BEHIND THE SCENES:
December 13th 2021
An exhibition of paintings by Richard Höglund
The Bonnier Gallery, Miami
A Catalogue Essay
“Looking for Order
Painting after Covid.”
Jill Silverman van Coenegrachts, Paris
I began the day with grey dawn, nervous that the blue sky and sun I longed for might not appear, but then I realised it was not yet six in the morning. Another early start, in these months of awkward starting and stopping, convincing ourselves the world as we once lived in it was still there, waiting, throbbing. The conversations and days and nights of artists, conversations, studio visits and then relentless watching over exhibition making, candid reflections and cynical interlude, I imagined all of these would be as before. Our world would be as before.
In the reflection of this, there is a lot to tell you right now. Richard Höglund’s paintings have a lot to tell you right now. But for you to understand in what way, and how, and why you have to follow me through this digression that will whip a bit back and forth, I must take you back in his life and mine, to a different time completely. Do this and your patience will be rewarded. Afterall, we have learned in the last two years of Covid about the elasticity of time, its strengths or weaknesses. We the lucky, are still alive, and we have finite time. For the ones who are not here—they have endless time; the reflections of this we see in the night sky, in the darkness that every twenty-four hours overcomes the light. This shadow land is not fearful on its own accord it is here that we understand the light, not the other way around.
Imagine a busy gallery with exhibitions going up and down monthly, dozens of people working in three floors, in this case in Paris. There are earnest young people in positions of importance, helping to make the machine or the beast run smoothly; there is a red headed man, tallish, curls, not French obviously, some kind of accent that is a mix of American and something else, but he is shy and doesn’t talk much, but he is very observant as we install one exhibition, then another, then another. He watches like a hawk. Has an easy laugh. Is prone to coffee with the youngest staff members, they cluster across the road in a makeshift lunch room/storage. There are a trio who work in this way as installers. I am told by my assistant that he is, like the others, an artist. I nod. Too busy to respond; a few months later I see an exhibition of his work at a small gallery off rue du Turenne. The surprise for me that day was just how coherent this installation appeared in the brief visit we made—wall drawings, wall writings, some kind of superimposition of text with drawing. His description of what the show was struck me as overly rhetorical, like many he had been reading all the critical literature popular a decade ago. “Useless” I think I may have muttered to him, but in spite of this need for literary justification there was something promising, as I referred to it at the time over a decade ago.
Since then, I have seen a smattering of exhibitions where the work depicted a kind of minimal painting that yearned to be something more expressive. Every time I stood in front of these light hued monochromatic canvases with colour appearing incidentally, I recalled how much critical reading he always wanted to discuss, how bound up he seemed to conditions of language and text. But, in fact his painting struck me as little connected to these ideas and more to something else, but he wasn’t seemingly aware of where they might be going, so my job was to wait.
This June, a short text message insisted I come to his studio, an hour from Paris. Impossible. I am still not doing studio visits, please send photos. In a shaky moment I agree. He is married now with two small children, his splendid wife a former archivist at the same gallery—so I feel connected to them through this lineage, like members of a tribe who have survived a war together.
He met me at the train, the sun glaring as it can in early summer, his red hair shorter, the beat-up Land Rover familiar, the small house on a large estate where his two children had been enrolled in local school was inviting. I held my breath because the life itself in this rose filled lane was intoxicating in its colour and vibrancy. He took me to a chapel that had been turned into his unlikely drawing studio, and it was here I caught a glimpse of a small dark painting above the wood burning stove. Then another. I relaxed because these were good works, and it meant there might be others in the tractor garage where he was working on large paintings.
He talked to me about pigment experimentation and discovering the invaluable Craftsman’s Handbook of Cennino Cennini published around 1400 that had recipes for pigments, going on from the Roman’s using Cinnabar to make vermillion, the Mercuric Sulphite of this mixing with Dragon’s Blood. He explained how long he had been working on these concoctions, trying to understand how colour was possible for his canvases; I let the words go, never wanting to hear too much because it was not always helpful in what actually the paintings embodied; he was giving me more classical back story that was leading up to more narrative behind the upcoming exhibition.
The biggest problem visiting an artist in the studio working on a new oeuvre for an upcoming exhibition is figuring out what to say when the work isn’t doing what it could be doing. And they don’t know it. It is not fun at all. These moments can make you cry; the pressure being in front of work that has taken years to evolve and still isn’t there, isn’t singing because it is hanging there, limp and awkward, but not in a good way. How you address the good news and the bad news, is often one complex kettle of fish.
Here, was one sumptuous dark triptych on the wall (Minyades III) with what looked like silver point drawing on the surface of the central panel. I am able to let you understand the complexity of the surface made up of silver, lead, Titanian on Indigo, marble dust, bone Pulver and acrylic emulsions on Belgian linen. What I didn’t know looking at this in the studio was that he mixed bone and marble which are crushed into powder and into this he adds dry pigments. Something in the surface is radiant and light hits every which way, the surface appears unstable, or rather you can’t rest your gaze upon it without it flinching back. There is a lot to see and a lot going on. Which is the attribute of these dark works, (there will be three in all) they are agitated as much as settled. I find myself thinking about Brice Marden’s early encaustic paintings, because for most of my life looking at work, I am always curious about materials, about how and why the work looks as it does. With Richard Höglund I am just looking to see what I don’t recognise, what is unfamiliar in the depth of this darkness. It has a liquidity that is hovering in some mid distance. The silverpoint is not for me as important as it is for him, but I just say briefly when he tells me it is unfinished and he shall add more silver point to the lower quadrant. “Why?” I ask him.
“Have you put a chair and sat in front of this work for a few hours to listen to it? You have to really understand what it is saying and how it is talking to you. There is something remarkable here, but I don’t think you sense it yet.”
I don’t want to look at the rest of the works just yet, but ask him if there isn’t another like this he has made for the project, and he takes me into the back room to see a smaller dark painting (Minyades IV—Silver, Lead, Titanium on Indigo, Dragon’s Blood, Marble Dust, bone Pulver and acrylic emulsion on Belgian linen) which he has explained in the narrative of the exhibition (which begins with the Carl Andre sculpture form 1990 Pyramus and Thisbe, Western Red Cedar that has unleashed his deep study of this story, and that led him to the story of three sisters weaving, alone in their room refusing to become worshipers of Dionysus and in their purity hope to escape the Bacchanal). This smaller work he suggests shows the three sisters who have been turned into bats shrieking into the night. Unconvinced by the story I ask him to hang this in the light next to the Minyades III; when they were both on the wall, I again asked him, “do you see what you have cooked here?”
At this point I wanted to just sit in silence. Which we did. The paintings are stronger than your story, I may have said. I wandered to see the preparatory sketches and research materials he had splayed across a studio work table, a book on Poussin open to the page on his Bacchanal, a book on Late Monet’s abstract Waterlilies from the period when he was almost blind. He had been struggling with the last painting, Bacchanal, now three panels on the wall, blank linen with layers and colours and curlicue gestures, conjuring up everything from Chagall to Poussin in the most untethered display of luxuriating layered decoration. Nothing to be said except to go back and sit in front of the dark works and let the velvet surfaces assuage our rustled spirits. Here was something long standing and true. Here was the radical zone of his midcareer finally appearing out from the collection of light works he had come to consider his primary subject. Here was painting you could sink your teeth into.
We spoke then about the tough aspects of understanding how and where light is created on the surface of paintings. The depth of field that arises even from a seemingly oily landscape of deep aubergine nearing black. There is no black you see, it is all tonalities of colour, and in these two works the sophistication and foreboding mingled with such ease that it almost escapes the viewer but then it pulls you back. “This is the sweet spot,” I say to him, before leaving for the train. “Understand what is happening here, in this darkness, it is not death, it is night. It is filled with the richness of your experience.” In my mind we are all of us sitting in these dark canvases trying to make sense again of a world we don’t recognise because it has changed, we have changed. It sounds like a cliché now to even imagine this as we try to ramp back up into the gear we were in before February of 2020.
In my thoughts that day were the grace of watching someone happy go lucky become a man, a father, a husband in the time of a pandemic; he had managed to get them out of harm’s way, deftly into the countryside, into a new school, into a new life, and having done that, what come through him was this darkness, these dark explorations of Indigo and Dragon’s Blood mixed with bone and marble. As if the antique world (marble) and our human/animal skeletons (bone) could provide a glistening molecular architecture for the most beloved shades of red and blue/violet. In this mix we have a glint of Abstract Expressionism of Rothko and Reinhardt, we have the early mottled surface of uneven wax encaustics in the minimalism of Marden, but his is another species now of painting. If it is fair to say the following day when he sent me a video of Bacchanal which he had worked on overnight, as a work that had “painted itself” I knew that he had indeed understood where he was at that moment, with the underpainting conjured from his mentors Poussin and Monet, but the surface was completely his condition here and now, in this maelstrom we will remember as being so turbulent and troublesome.
Here small episodes of colour playfulness seem to rise from the surface like a carp in dark water. Are we seeing through a glass darkly or is this molten thickness just slipping in front of our eyes like dusk? There is something original here that also conjures the mysterious nature of Ross Bleckner’s night sky or chandelier paintings. Having not seen this in person I am aware that the light variations and textures caught on a phone in a light filled former tractor garage may have very different values to this work on the wall in a gallery setting with incandescent light. I expect the inner structure of its visual array will be no less than what I saw articulated from this distance. Geometry hidden just beneath the surface, order amidst the chaotic rivulets of colour and drawing that had been strewn across the raw canvas in all versions of violet, purple, pink, red, blue from left to right filling the entire lower half of the work in a noisy turbulent cacophony. This was certainly no Bacchanal I may have said archly. Refusing to be drawn into how he was going to finish the most important work in the exhibition.
Surfing through the requisite vibrations of Poussin’s figures cavorting from top to bottom, edge to edge, lying open on his work table, alas were not going to help him now. Though these struggles are not dissimilar. Which took me back to reread John Berger on Poussin from 1959 where he lays out the stones in a path from Poussin’s need for order while being revolutionary, being picked up by Cézanne who was looking at the small elements to make painting new.
“For Poussin there was chaos beyond the town walls, beyond the circle of learning—as there was bound to be until it was realised that human consciousness had as material a basis as nature itself.”
The wild frenzy that was on the canvas in the studio unfinished, a rapture of uninhibited gestures redolent with appropriation from worthy helpmates, the lines or contours of Poussin, the colour and overlapping pools of late Monet, the rakish colours of late Chagall’s lovers flying in the air, what were these doing on a giant raw canvas was waiting to be clothed by night. The spell breaks, the sacrifice is made, the blood is spent and night comes back. Have we had to live through months of confinement where we could assiduously re-enact such things in mind, frozen and cut off in our own private worlds, far from each other, losing our minds? Then night. These flecks or episodes of narrative suggestion fill Bacchanal now with a reason to look, to be vigilant, to understand the texture and energy that can come only from painting. And maybe only now. Using a vintage piece of Carl Andre sculpture that presents a seemingly strong solid floor bound gravity about separation and weight, what enclosure actually signifies, as a pretext for an exhibition that goes from the floor to the wall, into the night sky reminds us that painting can still take us to uncharted, uncomfortable territories.
In this exhibition we see painting has still the capacity for dialectics. Just as Berger saw, his text concludes with a riff on Cézanne picking up the torch from Poussin—
“Cézanne’s incredible struggle was to find some system of order which could embrace the whole of nature and its constant changes. Against his wishes this struggle forced him to abandon the order of the static viewpoint, to admit that human consciousness was subject to the same dialectical laws as nature… Even today the process is incomplete, the solution only partial. Bur for those who will take the next step forward, Poussin, straddling the two periods in our culture when men sought order in life before they sought it in art, will remain an inspirer.”
In no way can we dismiss the ancient stories of the rites of Dionysus, the throngs dancing wildly under the influence of all the substances that were available, pulling apart of one human being as a sacrifice with the bare hands of the participants in this annual ritual these Bacchanalia were not unlike our own. We see aspects of these flagrant mind-numbing exercises playing out in real time with disturbing cult practices among our communities in many parts of the world; whether the cult figure is Dionysus or someone else, the sense of our possible immunity to these demigods and demagogues is a viscous fluid that covers everyone in the same way; thinking one can retain purity by sitting at home weaving as the story of this show suggests, is naïve. The purity we aspire to, the clarity, control and order we long for, this righteous moral certitude we insist upon, are in the end only simple illusions. Darkness absorbs us all. That is the fearsome aspect of life and art. In this exhibition of extraordinary paintings, we see something like a slice of this time through fine veined alabaster; opaque it draws us even closer.
Quotations from Selected Essays, John Berger, Bloomsbury, 2001, pages 48-51.