“We are acutely attuned to the differences between people, especially the sexes, but the differences are nothing like so interesting and useful as the similarities. We are driven by this contradiction. Looking at other people is a way of looking at yourself. The other aspect to this, of course, is the curious relationship between men and women, locked in a perpetual dance of intelligence and need.”
Introduction by Adria Leeper-Sullivan
Interview by Theo Constantinou
***Harry Holland is an exceptional artist who is a master of intrigue. It was a shame to have published his interview without the care of an introduction.***
Dark, or boisterous backdrops surfaced with the detailed creamy skin of a woman, sometimes a man, contemplating the unknown. These paintings reminded me of that stiff breeze which was, with high thanks, not detrimental to the health many years back. It had pushed in from the sea: refreshing. The stench was less hardy there, not because there were fewer morsels of decayed flesh pinned beneath the rocky beach, but because the icy air made the nostrils like a freezer. The only scent was pure like mint leaves rubbed between two fingers. One might have expected more fog, but there were only grey skies, tourists touching the walls of old buildings as if they might get a word out of them, and baskets filled with horseshoes painted black with white and red flowers and text “Iona.” I was one of these visitors, excited to be far from home, also waiting for ghosts to speak with me, and I even bought a horseshoe. Children my age were swimming off of the pebbled landscape. Pale bodies hugged by frothy, undulating waves, hair soaked into strands that stuck against their foreheads, and droplets rolled into oblivious eyes. They were fully clothed, weighed down by sagging fabric that wanted to wash away with the tide, the choice of staying or leaving seemed to be confronting my peers; it was certainly confronting me. I asked mother and she nodded, eyebrows calm up until the moment her cheeks flew into a flush of red laughter. Gasping, lips a dry pink and opened in disbelief, my bare feet and knees were going to shatter if anything were to hit them; shatter and chill a dozen scotch on the rocks needed to ease my pain. I had a culturally physical intolerance to glacial baths; I might have learned a lesson that day, but I’m not sure what it was.
The story above is possibly irrelevant, but Harry Holland’s work evokes the irrational fear of a thunderstorm through dark corners filled by mysterious guests and faces filled with deep crevasses of unexpressed intent. Like the story, they are filled with uncertainty, the obvious being masked by the glory of adventure, and the environment playing into the vigor of every mood whether complexly agitated like a man receiving a finger to his lips from a woman glued to a cell phone while temptation circles like a raging hound by the back door, or meticulously observant like women bouncing through disorganized space with hidden faces but pensive eyebrows peeking out to ask why. Holland’s artwork seems to be about self-discovery and understanding others. A single run through his work and one realizes all the assumptions they make about their assertive business face, or the glare of a passerby could be exceptionally wrong. Individuals run on a belief that they are coherent entities with model presentation, but Holland’s work asks: do you realize what you look like when immortalized off guard in the background of a stranger’s photo?
Harry, can you tell me more about your upbringing in Glasgow and how your environment in Scotland impacted your art?
I was born in Glasgow and spent some of my early life there, but my Scottish father was killed early in the War, and my London-born mother took up (after a decent interval, I hope) with another man and we spent most of my childhood following him about. He was a chef who could not hold down a job for more than a season so we lived in various parts of the UK eventually settling on the outskirts of London when I was twelve. Who knows how I would have turned out if things had been more settled. What I remember about Glasgow, even as a youngster, is the religious hatred which still scars that city (my family were all Protestant Orangemen). It left me with a clear understanding that religion is a divisive and malign force.
What is the most profound thing that your time at St. Martin’s School of Art taught you? The second part of my question is do you feel that you would be the same artist now without the art education?
The best thing I learned at St Martin’s was that there is a structure and purpose to the various categories of drawing (form, line, tone, atmosphere,) and there are skills which can be learned and used to appreciate old art and make paintings which embody the best qualities of the tradition of painting. The other good thing I learned was that there is a lot of bullshit spoken in my world. I would have been much better off if I had been apprenticed to a good artist at the age of about fourteen.
I read in your bio that, “The paintings are suggestive in the sense that they imply situations, events, or relationships that are not directly expressed; this imbues them with an engaging sense of mystery.” Do you feel your work is suggestive and if so why do you engage such a sense of mystery in your art?
The narrative paintings I make are deliberately enigmatic. I like the idea of a number of things going on at once, nothing definite, nothing going anywhere, no one interpretation possible. It’s much more what life is like. The word mystery implies a spiritual dimension but it’s more to do with the strange realization that the person you are looking at is as complex and conflicted as you in all meaningful respects.
Oscar Wilde was quoted saying … “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.” Your work seems to delve into the narrative between men and women quite often … Do you have any thoughts on this quote?
Like many of his aphorisms, it is specious. We are acutely attuned to the differences between people, especially the sexes, but the differences are nothing like so interesting and useful as the similarities. We are driven by this contradiction. Looking at other people is a way of looking at yourself. The other aspect to this, of course, is the curious relationship between men and women, locked in a perpetual dance of intelligence and need.
Can you talk more on the meaning behind your piece ‘Falling’?
I can’t talk very well about the meaning of individual paintings. I have internal stories for paintings as I am making them, but they are more likely to do with my feelings about another artist or a technical problem that interests me. The image itself I make to avoid any specific meaning. My reason for constructing a particular image is that it looks as though something is going on but I don’t know what. I’m more concerned (and often delighted ) with what the audience makes of the narrative. “Falling” is a capricious evocation of those nineteenth century Salon paintings which were moved aside by the Romantic and scientistic gyrations of twentieth century fashion.
Do you find that the location of your studio and your geographic surroundings has a lot to do with the way you create artistically?
Cardiff is a diverse and growing city with old and new areas and populations. Just walking down the street is enough to trigger off ideas and associations. But my main inspirations are interior – psychologically and physically – and old art.
The title of your piece ‘Chicken’ is very interesting, what is the significance of that title in conjunction with topic matter of the work?
As I say, I’m not very good at meanings. I read a story about strippers being sent to an oil rig to entertain the workmen and it mentioned chicken dinners. It seemed to me interesting to make a connection between what the guy was eating and what he was seeing.
When art historian Jean Leymarie was preparing to talk for a symposium on art and sexuality, he asked his friend Picasso where he drew the line between these two concepts. The painter replied, “They are the same thing, because art can only be erotic.” Harry, I am curious to know your thoughts on this because there seems to be a lot of eroticism in your work as well?
I think Picasso was stretching the word erotic beyond its useful boundary. He was talking, I expect, about the relationship between sensations and ideas. Strong visual facts stimulate associations and trains of thought which are exciting and suggestive. But they don’t have to be necessarily sexual in nature. You would have to be particularly obsessed with sex to get a rise out of, for example, Goya’s “Executions of the Third of May”. Having said that a majority of all the work done in all art forms is about sex – not surprising when you consider it’s what most men spend most of their time thinking about. I can’t speak for women. Most women of my acquaintance say they don’t. Erotic art can evoke sexual feeling for example by finding a visual equivalent for touch by slowing down the passage of your eyes over a form in the way a hand would stroke a body, or draw out the delicacy of fine cloth resting lightly on firm skin. A lot of my work is erotic, and some of it is about sexual relations, and some of it, like the still lives, has no sexual element at all. Sometimes they get a bit mixed up.