Art Criticism / Art History

Neal Hollinger at KMOCA: Your Own Private Utopia

Neal Hollinger’s one-man show of paintings and neo-reliquaries at the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art (KMOCA) is titled “Into the Gloam” and the work is just as weirdly, strangely, interestingly, pastoral. I’ve seen the show twice already and could use a third viewing of the work.  But it comes down soon; this weekend coming will be its last turn out, and, well, yes, yes, I could use another look at that tiny, delicate painting on the right wall of the second gallery, “Island No. 5”.

The work on display, paintings, objects, and what looked to me like a “talking asshole” in tricked out spray foam, embodies a marked attempt at the push and pull of competing allegiances: rhetoric, conversation, utterly sacred and the sincerely profane.  It is personal stuff and particular in its prepossessing peculiarities; it’s also rich enough to allow you to the time and space to roam around the gallery and in your head, free to associate the work with the painterly-referential anchors that weigh you down and the colored buoys that have kept you floating, up.

Hollinger’s work is no anodyne meditation on the self, if it is a meditation at all. I prefer to think the work an idiom of phantasmagoric, sometimes utopian and always weird ‘scapes: Landscapes, mindscapes, escapes. And to that end, the work undercuts traditional—present, current and therefore orthodox– views and critiques of composition, rendering and object making; in short, the work undercuts obvious talk of beauty, although it is beautiful; this because it is about some other thing, because it is some other thing.

Or, better: the work is compelling in the sense that everyone who comes to encounter it can find a private way of talking about it without that turning incoherent. (The work allows the private to turn public; that push and pull.)

That bit of alchemy aside, what else can you find in the work? Well, it depends on how long you want it to infest your thoughts.  The work, like all interesting work, works through your attention. I was taken by riffs on ecclesiastical art: in particular a large painting nominally about rainbows, but not really. Or, even if about rainbows, that’s quite beside the point: I saw organic, red, pink forms, green, brown, fecal and lovely; monsters standing–or crouched? —in some green and pink space that you hope to never see, even if you have seen the execrable Robin Williams vehicle, “What Dreams May Come”. And, of course, the painting is framed by painted, “gilded” dolloped bars of spray foam.  To its right and a bit further up is what I can only call a relic of some alien Sacred Heart.  And, let’s not forget “Island No. 5”. It’s a small painting of luxe blues and aquamarines, painted grass feathered to the right, that more than anything else reminds me of the Avalon that might well have been my refuge as a younger man if I’d bothered to take Arthurian legends seriously.

And no, “Island No. 5.” is not quite something out of Monty Python, for Hollinger is serious about his take on islands. Utopian islands that always, always, always smell a bit like Dystopia.

Utopia is then The Sacred; Hollinger’s treatment of it is The Profane. Or something like that.  The Sacred Heart is really the Scared Heart: after all it’s a toy, a manipulated thing. Or something like that.

So, maybe you’ll think this can all be read off as a turn on Georges Bataille’s play on the sacred and the profane. That, systems of exchange—let’s not use the word, capitalism; that’s a bit rote– divorce one from the broader groundings in which she is ensconced. For instance, making art about ones fantastical views on X and selling it turns what was once sacred into a profane commercial activity. One must engage in some transgressive act in order to cut through that profanity and retrieve some normative order to things—the sacred bit.  You can think of this as a rough take on which the anti-aesthetic views on art have turned.  Divorce beauty from work; destroy the object, turn to concepts or broadly socially grounded practice and you automatically turn away from the profane and maybe recapture the sacred. Maybe, even, reframe Utopia?  Now, yes, this seems rather academic and pedantic. To retrieve the sacred then requires non-object based art. And that presents a good argument that to sell that work is partly ironic and partly in bad taste.

It’s a good thing then that not one bit of Hollinger’s work is ironic; for, if it were, it would be the snake that consumes itself. It’s enough that the work is– certainly, it seems– sui-generis and is derived from Hollinger’s sincere take on some sort of unfounded and never-present world. Hollinger gets away with this work because it’s not hard to think that he’d make this kind of work even if the work never made it its way to a gallery, the market and then some other high-pitched screaming auction in some cosmopolis.  (Parenthetical aside: You really can’t be ironic if that one take is present in everything you’ve done. That view runs through everything about you; we call that sincerity. This is readily apparent across the two galleries which showcase the work. Also there’s the fact that one work, a foam construct all alien-organic is titled “?”.)

We all have imprecise and personal views on some sort of  unfounded and never-present world and we always trade on it. We call that aspiration; we call that a hope for some better world, better life. Hollinger is not alone in this. It is only when someone points out that trade as intrinsically ironic that things turn awry. Ironically trading on irony is dross, you see. Hollinger’s work has not one atom’s weight of irony in it. It is work that comes alive through sincere encounters that take into value the strange object laid out immediately in front; it may look loud, sure, but really it’s quietly confident work that charms and you’ll find yourself welcomed by it. That the work might sell well is neither here nor there.

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