Whitehot Magazine

May 2013: Erin Shirreff and Nancy Holt @ Contemporary Art Gallery

Erin Shirreff, Lake, 2012. Colour video still, silent. Loop. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley Gallery, New York.

Nancy Holt: Selected Photo and Film Works
Erin Shirreff: Pictures
April 19th - June 16th
Contemporary Art Gallery

by Caitlin Chaisson

“Do you see it?”

“The road you walk on is paved. It’s a paved asphalt road.”
excerpt from Stone Ruin Tour, 1967, Nancy Holt.

The Contemporary Art Gallery’s present concurrent exhibition hosts separate solo shows for the work of Nancy Holt and Erin Shirreff.[1] On the left-hand side of the small foyer in the entrance, past the bottom of the staircase, you can find Shirreff’s video work under high ceilings in the B.C. Binning Gallery. On the right, opposite the front desk and umbrella stand, Holt’s photograph slides sit in the Alvin Balkind Gallery.[2] A corridor joins one gallery to the other, and while passing through the exhibitions, it became evident to me the links between the two artists extend beyond, and were smartly maintained, by that trodden path of concrete.

Stone Ruin Tour (1967) by Holt is a combination of text and image. The projector circulates through 16 slides which are but a small portion of the 126 images taken during the tour. Fairly unexceptional, and true to the insatiable and indiscriminate nature of most tourist photos (you can never take enough pictures, and everything is important because who knows when we’ll be back and what if we miss something?), the black and white images present a khaki-clad trio as they press through dense foliage in the woods of Great North Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

“Just continue” the voice prompts from an excerpt of the adjacent text, to “West’s Diner to the left across the highway.” Eventually, there will be “a rope across the entrance and there’s a stone structure that narrows towards the top. It’s rectangular and it narrows towards the top.” The set of instructions make it clear that these are directions, but what remains vague is whether they were given to the group as a way of finding the site where the tour would begin, or whether they are part of the tour as presented by Holt. The language, repetitive and colloquial, does not seem rehearsed enough to be official. When participating in this escapade as a viewer though, the only guide we have is this voice. From this position, it is incredibly tempting to try to ‘find’ the described markers in the slides. [3] It’s as though from the helm of the bus, speaking into the crackling microphone, the guide directs our attention to an approaching glacial boulder, visible out the right-side windows. A statement that decisively splits your attention between half-listening and maniacally scrambling over the blue vinyl armrests of the seats beside you.

Installation view , Nancy Holt, Stone Ruin Tour, 1967.
Courtesy of Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Scott Massey.

Holt and Shirreff are artists most readily identified by their sculptural work; Holt emerging from the generation of Land Artists in the 1960s, and Shirreff, an MFA Sculpture graduate (2005), working with amorphous materials such as plasticine or compressed ash. None of these three-dimensional objects however are to be found in Pictures or Selected Photo and Film Works, something the exhibition titles faithfully convey.

To have one exhibition of a sculptor’s work with no sculpture would seem strange, but to have two distinct exhibitions of two sculptor’s work with no sculpture would seem deliberate.[4] And though unusual, this anomaly is not an impossible position. Most artists are, and have always been, engaged in multiple fields of work. Further, I believe a fairly strong argument can be made (but one that I will only state here for sake of brevity) that: for those who work in three-dimensions, their involvement in other media becomes even more prescient. At its most general, sculpture needs to be somehow built--which requires a certain amount of drafting or drawing or conceptualizing. It also, at it’s most general, needs to somehow be documented or presented--which requires a certain amount of familiarity with material, photography, videography, writing, or archiving. [5] But with that in mind, none of the pieces presented by Holt or Shirreff could be considered preparatory for, or derivative of, their sculpture. Independent in their own right, I think there is something to be said for the ideas that can be tilled when viewing pictures that suspend (to some extent) their photographic conceits, and turn to others, such as their more sculptural preoccupations.

The directions laid out in Ruin Tour have an acute attentiveness to detail, a quality that both Shirreff’s and Holt’s other works in the CAG contain. For Holt, that attentiveness is often associated with ‘focusing’ and for Sheriff with ‘spotlighting’. Holt’s photographic process quite often involves multiple photographs laid out as grids or parallel planes. Either the subject of the photograph stays still while the camera physically moves closer or farther--as in Bar None (Robert Smithson, New Jersey) (1967) or Concrete Visions (1967)--or the camera stays still while the subject gets closer or farther: Over the Hill (1968). Either way, the effect of these photographs is similar to the way in which you can narrow or increase the scope of your vision by focusing your eyes.

Nancy Holt, Concrete Visions, 1967.Composite inkjet from original 126 format black and white negatives in 2012.
Courtesy of Contemporary Art Gallery.

Shirreff’s slow adjustments of light and colour make the projection Lake (2012) appear to be some version of time-lapse over the course of a number of weather-vacillating days. Absorbed in the peacefulness of what looks like a remote pastoral location, eventually your attention lands on the patterns of the water, or the cloud in the sky. It becomes immediately apparent the time-lapse is not of the outdoor site. The cloud and the ripples are static. Taken from a vintage tourism brochure, the idyllic Lake Okanagan is a magazine print. Shirreff manually performs the movement of the lights in the studio which certain parts of the video loop will tellingly confirm. At one point, a rosy glow begins to hover in the sky. The colour, altogether unnatural, is a highlight reflected off the magenta in the CMYK magazine inks. When you realize the light is not emanating from the sky, but reflected off the surface of the page, your focus begins to truly shift. It follows the spotlight as it moves over the magazine, and rather than looking into the rippled water of the photograph, your attention is pulled backwards, closer to you, against the stippling and puckering of the page.

Much like the specificity of the guided directions, Holt and Shirreff’s ways of working draw attention. At one point in Stone Ruin Tour, the speaker elaborates on a garage. An image presumably culled from memory, the garage is described having a “central door with 3 wooden squares missing from the top,” along with other features that are carefully outlined with precision. But, similar to West’s Diner, this building never appears in Holt’s 16 slides. Try imagining being en route somewhere. You ask directions and they tell you, much like Holt’s speaker, to go straight until you get to the forked road, make a left and then another left when you get to the bridge. More often than not, I would argue you’d pass by these markers without a second thought. In your head, you would register “this is the object / location they described” and then you would quickly continue en route, knowing that you are or are not headed in the right direction. These markers are not the stuff of tourist snapshots. They are pointed to, shouted at, “THERE IT IS!” and sped past, “QUICK! Make a right!”

So then, what actually happens when such things are pointed out? What is the difference between focusing and tunnel vision? If something is pointed out to us, do we end up ‘missing it’ in the broader scheme of things? Is the line between being observant and being unobservant really that fine? I think this question can only be answered if you have some understanding of the initial objective. If your objective is to get to Lake Okanagan, then all the other pit stops and gas stations and fruit stands are negligible. You can’t really be blamed for being unobservant if you miss Il Vecchio’s sandwich stop [6], but you can be blamed for being unobservant if you miss Exit 286 and the turn onto the Okanagan Connector. The influence that others may have on your level of observation (by pointing things out, or referring you to something), and the amount to which they may guide or mislead, also depends on those objectives.

Installation view, Nancy Holt: Selected Photo and Film Works, 2013. Courtesy of Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. Photo: Scott Massey.

It is hard to ignore the role that influence can play in the pairing of Holt and Shirreff. As Lucy Gallun notes in the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art Exhibition Brochure, “Shirreff’s interest in 1960s and 1970s-era sculpture extends to her [...]work,” [7] an era which Holt was an active participant. Shirreff has also expressed interest in Holt’s colleague James Turrell [8], as well as the ‘snapshot’ documentation of Holt’s late husband, Robert Smithson.[9] Knowing this crossover of interest, it seems there is even more to the nearness of the artists in the CAG exhibition. A generationally-established artist such as Holt, shown alongside a (comparatively) emerging artist such as Shirreff (who has vocalized her indebtedness to some of the players of that generation), would trigger the tendency to try to read one artist’s work through the other.

I wonder if sometimes we are too quick to dismiss the effect that other people have on us--particularly when it comes to questions of influence. And even more so when it comes to topics concerning ‘creativity,’ something we have bound quite tightly with ‘individuality.’ And while it is (for many reasons) depreciatory to imagine Holt as the paver of the road, and Shirreff as one who absentmindedly travels down it, I think it is equally unfair to ignore the relationship entirely. These other artists have given some direction to Holt’s work. And to give directions to someone is to draw a fine line between being general and specific. A balance is struck somewhere between overwhelming confusion and helpful focus. In an interview for Circa Art Magazine, Holt comments: “I mean, the artworks are, in a sense, useless. They function, but they’re not altogether necessary, so that means they’re art, they work on a different level. But they’re ‘hooked in’ to already existing functional systems, which is what we have here- it’s a pre-existing functional system” [10]

I think there is something quite telling and insightful about the position Holt takes. Further, the idea of directions, guided tours, even the question of influence can be thought of in relatively similar terms. They are things you couldn’t argue as being particularly necessary to entertain, but at the same time, they remain very much related to the existing places or people they are coupled with. It’s quite remarkable to have the chance to see Shirreff and Holt’s work in such proximity to one another. To see how contemporaneous some of the issues raised in Holt’s work remain, even after thirty--nearly forty--years. And to see how resourcefully Shirreff re-phrases and addresses some of the questions asked by both herself and her predecessors, using markers that are have resonance today.

And sometimes, as the bus barrels forwards, with your head pressed and your nose bent against the glass windowpane, it’s worth the time lean backwards a bit--giving your eyes the chance to do a double take.

Erin Shirreff, Lake, 2012. Colour video still, silent. Loop. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley Gallery, New York.

Erin Shirreff: Pictures. Installation shot of Sculpture Park (Tony Smith) (2006/2013).
16mm film, transferred from video. Loop. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley Gallery, New York.

Nancy Holt, Stone Ruin View, 1969. Temple of the Sun, Palenque. Inkjet printed from original 126 format
transparency in 2012.  Courtesy of Contemporary art Gallery.


[1] Raymond Boisjoly’s work is also on display (and not to be missed) at the CAG, but in the window spaces and off-site. For the purposes of this review though, I’m not going to address his work.
[2] I did not have a chance to visit the off-site, which is where more of Holt’s work can be found.
[3] To prove how tempting I found it, I ventured to find what “West’s Diner” referred to by doing a simple Google search. I believe “West’s Diner” actually refers to Park West’s Diner in Cedar Park Grove, which I found through Yelp! It is the only Diner with “West” in the name that sits on the highway (as described in the directions) in the area. Somewhat certain this is the aforementioned Diner, I believe this further illustrates the disjuncture between the written directions and the images taken from the tour. Holt’s photographs are not of landmarks like these.
[4] Deliberate in the sense that there may be a more considered approach to the way the CAG curated these exhibitions simultaneously, than what they reveal or make available in their publications.
[5] This is not to say that other mediums are ‘below’ or ‘less developed’ than sculpture.
[6] Though, if you enjoy sandwiches, I sincerely promise you will regret missing it.
[7] Lucy Gallun. “Erin Shirreff: Still, Flat, and Far.” Exhibition brochure. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2010.
[8] Saad-Cook, Janet, Charles Ross, Nancy Holt and James Turrell. “Touching the Sky: Artworks Using Natural Phenomena, Earth, Sky and Connections to Astronomy.” Leonardo. Vol. 21, No. 2 (1988). Pp. 123-124. MIT Press. Accessed via JSTOR.
[9] Gallun.
[10] Donnelly, Micky and Nancy Holt. “Nancy Holt Interviewed by Micky Donnelly.” Circa Art Magazine. No. 11 (July. - Aug., 1983). Pp. 7. Accessed via JSTOR




Caitlin Chaisson

Caitlin Chaisson is an artist and printmaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She earned her BCom with a Minor in Art History and Theory at the University of British Columbia, and continued studies through the Fine Art Foundation Degree program at the University of Brighton. Alongside her practice is a serious engagement with writing, predominately art criticism and prose poetry.

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