Andrew Holmquist: Theatrical Abstractions


In 2014, Andrew Holmquist presented a video titled Painting, Time and Space at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s MFA Show. In the video, he translates painting to a three-dimensional space and reveals the process of constructing a complex composition. Ribbons of color unfold across the screen and layer on top of each other. As the camera moves backwards in space, more stage props – a cart here, a ladder there – come into view. At the time, Holmquist was working for the facilities management department at SAIC, so he had access to a collection of objects that assisted him in creating the final product.

In his recent exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery, Holmquist experimented with many of the same themes that Painting, Time and Space brings forward. The show, STAGE LEFT featured a series of new paintings – Holmquist is known primarily as a painter – but in the latest iteration of his work, he moved more confidently into film and sculpture. He noted, “In the past I’ve had shows that have a sculpture in them in addition to paintings, or I’ve shown the comic books independent of the paintings, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to present these works as pieces of the same whole.” 

Accompanying the paintings in STAGE LEFT was a collection of small-scale ceramic sculptures that Holmquist made with the help of his parents who run a pottery business in northern Minnesota. “The sculptures,” Holmquist said, “they initially started off as action figures from the paintings, or taking specific gestures or moves that appear frequently in the paintings, and plucking them out and plopping them into the three-dimensional space to see what that actually does and what it’s like to actually be able to walk around to the backside of something rather than just imagine it.” 

For the exhibition, Holmquist situated the sculptures on pedestals of varying heights and arranged them on a large plinth. He said, “It seemed like an elaborate stage, a Broadway stage setup or back to [Hollywood film director and musical choreographer] Busby Berkeley–these figures emerging from water. Their grand entrance!” The monochromatic sculptures reiterate much of the aesthetic vocabulary found in his paintings. In one sculpture a ribbon (or is it a red carpet?) cascades over a ribbed cylindrical form. In another sculpture a pair of four pale pink legs are poised, ready to descend a staircase.

Like the sculptures, Holmquist’s paintings move fluidly between the worlds of abstraction and figuration. He layers bodies and perspectives on top of each other to create a tense space full of sideways glances and hints at eroticism. In Suit of Armor, a yellow hand emerges from a chaotic tumble of black brushstrokes as if to ground the viewer in space. Holmquist insists that the use of hands in his paintings allows, “the audience pivot backwards into the painting. The audience can recognize a part and spin themselves into this world that I’m presenting.”

He continues, “These hands waving you on in, they’re friendly waving, ‘Hello! Come on!’ but then this yellow one – it’s waving hello but also blocking you from entering. Because that’s the experience of looking at painting - you can imagine these spaces in these paintings opening up but clearly you can’t ever go in them. That’s fun because if you could it’d probably be disappointing anyways - this kind of half imagined world is better than the full story.”

Growing up, Holmquist participated in small-town theater productions, but he never studied the discipline formally. Nonetheless, the idea of a staged production – a space that exists at a particular time and for a particular audience continues to inform his work. “These places that I depict,” he said, “they go back only a handful of feet rather than miles.” 

David Hockney, Holmquist said, is a major influence on his work, because “he uses that same idea of the stage in his paintings.” In particular, he appreciates Hockney’s painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman).  “The painting uses this isometric perspective that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s really tangible – it’s three-dimensional but it’s not realistic three-dimensions, it’s a pictorial depiction of three dimensions. And the space of that painting specifically, that blue sky, which is infinite space in reality, it reads more like a tarp or a plastic scrim that’s behind these characters and these stage sets than an actual infinite space.” Holmquist follows in this notion: he experiments with multiple perspectives, creating spaces that look somewhat familiar but could not exist in reality. 

As an artist, Holmquist benefits from what he calls “low-tech magic,” meaning that he can pull off “pretty dazzling special effects” within the four corners of a canvas. Recently, he extended his philosophy to film. He collaborated with filmmaker Alexander Stewart to create Magic Hands, a 16mm film that, like his paintings and sculptures, fluctuates between figuration and abstraction. Holmquist had previously created video works but chose film in this case because of the high stakes of the medium. “You can’t do a reshoot because it’s too expensive. You get one shot at it. And that’s the same way with painting. You can certainly wipe something off but with this kind of painting it’s these fresh, seemingly spontaneous gestures that need to hit their mark. I like that drama.”

Holmquist was also attracted to the potential of color with 16mm film. A few years ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, he saw a rare print of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and was overwhelmed. “It was the most colorific experience I’ve ever had. [The film] was so vivid, the emerald greens and the purples were traumatic, they’re so, so intense.” 

The final component of Holmquist’s exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery was an impressive publication flooded with warm yellows, shades of teal, and rich pinks. Part comic book, part catalogue, the publication weaves together pieces of Holmquist’s paintings, sculptures, and film to create an absurdist narrative about a group of superheroes who transform from casually sunbathing at the beach to performing the greatest rendition of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream.” For Holmquist, the publication was one of many ways viewers could interpret the work in STAGE LEFT. “It gives people permission to concoct their own strange narrative.” 

Looking forward, Holmquist is excited to be included in the group exhibition, Drama Queer, curated by art historian Jonathan D. Katz. The exhibition is part of the Queer Arts Festival opening June 2016 in Vancouver, BC.




Top image: Andrew Holmquist, Stage Left, Installation view, Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago, January 29 – March 12, 2016, Photo: Robert Chase Heishman