By Christina Nafziger
Andrew Holmquist’s dynamic paintings mold, shape, and render layers and layers of forms into scenes of abstraction. In the work, the notion of space is toyed with—stretched like taffy before being flattened out again. The use of bold, hard lines give an illusion of flatness, but only just before a sense of depth hits you. It is as if you could outstretch your hand and reach directly into the work, grabbing hold of the complex gears of the compositions. Holmquist’s works on paper combine different materials in such a way that even in person I could not quite make out the process in which the work was created. Using colored pencil, graphite wash, oil, and trace monotype, Holmquist twists and bends shapes into an eruption of mark making that echoes across each piece. This unique aesthetic not only unites his recent series Trees, but can also me seen in his ceramic pieces. Both his works on paper and ceramic works were recently part of a virtual solo exhibition titled HQME at Carrie Secrist Gallery, where the artist is represented.
Currently living in L.A., Holmquist finds inspiration from the concrete landscape that surrounds him—along with artists like de Kooning and Matisse. Before making the move to the West Coast, the artist lived in Chicago, where he studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Join me as the Holmquist tells me about his experience shifting from representation to abstraction, the importance of having fun, and which painting he would choose to save if the Art Institute of Chicago was on fire.
Where are you originally from? What brought you to L.A., where you are currently based?
I grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, a charming small town in a sweet spot, much like the earth is to the sun, in relation to the Twin Cities—close enough to have access to art museums as a child, but far enough away to no longer be considered a suburb. My family lives five miles outside of Northfield, nestled in a grove of trees where I spent much of my youth playing and inventing.
My orbit extended to Chicago, to The School of the Art Institute, where I received both my BFA (2008) and MFA (2014) degrees in painting, and eventually established my art practice outside of the bubble of school. I love Chicago. The architecture and museums are an unfair point of comparison for any other place I’ve visited since.
In 2016, after thirteen years in Chicago, I moved to Berlin where I lived for two and a half years. I fell in love with Berlin on a week-long visit, that was timed perfectly when spring had sprung, and people were bursting from their winter cocoons and filling the parks and canals. It took me a little over a year after that visit to make the official move, finding new ways to talk myself out of it, until fate intervened and took away both my apartment and studio in Chicago in the span of one week. Berlin was a wonderful place to live, but I never intended it to be my permanent home. I thought I’d move there for a year, and it turned into two and a half, just long enough to meet my partner, Patrick, who oddly enough grew up four hours away from me in Iowa.
We were both ready to return to the States, and Los Angeles was the most exciting prospect for both of us. I had been there three times before, and with each trip I got a clearer picture of what living in LA looked like, and it looked good. LA presented such a novel change of scenery from the Midwestern landscape we both grew up with, and there was an exciting art scene that we wanted to participate in (Patrick is an art writer). We’ve been here now for a year and a half, and we love it.
Have you always worked in abstraction? What compelled you to work in this genre?
Depending on how far you go back, no. When I was learning to paint as an undergrad at SAIC I worked from life, making figure paintings and landscapes that were heavily indebted to Fairfield Porter. One of my figure painting teachers, Dan Gustin, singled out what I was doing with paint beyond the subject matter, that I was good at moving paint around, and that there was a sense of humor coming through in many of my compositions. It was really when I started taking multi-level, interdisciplinary classes that I began building on those interests outside of observational painting. The other students in these classes didn’t take observational painting seriously, which frustrated me because I considered myself to be a serious painter. I was called a “Sunday Painter” in one memorable critique. I realized this class was a mini version of the art world, where sincere landscape painting doesn’t have much traction, and while it was a tough lesson, it was necessary. If I wanted to participate in the contemporary art world I would need to adjust my approach.
I fumbled around in the dark until I took an art-history class on Willem de Kooning, and he became my role model. De Kooning bridges abstraction and representation in all of his work, and his abstractions are so much about moving paint around, the enveloping space of accumulating brush strokes. I’ve rarely, if ever, made a purely abstract painting. There is always some point of reference to the physical world.
What keeps me working in this space between abstraction and representation is the ability to render the physical world and the subjective experience of that world simultaneously.
Can you tell me about your journey finding your distinctive style?
From the inside it feels like I’m still not even halfway to finding my distinctive style. The goal posts are always moving. What I’m excited about shifts and a new approach takes over. What I’ve found is that style, or interests, are cyclical, and so far I’m on a roughly five-year loop. I’m now re-engaging with approaches from roughly that long ago that I had in some way dismissed. With this distance I can better appreciate the charms of that past style, and what I lost when I moved away from it.
Some of the abstract forms in your two-dimensional work--specifically your 2019 paintings--remind me of shapes found in graffiti tags or even calligraphy. Do you find inspiration in this type of work?
To be honest, not usually. I wonder if maybe those artists and I are both pulling from similar source material? The visual language of comic books greatly informs my work, and I would imagine comics might also be a point of reference for some graffiti artists. The line qualities, hard-edged exploding forms, and jumbling of letters and figures all come from that source.
You work in many different mediums, such as painting, ceramic, and film, to name a few. What medium would you say was your first love?
Drawing is where I began and it's what connects all of the mediums that I work in. It may be what I’m best at. Many artists are known for their paintings, like Watteau for example, but it's their drawings that are the real stars. Of course that’s subjective, but I’d take one of his drawings over his painting of the same subject nine times out of ten. Maybe that will be the same for me!
My drawings so far have stayed mainly in my sketchbook, creeping into the comic books most directly outside of that closed realm. My larger works on paper, of course, use drawing, but they become so much about form, color, and texture in addition to line. I’m open to my drawings taking center stage, I’m just not yet sure how they will get there.
Many of your works on paper from 2020 are incredibly layered and dense, with so much detail! These are some of my favorite pieces of yours. A few of these works have ‘trace monotype’ listed under medium. Can you describe this process?
I’m so happy to hear this, thank you! With these recent works on paper I wanted to push myself past my usual stopping point to really articulate every nook and cranny and layer together a much more complicated range of textures. The trace monotype is a new approach for me, which has been a welcome first step for these larger works on paper.
Trace monotype is a basic form of printmaking and results in a single image, not the multiples that we usually associate with printmaking. When making a trace monotype, I start by quickly brushing a thin layer of oil paint onto a glass surface the size of the paper. I would then lay the paper face down onto the painted glass and mark on the back side of the paper. In the case of the recent Tree series, I redrew a drawing I made of a specific tree, which caught my attention. The pencil pushes the paper into the paint, transferring that color as a fuzzy line. When you peel the paper off the glass, you have your drawing, now in reverse, along with traces of the brushstrokes that applied the paint to the glass in a subtle atmosphere surrounding the lines. I like this approach because it abstracts the image from the get-go and offers a softer texture as counterpoint to the crisp forms added as the piece evolves.
I understand you recently had a (virtual) solo exhibition at Carrie Secrist Gallery titled HQME. Can you tell me about the exhibition and the work that was included?
The show came about in response to the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. The title of the show refers to the space where much of the work was made: the impromptu, post-lockdown studio space I had set up in my living room as well as my new, broader home of Los Angeles, which has had a big impact on my work as a whole. The work made prior to the lockdown deals directly with the landscape of LA: the trees, concrete by-ways, sun bleached color palettes, and sense of space and light. This can be seen in the six large Tree works on paper as well as the ceramic sets Hillside and On-ramp, all of which are inspired by the dynamic relationship between the verdant plant life and the urban concrete forms it grows on and around. If this work is very outward looking for inspiration, the work made after the lockdown shifts the focus inward. The Suits of Armor series and the Strong LQQks series are about invention and imagining new possibilities for the body and the spaces it inhabits. Both are very playful, and the Suits of Armor specifically come from a meditation routine that really helped me get back on track in the studio during that very disrupting time.
Who would you say is your biggest influence, artist or otherwise?
Similar to style, this is always shifting. When I was a kid drawing superheroes in my sketchbook every day, it was John Romita Jr. My biggest influence when I first fell in love with painting was Alice Neel. When I was painting the landscape in college, it was Fairfield Porter. De Kooning was and continues to be a huge influence, but I hated him as a freshman at SAIC. The Art Institute of Chicago owns arguably his most important painting, Excavation, which has turned a pukey yellow color as it has aged and is full of harsh black lines and garish splashes of primary colors here and there. But it is the painting that has changed the most for me over the seventeen years since that first encounter, and it continues to change each time I see it. It is an incredible painting. Right now Matisse is my number one, and I’d save his Bathers by a River at the Art Institute first if the place were on fire. I’m inspired by the visible revisions in his work. He shares his mistakes and corrections on the canvas, which narrate the paintings becoming. These marks capture an extraordinary and very human experience, which is the creative process.
Finally, a constant and lasting influence, since before college even, is David Hockney. His fearless figuration and bold returns to landscape painting after pivots into abstraction and experiments in theater and printmaking is so inspiring.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order. How as the quarantine affected your practice, if at all?
I’m having to reassess and rebuild on a daily basis. When the pandemic first hit, the goal posts shifted to keeping myself afloat through much smaller scale projects. The daily Suits of Armour drawings got the ball rolling in a small, fun way, and I was able to share the work immediately on Instagram, which proved to be a meaningful way to connect with people. Any thought of the future was put on hold.
Now that we’re past that initial shock, I’m thinking again about projects that were put on hold and about where I might want to take things in the future. This has been a chance to reassess what I’m doing, what I value, how I want to spend my time, and what is worth exploring through art. On a basic level, this experience has reaffirmed the importance of having fun. If the artwork isn’t fun to make, at least in some way, it's going to be so much harder to keep making in the long term—during tough times especially. This experience has also been a reminder that life is delicate, and could be short, so don’t wait to do the things you want to do. Don’t waste your time trying to please other people. Do what matters to you, and if you really care about it and are vulnerable enough to show that care in the work, other people will respond to that on a human level, even if it's not their specific story. Or, maybe they won't, but it’s a more rewarding place to be.