Dennis Hollingsworth: Painting with a Punch
Why do I think of Palahnuick’s Fight Club when I look at Dennis Hollingsworth’s paintings? It is because a brush stroke, like a punch, can have no intellectual mediation if it is going to have impact. Thought impedes these actions because their power derives from the body. Nevertheless, a brush stroke, like a punch, is also a culturally loaded sign. It can be read as a signifier of authority, dominance, assertion - and all that politically incorrect macho stuff.
Today punching is confined to sanctified spaces like gyms - where its wild power is tamed in corporate, clean, co-ed environments. The current vogue for male bashing has made men too afraid of being ridiculed as testosterone crazed animals to revel in punching outside the parameters of gyms. Tough babes might be sexy but tough guys are passé. A similar marginalization applies to the white male abstract painter - taunted by accusations from politically correct conceptualists, of being reactionary and perpetuating a worn out modernist legacy.
Nevertheless, as the success of Palahnuick’s dark satire, Fight Club and other dark classics like Krakauer”s Into The Wild suggest, a consumer culture of licensed brand name identities cannot satisfy the human longing for experience in the raw. In a technologically simulated world of numbed-out disassociated experience, there is little opportunity to feel alive in the moment. However, as Fight Club suggests, when the primal human shadow is unleashed in unpremeditated physical action, fear disappears and a real sense of being alive in the moment occurs. As Tyler says,“ You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive in Fight Club.”
The power of instinctual primitive action can be felt - but not discussed. “Fight Club isn’t about words” as Tyler says. Nor is the process of painting. Of course, this view is not in keeping with the dominant semiotic theory in the art world which - for the last four decades - has emphasized the role of linguistic mediation over direct physical experience. An intriguing parallel might be drawn between Fight Club’s spoof on the proliferation of twelve step support groups in society at large and the spread of the semiotic virus in academic art talk circles. Both use talk therapy and group identification, to mask the fear of acting spontaneously and taking risks. The academic semiotic virus has paralyzed spontaneous action in art schools, by creating a disembodied intellectualism which prefers the ugly (in “pathetic art” or “abject art”) because it is considered more serious, while distrusting the senses - hence beauty is banished as decorative. Nevertheless, the Greek word aesthesis means “knowledge of the senses.” In Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic philosophy (currently regaining importance through Neo-Kantian philosophers) the feeling of pleasure in contemplating beauty, the sublime and the melancholic is based on reflection -hence these are intellectually based “aesthetic emotions.” (1)
Just as the modernist emphasis upon dumb intentionality reached its reductio ad absurdum when artists claimed that anything they did physically was art (even Jackson Pollock’s public pissing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace), the postmodern emphasis upon linguistic mediation has reached an equally reductive absurdity when art school theorists dismiss drawing as a wrist skill and turn art into a form of sound bite discourse.The outdated Cartesian mind/body separation has simply been reversed and theory has become the new thought police, reducing art to pseudo philosophy. It is a sad irony that art - a form of communication that precedes language - has been buried under argot, in a time when we are moving increasingly into a visual based culture - which is technologically simulated and desensitizing.
Meanwhile, new science emphasizes relativity and the interconnections between mind/body, subject/object and inner/outer realities - which have been re-conceived as complementarities instead of polarities. The dynamics of communication have shifted to an emphasis upon making links between the seen and the unseen. In the context of this scientific paradigm shift, the postmodern emphasis upon the critique of cultural determinants has become as reductive and one-sided as the modernist emphasis upon the thoughtless emotive expression of isolated subjectivity. Both over-valorize outmoded dichotomies. So where does that leave painting?
Dennis Hollingsworth’s paintings raise playful questions about the paradoxical position of abstract painting today - caught in the impasse between opposing camps. While Hollingsworth is highly skeptical about the conventions that inscribe painting, he also recognizes the impossibility of working without them. He uses this paradox as the impetus for his work - turning the painterly process into a critical reflection upon itself, that constantly raises new questions about its own modus operandi.
For Hollingsworth, the lessons of this relativistic era lie in the ability to flow and create fluid hierarchies - so that the critique becomes more intimate with the subject. Hollingsworth cites Joan Didion’s notion of “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience” which she says is frozen with “the impression of a narrative line upon disparate images.” (2) This “shifting” flow of impressions interests Hollingsworth more than a fixed reading that would arrest the phantasmagoria. Hollingsworth prefers what he calls a “fugitive schemata” which allows each move to map out several more moves at once - creating an impression of paint moving over paint in a way that is endlessly interpretable. Hollingsworth’s layered surfaces become a self-reflective space in which questions do not admit the closure of an answer - endings become beginnings, outer turns into inner and viewers are left to make of it what they can.
Hollingsworth emphasizes the importance of keeping himself “off balance” so that the painting process becomes a series of “what happens if....” strategies. The curiosity and sense of exuberant joy that underlie Hollingsworth’s paintings, have an infectious quality which holds the viewer’s attention. We see his cherishment of paint in marks that recreate themselves over and over again - becoming one with their medium. Paint is the lifeblood of these paintings and it is by pulling strength from movements of paint that Hollingsworth tests their limits - only to return to his initial starting point with a new determination to upset “the givens” by reformulating the problem in a different strategy of checks and balances. The wetness of the paint is related to drying time, but Hollingsworth’s paint handling keeps the paint wetter. Hollingsworth’s own pleasure in the painting process happens when the paintings are wet - and he re-creates this moment of wetness in a wet field to allow the viewer the same intimate pleasurable experience.
While many artists prefer to follow the dictates of vogue critical dogmas, Hollingsworth belongs to that smaller group of courageously individualistic artists who are receptive to the larger climate of ideas - that find a way into the artistic process, more subliminally. Hollingsworth’s fascination with the energy that can be drawn and released from paint and the vibrant beauty of paint’s physicality, reflects the quantum era - which is based on the inter-relationship between energy and matter. Hollingsworth creates an artistic synthesis of thought/action in the medium of paint, instead of collapsing into outdated modernist/postmodernist polarities by bridging the divide between mind/body - which subtly reflects the times.
It is revealing that Hollingsworth’s entrée into painting is via architecture - giving him a broader concept of what it means to be an artist and a sense of freedom to use building implements like dry wall tools and palette knives to pull paint in non-traditional ways. This love of architecture is behind Hollingsworth’s use of bigger tools - to build large areas of color in bulldozing actions which lead to a next action of either enhancing or covering. These building tools allow brevity which creates an arrested quality, so that every action is frozen in its best form. The concept of a “series of edits” is an architectural idea: based on surveying land, pouring foundations and constantly correcting mistakes in the structure of the wood and the dry wall. Hollingsworth enjoys this process of “correcting mistakes” because he says “ every application of paint has a beautiful aspect.” He continually tries to isolate these beautiful aspects in the painting process and “cover up not so beautiful aspects.” Hollingsworth begins paintings by spending time with a blank canvas until he can start in a way that will not “foreclose beforehand what happens.” He says he likes to “enter a certain territory without wanting to prematurely craft an end game” while simultaneously accepting the apparent contradiction that he “eliminates the surprises along the way.” Hollingsworth’s paintings are never the same, but always one of a kind - as Robert Rauschenberg advised him.
Over the last fifteen years, Hollingsworth has used custom made origami-like tools cut from stiff cardboard to spike pools of wet paint so that they crystallize and compound into spiny paint elements - that give the impression of monads communicating with one another, by vibrating. These natural spinning shapes are often found in nature - but still keep the character of the paint itself, which dries from the surface into the interior. Hollingsworth’s appeal to nature is influenced by his love of Antoni Gaudi from years living in Barcelona - where he has another studio. The corpuscular monads also have an underwater sea life quality, which Hollingsworth explores in beautiful terrines composed of sculptural daubs of thick paint. After Hollingsworth relocated from Los Angeles to New York last year, he began to further develop the sculptural possibilities of using armature with the plastic possibilities of impasto paint. The bright colored monads in these terrines, recall Jacques Cousteau’s underwater world, which has a strong influence on Hollingsworth’s lifelong passion for underwater nature - including spending time as a sailor in his youth.
Hollingsworth’s non-traditional approach to painting is also influenced by his background in fencing which taught him that by drilling choreographed physical actions into muscular memory, the mind is freed to recognize ways of disrupting an opponent’s pattern. By employing this fencing strategy in painting, Hollingsworth has developed the “chops” to recognize patterns fast enough to disrupt them. Unlike the old modernist school of slam dunk action painters who shun thought processes and the postmodernist school of image scavenging conceptualists who shun real physicality, Hollingsworth combines thought and action with a measured precision which makes his paintings very contemporary - yet they also have a classical ancestry that reaches back from Gaudi to Goya’s love of the phantasmagoric.
The phenomenologist philosopher, Merleau - Ponty insists that “it is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into painting.” (3) The shifting digressions of Hollingsworth’s movements of paint - returning over and over again to their generating axis, vividly illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s idea that the world is re-created in painting through the mediacy of the painter’s own body, “in a system of exchanges between seeing and the seen.”
Hollingsworth’s paintings are the inverse of what Hal Foster calls “the expressive fallacy” (4): that artists create to express themselves. As Foster argues, “mediated expressions preceded the artist: they speak him rather more than he expresses them.” (5) Instead of falling into this outmoded fallacy, Hollingsworth reveals himself through his intellectual approach to the physicality of the painterly process. When modernist painting escapes into bodiless painterly gestures it becomes inflated with narcissistic claims of “personality”. When postmodern art escapes into appropriating banal images from the mass media spectacle, it offers nothing worth discovering and nothing worth feeling.
However, the body has always generated the most powerful metaphors for painting, because as Merleau-Ponty argues, every painterly technique “is a technique of the body.” (6) Barbara Maria Stafford suggests that the survival of art may depend on reclaiming its relation to the body as a “locus” for experiencing the world from a phenomenological perspective - of the inside out - rather than as just a semiotic sign or image. She argues that we need art today that is “anchored in something that isn’t simulated, degraded and cerebral” (7) - which is a tendency that results from the over-valorization of the mind over the body.
The Mercurial and the Brave, 4.5” x10.5”, 2013. photo: Courtesy Dennis Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth’s corporeal paintings are “anchored” in an intensely masculine, visceral awareness that insists on the embodied presence of a painterly mark. Stafford argues that we need art that reminds us that we are “incarnated on earth, and we have spirit and flesh and that the two have become one.” (8) Hollingsworth’s luscious, polyrhythmic paintings are constantly searching for this fluid integration of mind and matter through an intellectual awareness of the way thoughtful physical action can be embodied in the medium of paint - which he loves for its fleshy quality.
Hollingsworth’s paintings demonstrate that enthusiasm embodies the intellect - and creates a flowing, fluid experience, that binds mind and body together. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the reason that Hollingsworth’s corporeal paintings remind me of Fight Club is that he also recognizes that the antidote to the schizophrenia of living in a numbed-out, disassociated, media consumer spectacle lies in unifying thought and action to heal a split sense of self - an integration his paintings embody in an exuberant, joyful way.
1 Brady, Emily and Haapala, Arto “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion” Contemporary Aesthetics Vol. 1. 2003
2 Didion, Joan The White Album: Essays. Simon and Schuster.1979.
3 Merleau -Ponty, Maurice ”Eye and Mind” Art and Its Significance. An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory Ed Stephen David Ross. State University of New York Press. 1994.
4 Foster, Hal “The Expressive Fallacy” Recodings. Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics Ed Hal Foster. Bay Press.1985.
5 Foster, Hal Op.cit.
6 Merleau -Ponty, Maurice Op.cit.
7 Stafford, Barbara Maria “Interview” by Suzanne Ramyak, Sculpture. May/June1994.
8 Stafford, Barbara Maria Op.cit
Special thanks to Dennis Hollingsworth for many in-depth conversations, gallery and studio visits in an eighteen year traveling dialogue - from Los Angeles to New York - which helped develop insights into his painting process.
This essay is an updated, expanded version of an earlier essay “Painting with a Punch” that first appeared in the artist’s catalog, Dennis Hollingsworth, published by Andre Buchmann Galerie, Koln, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo and Chac Mool Gallery, Los Angeles. Power Zoom Printing, Los Angeles. 2000.
By Lita Barrie