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Churning The Depths: Diane Holland’s Palimpsests by Donald Kuspit

Diane Holland, Palimpsestic Metanoia 7, 2019. Kodak Endura metallic print, 17 x 22 inches (ed. 5)


By DONALD KUSPIT April 4, 2024

The surface of the Mystic Pad is clear of writing and once more capable of receiving impressions.  But it is easy to discover that the permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in certain lights.      

Sigmund Freud, A Note Upon The ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’

There’s Diane Holland’s smiling face, standing out of Palimpsestic Metanoia 7, 2019, a geometrical patchwork of radiant colors, blazing yellows like the color of her blouse, flaming reds like the color of her face. There’s also a bit of nature’s sprawling green, the color of life as Goethe said, to the right of Holland, and below it a thin large symbolic object, perhaps a baroque crozier, as the cross that tops it and the scrolls that unfurl from its sides suggest, or perhaps simply an ornamental work of art.  It is black—the same black as the two skeletons that suddenly appear, like mirages, on Holland’s left.  Her smile and red face—red is the color of passion—contrast sharply with the skeletal remains of the anonymous figures.  But then one notices that all is not wonderfully well with her:  the white band that stretches from her forehead down the left side of her face to her chin reads, at least to my interpretive mind’s eye, as a bandage.  Beautiful, young, happy, as her smile suggests, passionate as her red face suggests, she nonetheless has death on her mind, as the skeletons suggest.  It is why her forehead is bandaged, as I suggest.  The emotional contradiction is emblematic of the aesthetic contradictions—the linear skeletons, the colorful geometry—more pointedly the tension between the bits and pieces of color and form that fill some of the patches, particularly the one to the right of her head.  

T. W. Adorno said that modern art is necessarily fragmented because the modern world is inherently fragmented.  Like the collages of Hannan Hoch, who seems to be Holland’s role model, as Palimpsestic Metanoia 9 (Homage to Hannah Hoch), 2021 suggests.  But Holland’s photomontages are more extreme, more chaotic, more absurd than Hoch’s, for she is not just picking and choosing and combining images to make a psychosocial critical point, as Hoch famously does in Cut With The Kitchen Knife Dada Through The Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch In Germany, 1919, but uses abstraction to make an emotional point, however many objective photographic images appear in Holland’s works, emerging from the maelstrom of her unconscious.  Holland is a radically non-objective artist using—sometimes—objective imagery to make an emotional point, for her figures are memento mori.  They are ghosts with no sociopolitical meaning, unlike Hoch’s figures, all journalistic, that is, socially realistic, whereas Holland’s figures are thrown up by the unconscious, have purely emotional meaning rather than sociopolitical meaning.  If one has to classify Holland’s works, all aesthetic and “conceptual” tours de force, it seems best to describe them as a ruthlessly radical, extravagantly abstract expressionist with collaged imagistic content.

 Palimpsestic Metanoia 9: Homage to Hannah Höch, 2021, Kodak Endura metallic print, 22 x 17 inches (Ed. 5)

Holland calls her works “Palimpsestic Metanoia,” that is, palimpsests in the service of a “spiritual conversion,” more broadly, a “transformative change of heart” or “outlook”--“vision.”   A palimpsest is a scraped and re-used parchment page, that is, paper from which writing has been erased, although signs or fragments of the erased words sometimes remain along with the new writing.  Holland’s works are not palimpsests in the traditional sense but conglomerations of gestures, forms, images in perpetual process of turbulent change.  They are at once a stream of wild consciousness and exemplary of creativity at its most intense and uninhibited—creativity that produces endless novelty, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argues.  One might say that Holland’s pictures are process pictures—they show objects in perpetual flux of becoming, the flux of becoming more important than the objects, that is, more random than purposeful.  “All entities move and nothing remains still,” Heracleitus asserted.  “The basic nature of all things is change.”  “You cannot step twice into the same stream,” Heracleitus declared, but sometimes the same stream of consciousness throws up an emotionally important, indispensable individuai, what psychoanalysts call an internal object, which is what I think the figures that come to consciousness in the photographs—a photograph is a heightened consciousness--scattered throughout Holland’s abstract stream.    

Diane Holland, Culture Alive: Homage to Joan Agajanian Quinn, 2024. Kodak Endura metallic print, 33 x 25 1/2 inches /ed. 5)

Holland’s most emotionally powerful, dramatically expressionist, socially meaningful work is Culture Alive:  Homage to Joan Agajanian Quinn, 2024.   Ms. Quinn has been a supporter of the arts for over fifty years, particularly of contemporary art in Southern California.  She lives there, as Holland does.  She hosts a national television show in which she interviews artists and artworld people.  As the large number of them indicates, she is a hard-driving, ambitious individual—a powerful, influential media personality, a sort of populist critic, a so-called “influencer.”  She has been portrayed by many artists, national and international.  I venture to say that none of those portraits are as emotionally insightful and aesthetically ingenious as Holland’s.  It certainly doesn’t look like Quinn’s simple photograph.  She smiles in the photograph; in Holland’s work she looks rather grim, determined, forceful.  Her nose is elongated, certainly exaggerated, stands out of her face like a beak, its prominence suggesting she is what psychoanalysts call a phallic woman or phallic personality, a woman fixated at the phallic stage of emotional development, characterized by resolute, self-assured adult personality traits, along with vanity, aggressive competitiveness, and exhibitionism—television is certainly exhibitionistic and the artworld is full of aggressive competitiveness.  Holland’s portrait of this famous personality is worthy of—more than holds its own with--Graham Sutherland’s equally forceful, emotionally insightful painting of Winston Churchill, 1954.  Mrs. Churchill had it destroyed; she preferred Yousuf Karsh’s photograph of the powerful, confident statesman—the grand “historical” personage--to the emotionally disturbed, vulnerable person.  Quinn’s harsh, oddly ugly, peculiarly grotesque, coldly white face is at odds with Holland’s beautiful, lovely, warmly smiling face, its rosy red illuminated by white bands—bandages, as I have suggested, but likely also suggesting that she has “seen the light,” as metanoia implies, in Palimpsestic Metanoia 7, 2019—five years earlier than her portrait of Quinn.  Is Holland’s portrait of Quinn an artist’s revenge on a very public influential “critic?”  Perhaps one who hasn’t given her the recognition her brilliant art deserves? WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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