Whitehot Magazine

Loie Hollowell's Space Between: A Survey of Ten Years at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

Loie Hollowell, 10pm Feeding - Around the Clock, 2022, soft pastel on paper 48 1/2 x 48 1/2, © Loie Hollowell, courtesy Pace Gallery


By GARY BREWER April 22, 2024 

“I related womb and vagina to ‘primary knowledge,’ with strokes and cuts on bone and rock by which I believed my ancestor measured her menstrual cycles, pregnancies, lunar observations, agricultural notations, the origins of time factoring, of mathematical equivalences, of abstract relations.”

—Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics

Painting is an expressive form that is nimble enough to communicate layers of thoughts and feelings simultaneously. It can refer to a multitude of languages in a single gestalt. A curve can convey the sensuous erotic form of the body or reference an early modernist style of abstraction; it can make a humorous aside to a period of bad interior design or suggest spiritual iconography from Tantric art. In a nanosecond all these rich streams of visual information illuminate the mind and spirit. 

The 10-year survey of Loie Hollowell’s work at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is a brilliant expression of how much can be contained in a single image. Her paintings and drawings meld elements of the female and male body with abstract images; luscious mounds suggesting vulvae, phalluses and other sensuous bodily forms rise subtly from the surface. Her exquisite chromatic gradients both conceal and accentuate these low reliefs. The surface bulges are slight aberrations in the visual field that peek out with a playful wink, enticing you to come closer. 

In more recent works the body is more fully depicted. Bellies of pregnant women, breasts and nipples physically come out into space or are depicted with trompe l’oeil vividness. Birth, fecundity and the female body as a symbol of the mystery of life are conveyed in images that balance delicately between abstraction and representation. These paintings are a direct expression from the flesh of a woman: Hollowell’s pregnancies and giving birth to her children can be felt in all their emotional, spiritual and visceral aspects.

Hollowell’s painterly surfaces, her touch, the looping repetitive brush strokes that create her subtle tonal gradients are sublime. The colors transition through a range of intensities. Subdued tertiary colors appearing between primary colors create muddy, muted transitory zones, imbuing the purer colors with added luminosity. The textures range from coarse to smooth, highly refined surfaces, her brush strokes blending the colors wet into wet. They emit an inner light that conveys a palpable emotion. 

Loie Hollowell, Red Hole, 2019, oil paint, acrylic medium, and high density foam on linen mounted on panel, 72 1/8 x 54 x 3 1/4, © Loie Hollowell, courtesy Pace Gallery

All of these qualities that communicate to our minds and eyes can also be felt in the body. Indeed the works’ capacity to be felt, the subtle tactile surface qualities combined with the luminous transitions between colors, seems to effect a somatic response in the viewer. This fusion of abstraction, color and the body is finely tuned. It is a pleasure to see work that is so focused and intelligent, hybridizing many layers of cultural and personal history to speak in an expressive language of the flesh.

In the early painting “Stacked Lingam in red, yellow, purple and green” (2016) the concentric curving bands of color suggest a kind of motif popular in interior design from the 1970s. She amplifies the power of this simple motif with radiant colors and a textured surface. Each curving band leaves a negative space at the edge where the background color would be. In these small, curved triangular spaces she created a subtle dimensional relief, a vulva-mound with the anatomical slit of a stylized vagina. A small lozenge-shaped relief in the center suggests a Tantric point for meditative focus. These subtle breaches in the uniform flatness of the abstract image create an exquisite tension, its effect surprising and energizing.  As the title suggests, the image is of abstract phallic forms: the artist’s playful interplay between formalist abstraction and erotic physicality opens up a world of possibilities. 

Hollowell said of her early works, “In all of these paintings I take an element from my [own] and my husbands body and reduce them into geometric forms that I then configure into pretty goofy compositions. I am interested in having conversations about sexuality and sensuality that are inclusive and inviting [as] opposed to the often aggressive and myopic images one finds in porn. … I offer images that encourage and promote pleasure and liberation.”

“Red Hole” (2022) is a complex arrangement of circles and half circles configured around a vertical line. The half circles are in a deeper relief, protruding from the canvas an inch or more. The tension between the purely optical effects of color and the low physical relief is mesmerizing. This painting suggests cycles of time, a diagram describing cosmic events in the heavens, or a configuration of forms meant to induce states of meditation. Both recognizable and refreshingly new, it touches upon ancient cultural memories. 

Hollowell spoke about this series: “This painting is part of my plumb line or standing figure series. … These paintings were made after giving birth to my first child. The pregnancy and postpartum experience were so jarring, and my body was so physically altered, that I needed to create these modular paintings that could explore my changing mental and physical state. … I like the idea of a plumb line as a metaphor for my spine and my attempt, postpartum, to realign my body and regain my stability of mind.” 

It is fascinating to see an artist create abstract paintings directly related to physical and emotional experiences. Much of the history of abstraction is an attempt to free the artist from the personal, from the idea of “self.” It has often been a search for pure feeling or metaphysical truths. Hollowell’s plumb line paintings are a direct response to the beauty, trauma and profound transformation of herself and her body from the experience of giving birth. 

One room is full of small graphite and pastel drawings on paper, studies for her paintings. The artist remarked on these, “I make a drawing for almost every single work that becomes a painting. Because of the time-consuming nature of my paintings with their sculpted elements it’s crucial that I know the compositions before I begin."

Loie Hollowell, Stacked Lingam in red, yellow, purple and green, 2016, oil paint, acrylic medium, sawdust, and high density foam on linen mounted on panel, 48 x 36 x 2 1/4, © Loie Hollowell, courtesy Pace Gallery

Though small, these drawings have a surprising intensity. The forms and diagrammatic compositions in some cases recall other early modernist artists such as Arthur Dove or the spiritualist abstractions of Hilma Af Klint. In the margins detailed notes describe ideas to be realized in the paintings. One note reads, “Pointalist boob tips come forward.” Another reads, “Sky circle and surrounding area have pointillist marks, different from anything I’ve used before.” Her extraordinary skills of color, design and craft create images with a razor-sharp focus, each aspect deeply resolved.  

The final room holds recent works that use images of pregnant bellies, breasts and eggs within “vulvic” spaces. The artist Carolee Schneemann defined vulvic space as the interiority of a woman’s body and the vagina as a lens to look at cultural symbols that have been dominated by a male perspective throughout history, and to invert the symbolic meaning. These works view the world from a woman’s body. The male gaze is nowhere to be seen. 

We can feel the mystery, pain, pleasure and difficulty of birth and mothering. In the large pastel “10pm Feeding — Around the Clock” (2022) a mysterious light illuminates the image. A diagonal line demarcates the beginning of a rich color gradient that moves clock-like from dark to light. Twelve breasts with oversize nipples, floating in a circular arrangement, are placed like the numbers on a clock. It is a mysterious and emotionally charged image. The duress and fatigue of caring for a newborn, with its relentless breastfeeding schedule, are captured in an iconic and universal image. “In these works I explore the themes of pregnancy birth and breastfeeding with an emphasis on the element of time. … The pendulum and the clock are a recurring motif.”           

In the large pastel “Red egg, white egg” (2022)  a glowing red shape floats in front of a symmetrical background. This hybrid form is both an egg and a pregnant stomach with a navel. Delicate muted hues from dark to light, applied with a repetitive scribble pattern, create a curved architectonic background. Behind and above this, five eggs float arranged in a semicircle, alluding to the swing of a clock’s pendulum. The luminous grays and whites whisper. The colors are exquisitely modulated. The bold red form expands, cradled in a timeless space. The beguiling tension between representation and abstraction is intoxicating. It speaks of birth in a poetic language of form. 

Using the language of abstraction to convey personal and diaristic narratives, Loie Hollowell creates a mystical symbolism that is married to the physicality of the flesh, giving birth to profoundly engaging, beautiful works of art. On view January 21, 2024 through August 11, 2024 at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT 06877.

All of the quotes in this article are excerpts from a recording made by the Aldrich Museum of the artist giving a walk-through talk about the works included in this exhibition.  WM


Gary Brewer

Gary Brewer is a painter, writer and curator working in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in Hyperallergic, Art and Cake, and ART NOWLA.

Email: garywinstonbrewer@gmail.com 


Website: http://www.garybrewerart.com

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