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  • Writer's pictureEric Holzman

ESSAY: Eric Holzman – Drawing Outside Time
 by Nathan Kernan

Our awareness of a work of art evolves in time. In order to coincide utterly with the  act of vision, … a certain lapse of time is necessary if the painter’s essential proposition is to be resurrected in us, as a way of being to which we eventually give our consent. […] Consider this Virgin, of the Byzantine school, the Madonna in mosaic from the apse at Murano. … [N]othing, or scarcely anything, in this exalted figure bears the countenance of time…  [W]e cannot imagine a past or a future for this gesture, this moment. That is why we cannot fit them into any duration, and why we decide that they are timeless. The act of reading the work, a desire which time has ripened, an act which has taken time and structured our time, has led us outside time. -- Yves Bonnefoy [1]

Time, on several levels, is the overarching subject of Eric Holzman’s work. His paintings, especially, can be “slow” to reveal their primary subject matter, often nearly subsumed by the depth, texture and richly ambiguous color of his paint. The viewer’s own experience of seeing becomes slowed down to something like the “real time” of the  painting’s creation. Not literally, of course, for a Holzman painting usually takes months, if not years of intermittent work to complete, but imaginatively. There is something almost musical about it, the way one can experience a Mozart symphony only at the pace at which it is played, which in turn replicates the sequence and duration of the composer’s original musical thought. Understanding can be anticipated but experience will not be hurried.

Holzman’s drawings are very much a painter’s drawings, and they share his paintings’ sense of slowness. Where his paintings are built up from a precisely-delineated core image or images, his drawings take shape upon a surface of pure painterliness. Holzman typically makes his drawings, that is, on paper which has been painted in advance with a gouache ground. Sometimes this is just a neutral, monochrome tone, such as old masters would put down to make the opaque whites of the subsequent drawing the more brilliant. Most often, however, the ground is activated by abstract drips and blobs, or by décollage, the Surrealists’ technique of pressing two wet, painted sheets together and pulling them apart to create mottled, abstract patterns. Holzman takes several of these prepared sheets with him when he makes drawings from nature, or has them handy when drawing in the studio, and chooses a particular sheet to suit the subject. Often the abstract patterns “found” in the paper will influence aspects of the final image. As Holzman says, “It creates an instant atmosphere to dream into.”

Holzman’s use of prepared paper is a deliberate, if incidental, evocation of the look of old master drawings. “At some point along the way I thought: Why not make things that look like what I love? And most drawings I love look like they’re on paper that’s a thousand years old,” Holzman said recently. “It probably started with a show of Michelangelo’s late crucifixion drawings I saw in Washington many years ago. The paper itself seemed to have an atmosphere to it; it created a space for the image to live in.”

Of course age is not intrinsic to old master drawings, it has accrued to them. What Holzman’s painted ground  deliberately evokes, and imbues his imagery with, is physical evidence of the passage of time. If drawing from life is sometimes thought of as an act of great immediacy, a direct transcription of the pulse of the present moment, Holzman has found a way to “slow down” his drawings—and our experience of them. More importantly, I imagine that for Holzman the prepared ground is almost like having music playing while he is working, a kind of background “noise” that actively stimulates his imagination with its fortuitous suggestions of forms. By providing “something to dream into,” it helps release his eye and his hand to work totally in the present and, up to a point, independently of the strictures of the ego and the conscious mind.

What matters to Holzman is to penetrate to the heart of (visual) experience. “The further I can stretch pictorial representation, while remaining grounded in perception, the closer I get to the mysterious snap of each successive moment,” he has written.[2] Frequently Holzman will make several drawings of the same subject, treating it in slightly—or very—different ways.  In the series “Forest, Chiho” (2004), each of three drawings made at the same site in Japan emphasizes, or ignores, different aspects of what remains recognizable as the same overall subject. In another series, a single tree appears in what might be different states of “completeness:” stripped, in one drawing, almost to diagram-like simplicity, as though reduced to one of its own stems, and recalling Samuel Palmer’s early, mystical landscape sketches. “It’s not a linear thing,” Holzman says. “There is an ultimate, but I don’t even really try to get there. If there’s a quality I want it’s openness.”

In conversation, Holzman mentions his admiration for the “air” in Corot’s paintings (and D.H. Lawrence’s poem on this subject). Holzman’s drawings share this sense of airiness, and that, too, is something that comes partly from his use of the painted ground, which can appear to permeate the drawing like air made visible. In “Yellow Tree” (2000) the tree, drawn with a precise sensitivity worthy of Claude Lorraine, seems to take shape magically out of air, as though it had been precipitated out of the painted background itself, and urged gently into tree-form by the surrounding glow of pale yellow backlight.

The sense of the passage of time that Holzman’s work is physically imbued with, and which the viewer participates in, is only part of what gives his art its aura of timelessness. Slowing the viewing experience down, in the words of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, allows “the painter’s essential proposition is to be resurrected in us, as a way of being to which we eventually give our consent.” But it is the directness of Holzman’s eye and the humility of his approach to the subject that, more essentially, lead us “outside time.” Looking at Holzman’s landscapes, his still-lifes, his portraits of his wife, his child, or studio models,  “we cannot imagine a past or a future for this gesture, this moment,” any more than we can for a Byzantine Madonna. Like the anonymous mosaicist, Holzman, as an individual, deliberately retreats from the surface of the drawing, leaving only the tracing of his perception. “I have always wanted myself not to be too present,” he says, “there, but not there—just the thing itself.”

Nathan Kernan

[1] “Time and the Timeless in Quattrocento Painting” (1959), translated by Michael Sheringham, collected in Yves Bonnefoy, The Lure and the Truth of Painting, The University of Chicago Press, 1995. Pp. 44-45.

[2] Eric Holzman, “Artist’s Statement,” Jason McCoy Gallery, 2000. All other quotations from the artist are from conversations with the author, 2007.

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