final (known) cycle of Holcombe’s active period, Ghost Pornography, which (a couple of precedents like 1965’s The Modernists: A Haunting aside) he began in 1978 and finally abandoned, so far as we can tell, around 1981, along with his thirty year collage-making activity in its entirety. The reason for his abandonment of this life-long habit of collage-making isn’t known, though Booth believes a combination of depression after 1979, partly based in the wider political situation, increased workload in his final decade before retirement in Leeds, and also, more hopefully, a simple feeling of completion, may all have been factors. Booth also notes that he did continue to make collages on a more occasional basis, mostly as gifts for friends and correspondents, but no longer followed his routine of working at his desk in the spare bedroom for an hour or two most evenings after work. It seems that between around 1981 and 1987 he also began to sort the material he’d been making, securing and framing pieces that may otherwise have suffered damage, but put everything into storage on his move to Exeter in 1988. It was this only partially ordered archive that Booth inherited in 2003 and from which these works have been selected.

Performing the Curtain Rituals I – IX (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors. Holcombe’s purpose, according to a letter written to Eduardo Paolozzi in 1966, was “…to pursue a feeling that once these patronised ‘native’ figures were cut from their original desert and jungle contexts and relocated in modern European interiors, they became both incongruous and rather more like ourselves: the peculiarities of our own customs seem to be exposed. A Pere Ubu-like figure inhabits an ordinary living room; a Zulu warrior poses in front of orange curtains beside an English Nurse, and so on. In the latter, the nurse’s ritual costume does not contrast with but echoes the warrior’s: her clipboard is a shield, her breastplate and utterly impractical head-dress make no more or less sense than his spear, shield and loincloth do. That half the world now aspires to these bizarre interiors only heightens this disjunction between tradition and modernity and the tensions and symbiosis that blur them. I am also in love with the colour balance these combinations of printed materials produce when they are all viewed together…”

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Jesus in Martha's House] (1967) (800x682)

ROOM TWO (The Family Bible):

The Family Bible (1967) [shown as projections]

These works exist only as loose portfolio pages, and are made on the actual plates of a Victorian bible. Because of this, they are extremely delicate and being shown here in projected rather than physical form, to aid their conservation. The series itself is one of the most explicit reflections of Holcombe’s Methodist upbringing. Notable scenes from the Old and New Testaments are brought up to date in a variety of dryly ironic ways: Moses raises his arms before a vision of the El-Al airline’s hyper-modernist office signage or descends from the Mount bearing not Ten Commandments but two brightly coloured Cream Sodas. The men wringing Joseph’s Garments in their hands appear to be polishing silver with a branded product. Joseph’s dream, related to his brethren, is the apparition of a beautiful woman stepping from a bathtub, while a dinosaur strolls past The Fall of Man, oblivious to Adam and Eve’s misfortunes. While often satirical in tone, The Family Bible series also contains more mysterious images: in The Entombment an image of Christ’s body being laid to rest is itself entombed under painted concrete, while Jesus in Martha’s House shows the blue gown of a kneeling woman dissolved into a cloud of blue hyacinth petals.

The Modernists - The Modern Interior I (1967)


The Modern Interior I (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same images, reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making these two pieces. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s photo-silkscreens, insofar as Holcombe painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

Biological Camouflage: Renaissance II (1978)ROOM THREE (Renaissance):

Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: French Renaissance II (1978)

Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance I (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance II (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance III (1978)
Biological Camouflage: Italian Renaissance IV (1978)

Most of Holcombe’s various Biological Camouflage series add cellular or other microscope images to landscape photographs, seeking “spatial displacements and disruptions of landscape and architecture, a kind of Land Art on paper. Or maybe it was just about noticing how perfectly cellular patterns blend into and unsettle generic scenes (sourced from tourist guides) using a very simple formula…”, as he wrote to Cy Albertine in 1984. The ‘simple formula’ was that each collage would impose only one modification to its background, presented as a kind of opened hatch within the frame (no diagonals or tilts of the added rectangle or square image are permitted) and somehow ‘matched’, camouflage-style, to the space it modifies. In this smaller group, however, the effect is very different. The grounding images are paintings – four Italian Renaissance frescoes and a French Renaissance tapestry and fresco – while the biological elements are both multiple, shaped and manipulated more elaborately within the frames. Even so, the unsettling effect remains comparable to the many photographic Biological Camouflage series to which this variant is a kind of marginalia.

The Modernists: The Birth of English Modernism (1965)

The earliest known work in The Modernists series, this strange image merges an opium den with molecular forms, spun from the vaguely surprised hands of an English labourer. It  presents a kind of imaginary source moment for what now, in hindsight, resembles the most significant cultural shift in Europe since the Renaissance itself.

The Modernists - The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

ANTENNA (Late Works):

The Friends of Richard Hamilton (1972)

Holcombe had first met Richard Hamilton as a fellow student at the Slade in 1948 and this homage is built around various elements associated with Hamilton’s work, all set on the background of a poster showing the members of Roxy Music, a band famously shaped by Hamilton’s influence during his time in Newcastle. Here almost completely obscured by devices like the male body-builder from Hamilton’s iconic 1956 collage What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, relaxing after his exertions of the 1950s, a beaker of unidentified white liquid from a Science Fiction B-Movie and polished Brancusi-like military projectiles, the members of Roxy Music array themselves around a run-down pool hall while Hamilton’s own implied presence is in the position occupied by the viewer, entering the scene like a guest at some spatially and temporally disjointed party.

Immersion I: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion II: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion III: Milk Capital (1970)
Immersion IV: The Surgeons (1971)
Study for Immersion (1970)

“I’m interested in all the strange stuff that circulates in our heads now: histories where fact bleeds into fiction, advertising and propaganda, stories that pretend they’re showing the world as it is, or could be, if we’d just work harder and do as we’re told. To be effective, that kind of material needs to tap into something truthful about what we do really want, subconsciously, but I’m not sure anyone can predict exactly how releasing those authentic desires along with the fabricated ones will play out. What if we buy into the desires they’re fabricating for us more deeply than they imagine possible – and then act on them?” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Letter To Eduardo Paolozzi (1972)]

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

Studies for ‘The Consumer’ (undated, c.1956 – 61)

A row of portraits of a child, each slightly different, are overlaid with consumer products, cut from magazine advertisements of the mid 1950s, and indirectly anticipate the Immersions series of 1970 – 71, though no direct link is made in Holcombe’s correspondence or journals. If the specific work for which these studies were made survives it has not yet been found, and no completed work titled The Consumer is catalogued in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: Resetting the Clock to Another Incorrect Time (1969)
The Modernists: Liberty Leading The People (1968)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated images in the Holcombe archive.

The Modernists: The Modern Interior II (1967)

One of a pair of works linked to The Modernists series, The Modern Interior I & II seem near identical on first glance, but differ in a variety of subtle ways. Holcombe himself hints that the difference in print finish on the same photographic images, as reproduced in different magazines, was one source of his interest in making two versions of this piece. The other may be a wry response to Andy Warhol’s 1960s use of photo-silkscreen, insofar as Holcombe here painstakingly hand-makes rather than mechanically reproduces an near-exact duplicate of his own composition.

The Modernists: ‘…And Now I Unleash the Power of Pure Thought…’ (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series, and such related images as ‘And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought’, pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

California: A Study in Yellow (1974)

A fairly simple 1970s update of the device often used by the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, by which the subject matter of a figurative painting is de-emphasised in order to highlight more formal and abstract properties. In Holcombe’s version, it is unclear whether he intends the same effect to be experienced, or is more obliquely satirising aspects of formalism in art by producing an image that announces its own superficiality with the word ‘GLOSS’ hovering inside the frame on a somewhat exotic looking paint can. There may be a self-deprecating humour at work in that, by 1974, Holcombe was already making his own formally constrained Biological Camouflage images, which adhere to very strict and near-minimalist compositional rules.

THE READING ROOM (Miscellany):

The Reading Room (1951)

One of a relatively small group of surviving early works, most probably made while studying at the Slade. It’s doubtful that collage would have been part of Holcombe’s official portfolio, and he is recorded as having specialised in printmaking. So far, no examples of Holcombe’s prints have emerged, but much of his archive remains uncatalogued.

Constellation: Coffee Lounge (1955)
Constellation: Shellac I & II (1955)
Constellation: Pump & Shellac III (1955)

Eduardo Paolozzi recalls a number of these small, square images being displayed “scattered across a wall with drawing pins, approximating the pattern of a particular star formation, possibly Orion or The Great Bear, but I can’t exactly remember. Holcombe had an idea that he might photograph and develop the images as negatives and present them in tiny light-boxes inside a darkened room, but nothing ever came of the idea to my knowledge”. The five images framed here are the sole remaining fragments of this unrealised project.

Study for ‘Performing the Curtain Rituals’ (1966)

Performing the Curtain Rituals seems to be a group of works that stands almost exactly mid-way between The Modernists and Folklore Series in Holcombe’s mid-sixties output, merging ethnographic photographs of ‘primitive’ peoples, mostly taken from encyclopaedias and missionary sources, where they were invariably framed in imperial and racially superior terms, with then-current domestic interiors.

Comics Series I: The Birth of the Hero (1970)
Comics Series II: Confrontation on the Steps (1970)

Holcombe is known to have had an interest in comics and science fiction from an early age, going so far as to have published at least two short SF stories, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health and Personal Playback, under his own name in an American journal, Lomax Review, during 1976 and 1978. The quartet of works making up this Comics Series and such related images as The Modernists: And Now I Unleash The Power of Pure Thought (1970), pay a fairly straightforward homage to the genre, each image implying a whole series of back-stories and events that anyone familiar with the medium would recognise immediately.

The Modernists: Outside The Lunar City (1969)
The Modernists: Our Price to You, Including Postage & Packaging! (1969)
The Modernists: The Last Supper (1974)
The Modernists: Sof-Set by Max Factor (1966)

Unlike other sequences in Holcombe’s body of work, The Modernists is not visually and thematically cohesive or unified, with works varying in size, format and approach. The Modernists tends to be allusive and often refers obliquely to the works of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa, with whose works Holcombe became familiar after a research trip to study system built public housing in Lisbon during 1960. The Modernists series dominates Holcombe’s output during years between 1965 and 1974, and some of these works are among the best-known and most widely-circulated works in the Holcombe archive.

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).