The last exhibition I saw of Mark Holmes sculpture was in 2017 at the McClain County Art Center in Bloomington, Illinois. He had just finished a number of works that were radically different than the wooden vector configurations he had mastered over the last decade. The show was dominated by free standing clay constructions that were brightly painted, brimming with Cubist and primitivist conceits. They were a perfect example of how he could stretch his sensibility to accommodate an under-examined sculptural trope.
I realized then how much Holmes likes to formally test the water. He doesn’t make seasonal models. Change in his work is produced, in part, by recovering squandered continuity with decades of avant-garde practice. His work fills in gaps and amends discourses created through a generation of stylistic negation and generational sidestepping. Therefore, the work is critical, even custodial, rather than a daydream of media multitasking.
Holmes chairs the Department of Art and Art History at Knox College, in Galesburg, a program fully invested in the advancement of visual culture in a historic center a couple of hours southwest of Chicago. Knox’s art department has an enviable history of preparing students for advancement in graduate programs like SAIC, MICA, VCU, University of Chicago, and Tyler. Holmes himself is a product of Yale’s MFA program, whose attention to the legacy of minimalist and post-minimalist art, as well as a sheltering discourse that dissented from them, is more than a footnote in the history of progressive art education. Mark studied along with trailblazing students who went on to rejuvenate the practice of contemporary sculpture to include performance and installation while splintering the reductivist anti-narrative of canonical modernism.
Holmes, however, decided to improvise on modern and post-minimal customs that rejected narrative and external mediation, while substituting a variation of the 1980’s revival of Constructivism. He underlined modernism’s early atelier experience and studio shop atmosphere, not as creed, but as a significant critical resource where he could emphasize the grid and cube as a subject along with an untypical exploration of craft.
For Holmes the profile of the studio and gallery, as elite and neutral, was never quite in synch with his objects of study. He preferred form that corresponded to silhouettes of the built environment, enabled by canny tool-and-die tinged resourcefulness. His sculptures became like dimensional thought balloons expanding the romance of studio to include experiences of the world not deemed worthy of aestheticization, while simultaneously demystifying his discipline by linking it to ordinary occupations, which of course it is, to fellow artists.
In the past five years Holmes re-deployed wood wall constructions that emphasize the contours and consequence of hand crafted, technologically-cognizant, abstraction. His study of materials and skill with tools, exemplify quasi-utopian, early modern art and architectural design formats, while suggesting fragments of the ordinary and work-a-day.
Rather than narratize an object like much post-modern art, Holmes probes overlapping ideas embedded in the nature of materials, avant-garde design, and post-Kantian philosophy. He abbreviates emblems of the built environment, letting his instincts negotiate confluences of hybrid form and surface textures from urban and rural sources. This tendency was prompted by almost two decades as a furniture designer and maker in Chicago. The more utilitarian occupation informed his sculpture in terms of planning and production. Here a desire to find fresh territory for his refined carpentry skills and a love of materials would channel radical, reflexive post-formalism.
Holmes’ work stems from a portion of a discussion begun in the 1930’s when Clement Greenberg targeted academicism and kitsch tastes at large as a failure of cultural nerve. He demanded that modernists take on the responsibility of restoring fine art by constructing a new view of the world that would regain cultural authority. By the 1960’s avant-gardism transformed Greenbergian formalism and adapted a neo-Dada posture that valued the unintentional and undervalued aesthetics of everyday life. Artists and intellectuals like Holmes continue to reveal the subtle nature/culture debate still alive in the most ordinary objects, environments, and experiences as well as in the philosophy buried in the framework of the artist/worker class. His art embraces the mythos of the maker and the search for synoptic place factors that are virtually aesthetic, stubbornly down-to-earth, but not populist or vulgar.
Holmes’ sculpture pays theory forward, particularly the phenomenological nuances of reductivism, seasoning it with unconventional angles, buried text, and striking formal innovations. It’s further flavored with a non-hierarchical value system that allows idiosyncratic speech to critique institutional language, ameliorate vision, and recuperate forms left unattended in revolutionary precedents and recent discourses, the earliest being Tatlin, Malevich, Mondrian, Breuer, and Rietveld.
For some time Holmes has configured wall pieces that fold drawing and painting over sculpture, applying gesso, acrylic, and graphite, balancing bedrock angularity with mechanical detail. Occasionally tempered with gestural pigment, they open up linear, carefully restrained android-like armatures. Through the latency of diagrammatic compositions, the artist presses constructivist shadows and utopian after-images on once substantial, but now neglected, ontological planes.
The newest wooden sculptures are muscular and crisp. Transparent applications of gesso and graphite evoke the bone-dry surfaces of weathered marble or plaster. They become part of the the wall and execute the “modern” as a kind of inverted niche with a desacralized text. Like architectural salvage they’re context-flipped, monochrome and allegory free, except maybe as radical non-monastic sutras.
Mark Holmes has a remarkable ability to combine a love of objects with a respect for complex, even arcane culture. Much intelligent studio production is often drowned out by spectacle and technology – technology that’s syphoning artists from a contemplative practice once the backbone of contemporary art. That practice is still Holmes’ terrain. He’s not interested in inflating boundaries to claim something literary or sociological, or for producing an event marvel. He has the technical skills to manage spectacles and test limits of visualization but refuses if he can’t also revive a distressed diagram or question an object’s provenance, and maybe argue for some episodic art therapy for cultural amnesiacs.
For a complete look at Mark Holmes’s work – http://www.markholmes.info/