Feeling the Fabric of Paint: A Conversation with Nicolas Holiber
Picture the garden of flowers bursting through millefiori glass and the colorful layered liquid glass of the murrine style, it’s no surprise that Venetian Renaissance artists like Titian and Tintoretto suffused their paintings with unctuous layers of curvaceous color, flowing onto craggy weave of the canvas. While structure dominated Florentine works, the 15th century Venetians let loose with complex glazed strata and tantalizing texture, glorying in the materiality of paint and encouraging future experimentation. Since becoming increasingly notable in the 19th-century landscape, naturalist and romantic painting, impasto started being recognized as a crucial segment of the work.
With its capacity to convey feeling through the “fabric” of paint and the shape of the brushmark, impasto is a favorite element in contemporary practice. Painters like Frank Auerbach, Jean Dubuffet and Leon Kossoff played with the extremes of this process, while some, such as CoBrA movement artist Bram Bogart, banished the image, sculpting their "paintings" with a concrete-like mixture of oil, varnish, mortar, raw pigment, siccative, powdered chalk, and water.
And now we look at the work of New York-based artist Nicolas Holiber, who will present his latest series through Unit London's digital program, Platform starting on December 3, 2020. In a survey and exploration of the critical topics that underpin their work, the artists involved will donate 10% of proceeds towards a charity working with their issue of choice. Holiber chose to address subjects involving intense trauma or collective distress. Rendered in a unique, self-developed technique that blurs the line between sculpting and painting, abstraction and figuration, his works sting with atmosphere and emotion. Raw gestural marks are actually constructed using a process that involves both Bogart-like "sculpting" and traditional painting. Completely reinventing the impasto technique, a twist on traditional principles, these pieces create a different dialogue between texture and the content. Keeping in mind that only a lucky few will get to experience these intense works in person, we reached out to the artist for a better understanding of his process and purpose.
Sasha Bogojev: How did you become so obsessed with the element of texture?
Nicolas Holiber: Materiality plays such an important role in my work and I've always been open to exploring and experimenting with new things in the studio. The texture is just something I'm drawn to, I can't really explain why, but texture and tactility are at the forefront of my mind whenever I'm making something. It's been a natural progression; one thing leads to another but it always starts with the curiosity of being interested in the material and wanting to see what it does. Or what it can do, like what is its breaking point? Pushing that boundary allows me to keep moving forward. A material's ability to translate as the flesh is also incredibly important for me, and the things I've been working with over the past 5 to 10 years all have a unique, visceral quality.
Can you explain the technique/process you like to use to achieve a desired effect?
My technique is that I don't really have a technique! But the process is very important to me. These paintings all start with me applying an acrylic paste mixture to the raw canvas. I don't use any source material or preparatory drawings but rely on my emotions and intuition to guide me through the process. I use a growing set of tools to push and pull the mixture around, adding and subtracting, etc. It's exciting because it's a very raw moment, and really, anything can happen. Body parts and faces start to appear, and then I can build a more extensive composition. It's also mildly terrifying because I feel like I'm driving in the dark with no headlights. Everything can go to shit at any moment. Once the acrylic is dry, it essentially becomes an underpainting. After that, I bring out certain forms or try to decipher the marks I've made using oil paint. Sometimes I carve or cut into the acrylic. I'm constantly seeing new things as I work- a nose or a face or whatever. This becomes an entirely new journey as I add color and more texture with the oils.
Was this something you developed with a certain goal in mind or was it an accidental trial and error process?
I think in part it was trial and error because I've been looking for a material that has the properties of the paste mixture I'm using. But also, I've been searching for a way to marry process and content, so I've always worked to develop something towards that goal. A lot of it has to do with not treating anything as too precious, you know? I have to be ok with something not going as I planned and just adapting to it. Or letting it go and making it into something different.
So, at this point, are you sculpting paintings or painting sculptures?
I don't know—when is it more one or another? I guess they could be defined as relief, which is sculpture, but I'm using painterly materials, so who knows? I'm painting on a three-dimensional surface that casts its own shadows and has its own forms, but also hangs on the wall.
What is the attraction to such materiality in your creations?
It captures a certain feeling that I can't really describe, but it's as if the painting becomes something else. It's not just a painting, it's not just a sculpture, it's this in-between "thing" that you can only understand when you're in front of it. I love how the work changes as you move around - something that's very hard to capture in a photograph but the entire painting shifts from different points of view. From one angle you can see that a nose is actually a sculpted nose hanging off the canvas. Or from another viewpoint, something you thought was flat has a physical form. It's this disorientation that attracts me and I love the ambiguity that it produces.
Is there a certain connecting thread between the pieces in the show?
Yes, all of the pieces are concerned with similar issues of human behavior, particularly what happens during times of intense trauma or collective distress. The works can also be seen as objects of conflict and reconciliation within themselves, a result of my process that informs the paintings.
What inspired you to make this particular series?
The start of Covid really pushed me into thinking about these things again, as well as the socio-political environment in the U.S. That's not to say that my work is about those issues specifically, as I'm certainly not trying to adopt or co-opt any topic as my own. In observing situations that produce a culture shift within society, I'm motivated by such events and moments that are shared, as well as the impact of a shared experience on an individual—the meta experience or mood.
Did the theme inform the technique or was it the other way around?
I think it's mutual. The themes I'm working with and my technique and process are bound together, they inform each other. The technical aspect and the narrative are some of the first things I try to understand when I look at a work of art. It's there whether the artist intends it to be or not. It can be hit or miss, explicitly informing content, or just a natural byproduct of creating something. But I definitely see it as an additional way to communicate meaning.