On the three walls of PEER’s first gallery space Robert Holyhead will display dozens of small watercolour drawings, all produced over the past few years. Unframed and carefully arranged on long narrow ledges to form a grid pattern, these works are presented as a visual abundance, a cornucopia of ideas, and a plethora of possibilities. As is often suggested by the medium – and as certainly indicated by the quantity – one senses that these drawings have been quickly made. Yet, as this exhibition reveals, Holyhead’s studio practice is, overall, thoughtfully considered and slowly paced.
Each of these watercolour drawings is characterised by a predominant colour, sometimes intense and saturated and sometime muted. All share a common language balancing painterly gesture with a formal sensibility that shifts between the hard and soft edged. However, there is no instantly legible narrative that allows a reading from one work to the next. Rather, there is a sense that thoughts which occur during the making of one drawing may implant themselves in a subsequent drawing – a process that is perpetually repeated that not so much describes a narrative, but a way of working. Collectively, these drawings constitute a battery of ideas about painting and how paintings may be made.
In the second, larger gallery space, a group of six new, modestly sized paintings have been specially produced for this exhibition. The sparseness of this element of the installation – with only two or three canvases on each wall – is in stark contrast to the large number of works just encountered, but the relationship with the watercolour drawings and progression from them to the paintings is instantly clear. The distinction between these two elements of his work is less to do with any hierarchy of purpose or medium, than it is to do with how each category of work functions within the artist’s practice as a whole. For Holyhead, the watercolour drawings are not considered to be preliminary sketches for the paintings. Instead they act more as test sites or rehearsals, where the medium enables a multiplicity of ideas to be enacted – a rich feeding ground from which to extract a singular idea to translate from watercolour into oil paint. As such, these paintings could be regarded as solo voices – soliloquies perhaps – that have been individually identified and teased out from the simultaneous chatter and wealth of possibilities offered by the drawings.
This presentation is Holyhead’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery, and also the first time that he has shown a collection of his works on paper in the context of his painting practice. This provides audiences with new insights into his production and editing process as well as the opportunity to engage with his painting practice which, as the artist has commented, is working towards both ‘a type of personal language and some familiarity with the world’.
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