Aaron Holz's "Wider than the Sky"

By Robert Mahoney

December 10, 2015

 Aaron Holz,  Bouquet for Emily Dickinson,  2013, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 19 x 17.5 in.

Aaron Holz, Bouquet for Emily Dickinson, 2013, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 19 x 17.5 in.


Many things have been on my mind of late, musing on contemporary art.  I am, for example, into brain theory, dreams as related to art, poetry that addresses painting, white frames for paintings as thought-cloud devices, hypnagogic landscape, as well as “utopiphobia” (my word for fear of being stuck in the middle of nowhere) and also Midwest history, for all this, it is no surprise that at almost every turn Aaron Holz’s exhibition, Wider than the Sky, at Kiechel Gallery in Lincoln hit the spot with me on many, many levels.

As an exhibition, it was entirely worked out and well-orchestrated. It featured a series of Holz’s paintings, of two types, and then some adjunct framing devices to refer abstractly to the various frameworks of meaning confabulated into and around the paintings.  Holz gives to each of his paintings a title with a reference to it, often to poetry, a link between the painting and an historical “inspiration,” to the painting itself.

This is fine: while large scale abstract painting would seem to demand that all the referentiality of the art be entirely legible inside the art, it is not so certain that the same simultaneity and integration of meaning in the physical-visual aspects of the art is that necessary in a small painting and in a genre of painting, like landscape, which seems to naturally activate narrative impulses.  For that, at present, I can only say that it struck me at first that Holz’s paintings, by themselves, were small scale, magical, but still formalist abstractions, with perhaps retrograde references to grounds in the genre of landscape or portraiture; but, then, when seen entirely resituated in a larger exhibitional framework of title, theme, system of meaning and reference, and then even by means of linking the apparently abstract code in the painting to a visual element of the supporting intellectual structure, the art began to float freely in the ‘air’ as it were of the installational complex of the ideas around it.

It may be that Holz is linking his painting to specific references turns them into conceptual paintings; they certainly create a relationship between painting and resource that is almost equivalent to a political picture commenting on an issue, the link turns Holz’s hands and flowers, for example, into emblems, effigies or votives expressive of his hope or not about particular issues of social life in the world today. Read this way, I experienced the exhibition as a whole as a very tightly put together ensemble of visuals and ideas, resulting in an overall installation of near perfect puttogetherness.

The progression from viewing the painting as “simply” paintings, to seeing them as visual events in a chain reaction of meaning, started with the poetry. Holz introduced the show with a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson, “The brain is wider than the sky….” painted by him in script on the wall coming in. The emphasis of this line of poetry on the brain and its wideness acted as it were as an initiatory shibboleth, or password, announcing to us that we are entering into the world of the brain and seeing the world through the workings of the brain. This would mean, in art, in general, either that the art hereafter will be neurologic in forms or patterns, which this art is definitely not, or will in some way be neural or cognitive, if one will, in the way of a cognitive map, in visualizing for us not what the eye alone sees but what the eye connected to a brain operating on many levels sees. The first clue, then, as to what the network of tiny triangles and blips floating over the surface of Holz’s scenes or landscapes are was offered, that they in some way represent the circuitry of the brain as it were bringing to life or giving meaning to a tabula rasa of indistinct paint behind it. 

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But then with other works like Instrument of Instruments, Hand for E.D. (2015) it was indicated that the figurative side of Holz’s discourse is derived from a link between the painting and some direct resource either in music or in visual culture. Especially notable in this category were Hand for Horace Greeley 1 and 2 (2015), two small paintings that, read alone, as purely visual, would seem to simply represent a secular modern version of Durer’s famous image of praying hands, and therefore some sort of emblem of offering. But then I read that the hands, one African American, the other Caucasian, were painted under the influence of a consideration of a Harper’s Weekly cartoon, printed after the Civil War, of Horace Greeley reaching out to the prisoners of Andersonville prison, to discredit as sentimental hogwash his liberal stand that resolution and peacemaking was needed after the Civil War, and everything changed. Though it does not seem that Holz is a media collage-based artist, as the hand in each of the two small panels did not in fact appear to be the very hand of the resource re-presented in a contemporary painting, the reference nonetheless framed the seeing of it in an appreciation of what was on Holz’s mind when he painted it, sharpening perception of its gesture and rendering. For me, the hands seemed to be pushing back against how cynics, forever preferring vengeance, repeatedly dismiss the importance of even smallest humanistic gestures of reaching out.

 Aaron Holz,  Everybody Knows This is Nowhere , 2015, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 25 x 30 in.

Aaron Holz, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, 2015, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 25 x 30 in.

The work Everyone Knows This is Nowhere (2015) was also included in the Art Seen survey at the Joslyn this past summer (see my review), and in that show it was presented without label or explanation and therefore simply taken by me to be a commentary on living in Nebraska, or in the plains states, or in the flatlands of middle America. Read as such, it was a wry comment on the flyby states, and the nature of making sense of the world from here (in which case the term flyout states would seem to be more accurate, as people do travel a lot from here). In that context, however, I only saw the network of small colored triangles overlaying the space in the painting as a kind of hypnagogic formation according to the Huxley model communicating the fact that somehow, in Holz’s visual universe, the entoptic phase of a fugue state (a run-on abstract forms across the eye) was somehow gathering weight and strength to drop down into a deeper state of dream, perhaps related to figure. I felt the coded abstraction promised some burgeoning new manifestation. It was not clear to me if the effect was floating over a preexisting landscape, or if it was creating the landscape on the other side of the code, but the suspension of the scene between a ground of reference and a figure of pure code was intriguing. 

 Aaron Holz,  Borderline,  2015, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 15 x 13 in.

Aaron Holz, Borderline, 2015, oil, resin and acrylic on panel, 15 x 13 in.

But then, in this exhibition, I looked at Borderline (2015), Holz’s take on Altdorfer’s famous panorama of Alexander’s battle at Issus. The original prototype picture is a fantasy panorama, giving the viewer a god’s eye view not only of the battle, but of the whole basin of the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and the Nile. This magical extension of the eye eastward at the time enacted for Altdorfer his overall project of cultivating sacred space in the Rhineland by translating Egyptian or Nilotic space into it, and, indeed, there was a good deal of Egyptian imagery in most of his work. In this, the artist was “translating” one space to another (Translation is that mental process, in culture, whereby people who relocate from an old place to a new place, from a sacred place to a profane space, mentally take all of the psychogeographic dimensions of their old space, carry it inside their head with them, and then resituate it in their new country, mapping out a strange new land according to the old country). It was not clear that Holz is in fact enacting a “translation” of Germany onto contemporary Nebraska, nor if even referring to Altdorfer as a source might be part of a nostalgia for old German culture in the Midwest (If so, however, it would deepen Holz’s program, and give a bit more bite to his enlistment of these forms to give meaning). That said, the array of the overlay on this canvas was apparently formed as an echo of, not the distant landscape elements of the Altdorfer panorama, but the famous hither and thither of the troops in the battle scene, also in their indecipherability slyly referring to the Where’s Waldo nature of trying to pick out tiny Alexander on his white horse from all the mass of soldiers clashing in the battle, and if so, if, that is, Holz simply wanted to project a fear, perhaps hard-wired in the brain, that open spaces may someday again witness battle scenes. 

 Aaron Holz,  Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee,  2015, oil, resin, acrylic and wax on panel, 38 x 47 in.

Aaron Holz, Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, 2015, oil, resin, acrylic and wax on panel, 38 x 47 in.

At this point, I came to Pine Ridge: Wounded Knee (2015), the largest, and by far the most accomplished picture in the exhibition. It is something of an instant masterpiece of contemporary Midwest ambivalence about its complicated efforts to include the “themes” of Native Americans and others, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and, indeed, the whole world now seeking asylum, into the so many “us’s” of the almost wagon-circled communities of the region. The landscape element here was played up, referencing a specific spot where the incident at Wounded Knee occurred. Overlaid on that was a quite a bit more vociferous flurrying of the abstract code forms, a bewildering tour de force, a whirlwind of painterly confetti, representing triggers of plus-minus charges to involve the eye and mind in an attempt to “imagine” a battle, or the incident, that, or something much worse, contemplate all the time gone by (“gone with the wind”) since, or the amnesia of the culture generally, or the stubborn intractability of social ills--or all of that all put together. Twice in this painting Holz extended the vocabulary of triggering circuits into a representational plain by extracting from the flurry the manifestation of a larger flag, the flag of the protesters at Wounded Knee, and then, in the lower right corner, a much less distinct flag of an imaginary African America as devised by conceptual artist David Hammons a generation ago (and recently flying over MOMA/PS 1 in Queens, in New York). The flag of the incident plants itself in the space about it to emerge for a moment as scenic, and in the context of a maelstrom of code--which may represent, again, just about any aspect of time or space or the thought processes in the mind--fashions a momentary “landscape,” a mirage of “it happened here” truth, but then, poof!, it feels a pictorial breeze and is gone, and for that momentary presence in a groundless state, the flag has about it a deeply plaintive, even forlorn air, though with a measure of sympathy and “we will find a way no matter how long it takes” defiance. In the moment, it was a thrillingly complex meditation on the pluses and minuses of the West today, and how in “nowhere” a somewhere where people of different origins can live together might someday be created. I was thinking, musing on this work, it might be one of the two or three most honestly meaning-charged works of contemporary art I have laid my eyes on since relocating to the Midwest two years ago. 

It is only near the end of the exhibition that the line of poetry by Emily Dickinson came into full focus. Early on, her quotation served to foreground the wideness of the operation of the brain in the work, to read the work as cognitively derived, mixing up figures and grounds in interesting ways. But now the discovery: that the actual shapes of the tiny triangles and rectangles were lifted directly from an aspect of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She apparently sought to reinforce the impromptu, haiku aspect of her poetry, by scribbling it all, all but illegibly, on the backs and flaps of envelopes she received in the mail. As such, her poetry morphs into a kind of mail art, whose verbiage is kept light as air by being inscribed momentarily and in passing on the transient material unconscious of the post. For this reason, she might have more easily imagined her poems as little leaves sent out over the world, tossed out into the wind, and then to see where they go (grandmothering textings and twitters).  Holz collected, then condensed the forms of the many letter-pages, envelope flaps, etc., that she wrote on, and then on graph paper converted them into a visual code evoking transience and the floating-leaf nature of poetry as it wafts and wends its way in and over the world. Here, again, this practice, ungrounding abstraction from the canvas, and resituating its source in epistolary paper, would be another example of an aesthetic I have sensed to exist in Nebraska or in the midwest in general. And that would be an itinerant aesthetic, that is, a groundless aesthetic devised on a sense of “utopiphobic” uncertainty of one’s place in the world, and then for that representing the world as a windswept place, then, too, best rendered on easily portable paper or small scale grounds.

According to this aesthetic orientation, Holz’s paintings are in fact grounded in paper, and in historical paper, and in a consideration of the flight of poetry written on paper in and over the world. His white frames then might echo the notion of paper, the code in his paintings are meant to represent poetic intimations as they flutter with indeterminancy over spaces that are hard to pin down, and then too his frequent use of small scale and also, then too, his shifting to making friendly offerings of flowers, in some works, and then in making commentaries on the issues of the days, all these also have about them a discursive, even erstwhile epistolary openness. Then, too, Holz sought to reinforce and emphasize the importance of the origin of the code of his work by, in the back gallery, displaying a wall of reproductions from a recent book (Gorgeous Nothings, Marta L. Werner) of the letter forms on which Dickinson wrote her illegible poetry. The presence of her script, even the presence of postmarks on old 3 cent Washington stamps, underscored the notion of the transitory (keenly in my case, a Midwest boyhood philatelist). While it is an odd strategy to include so much documentation in support of an exhibition, without the documentation being actually part of the art, it came off as welcome here, as by this point one was, in fact, wondering “what’s up?” and provision of the answer came over you as the solving of some secret code.

This need to explain may, however, also put up the single note of caution in the show, as “explanation” is the alleyway-door through which conceptual art downshifts into academic conceptual art, but by and large the array arranged here on preexisting floor-to-ceiling white shelving in the gallery maintained a physical presence that outweighed the merely documentary impulse. The fact that Holz then also included a few of the study water colors he first made when he experimented on graph paper, superimposing the code of letter forms over a suggestion of landscape, also was most welcome, as connecting the dots of the whole conceptual program of the exhibition. All in all, for an artist to have firmly situated himself in an all-encompassing habitus (mentalite’), working on all cylinders in the context of its many possibilities, is a very high level of achievement.

At the front of the Kiechel gallery, two mod white fiberglass chairs sit at the street window, perhaps to allow of contemplation and discussion of the work. These are permanent attributes of the gallery, and not part of Holz’s exhibition, but for me they served as kind of furniturized quote marks to signal to me, coming in, but especially going out, that in brain-based art you are entering into a hall of mirrors of quote marks, and tiers of overlaid confabulation, into a world of code, and suggestion, and synthesis and synergy, a space where objective genre distinctions between abstraction and figuration and this or that genre vanish in the musing of the mind. These two quote marks buoyed me up to try to capture how and why this conceptual exhibition had kept me floating throughout its viewing. Though the exhibition does trail behind it a few second thoughts, regarding the maybe too pat nature of the puttogetherness of the overall program--and I did not see how a large video was connected to the proceedings--by and large as experienced the entire endeavor unfolded with suspense and drama and highs and lows and felt entirely fulfilling on a visual, intellectual and emotional level.