Drawn To Darkness, Holding Onto Light: Holly Downing’s Imagery

Donald Kuspit, critic, writer and Professor of Art History, State University of New York, Stony Brook, excerpted from the catalogue Holly Downing, Penumbrae: Paintings and Mezzotints.

Downing is in fact a master of chiaroscuro, as her mezzotints show: light and dark are as fundamental to her as geometry, and her geometry is much more complex—multidimensional—than Ben Nicholson’s, especially in her extraordinary images of drapery. Dramatic events, they stand in sharp contrast to Nicholson’s static constructions, which reify those of Mondrian, suggesting Downing’s break with Nicholson. Nonetheless, her drapery is also abstract and intellectual, indeed, even more abstract and intellectual—and inventive—than Nicholson’s and Mondrian’s constructions, I would argue. They seem simplistically intellectualistic in comparison to the lively, “dialectical” intricacy with which Downing ingeniously weaves the fluid sections of her drapery together.

What to me is most striking about Downing’s buildings and drapery is their air of solitude and isolation, detachment and remoteness. It makes them all the more abstract—uncannily autonomous. In this they resemble the buildings of Sheeler and Hopper and the drapery of Raphael and Rembrandt—acknowledged influences (others include Zurburan and Morandi).

If the drapery works are visceral self-portraits, as I think, and sometimes portraits of friends, they often show the body unsettled by emotions. As Lamentation for a Palestinian Friend suggests, the drapery is an expressive device, often used to convey unspeakably deep suffering. Sometimes that suffering seems painfully erotic, as Patterned Drapery suggests—in effect a reclining odalisque. 

Her unconscious feeling of social alienation and conscious use of autonomous abstraction eloquently converge in her articulation of pure shadow. Dense with character and morbidity, yet as transcendentally absolute as Malevich’s Suprematist black square, the relentless shadows in Shadows, Majorca, Spain and Mojacar Pueblo, Spain, both 2007 and Arrabal III, Majorca, Spain, 2008 have the majesty of pure forms even as they convey complete isolation. I am prepared to argue that Downing’s intense shadows are symbols of the “tragic sense of life” that Miguel Unamuno said was particularly Spanish, by reason of Spain’s Catholicism, conflict-ridden history, and the pariah-like isolation that settled on it during the Franco period. I may be overstating the matter—one can take Downing’s shadow images simply as brilliant renderings of an acutely observed reality—but her shadows have the fixity and finality of death. 

The observed world is a stimulus to introspection for Downing. She is a participant observer, not simply a neutral observer, and it is because she emotionally participates in what she observes that her works have aesthetic conviction and expressive power.