Robert Holyhead review by Adele M. Reed
Robert Holyhead’s first solo exhibition in the bright and contemporary setting of Peer Gallery in Hoxton, East London presents the audience with an insight into a painter’s unique way of producing work. Born in 1974 in Trowbridge, Wiltshire and now based in London, the Manchester School of Art / Chelsea graduate used the two square spaces to transport viewers from the prolific, preliminary watercolour ‘sketching’ stages of his practice, to the six masterfully constructed final oil paintings that make up the tranquil visuals of the second room. Running across the first three walls are three rows of small ‘drawings’ set out in a grid-like narrative reflecting the stream of creative consiousness that Holyhead travels through before starting work on each final major piece. They present less a particular subject or story than a mood or reaction to shapes, colour and line. We gather the sense that these rough drafts are the initial developments of concepts rather than finalised, statemented ideas. The viewer can meander from left to right, up and down, to study the texture and form of the pieces considering what the inspiration behind each one could be, and then see where it went next. I personally found remnants of the environment and architecture lurking within the shading and splodges, with the removal of paint into negative white space becoming the subject over the back-drop of minimal, singular colour palettes. Although appearing hastily made each sketch, 21.1 x 15.2 cm in size, felt extremely organic and simple, a method reflecting the fascinating beauty of the natural world.
Passing into the second space six modestly sized oil canvases are arranged around the room conjuring a calm, subtle world of suggestions over harsh demands. The same washed-out watercolour style is imitated in the oils, an alternative which seems far less straight-forward but distinctly more important. The paintings look best close-up, when the eye can pluck out every single brush-stroke and thumb smear made by extracting paint from the canvas; on some paintings I could make out the soft lines of a finger-nail engraved into the surface as part of the application or de-application of paint. Each piece entitled ‘Untitled 2012” was made specifically for this show which makes me think part of the inspiration behind them comes from the area of Hoxton. As my first visit to the area, I absorbed a lot of positivity from being there. The atmosphere at 2pm on a sunlit Wednesday felt mindfully sub-dued with a steady flow of citizens and commerce strangely sparse yet quietly vibrant and certainly welcoming. The location of Peer Gallery interested me in itself; with paintwork signage on the side of the building reading ‘Hoxton Electrovision’ advertising sales of toasters, tools, widescreen TVs, ‘250 watt high power woofers’ and suchlike: it felt like a local hub honouring its heritage. The gallery seemed to stand up for itself, proud yet sheltered behind trees with its full window walls slyly attracting curious observers. I fell in love not only with Holyhead’s ‘soliloquies’ but with the area of Hoxton, the artwork and the geography complementing each other perfectly.