Virginia Billeaud Anderson
No nudes, extreme violence, or racist imagery. Those are the guidelines for the exhibition Warm Up to Black and White: A Tribute to Picasso which opens at the Lyric Center on January 18. According to Keith Hollingsworth, one of the five artists in the exhibition, Lyric Center rules were “laid down by lawyers and management.”
We all know it would be improper to show a nude in the Lyric Center, but a primary category of Hollingsworth’s oeuvre is politically ripe imagery, some a bit dramatic. During a studio visit, I previewed the paintings he will be showing, which depict the U.S. led invasion and destruction of Fallujah in Iraq. Ballerinas with swords, missiles, corpses, agonized and grieving women, a starving child eating crumbs off the ground, and a version of Picasso’s frenzied Guernica horse were only some of the details. “The US and its allies destroyed that country,” he told me. “How do I calibrate if the art crosses over to violence?”
“I plan to exhibit five works created specifically for the show, loosely based upon the theme of Picasso and black and white,” he said. “The largest 4' x 8' piece references Picasso's Guernica, but represents a modern war-like atrocity, and the smaller pieces contain elements related to the larger work, while revisiting the ballerina theme I used in previous encaustic works. My medium is white acrylic gesso, blue and black silkscreen ink, chalk, and charcoal.” Hollingsworth believes his newest works adhere to Lyric Center guidelines, but can’t be certain until he delivers the art for installation. “If I am asked to remove some or all of the works, then perhaps I aimed at the correct audience.”
Keith Hollingsworth, Culture Clash, 2006, Beeswax, Crayola crayons, resin on canvas, 72" x 44.5"
We discussed earlier “ballerina” paintings, which Hollingsworth considered more “overtly political” than the Guernica-inspired works. Rendered in encaustic, Culture Clash features a ballerina dancing on a coffin before the iconic Abu Ghraib prisoner torture image. “The painting’s narrative and symbolism make it a more direct political statement,” he said. “As for its meaning, obviously it represents the ongoing crusade between East and West, Catholic and Muslim, old and new, rich and poor. The emblem on the ballerina’s breast is the American eagle with a Star of David imposed over it, a reference to the U.S. and Israel alliance. Its priest figures were borrowed from a photo of Catholic priests saluting Hitler and the Nazis and allude to Catholic and fundamentalist support of wars of aggression against Muslims in the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan, symbolized by the tortured prisoner and the poppy field. All images have a specific meaning and purpose,” said Hollingsworth.
This artwork’s dimensions were programmatic. Hollingsworth sized his painting according to the mathematical rules of the “golden ratio," proportions considered divine by painters and architects from the time of the ancient Greek Phidias. He conceptualized size by way of the esoteric, and also furthered his investigations into the wax medium. “This was the first painting completed entirely in encaustic, without oil,” he said. Although he continues to work in all media, he would eventually come to be labeled the “crayon king” by Catherine Anspon and other art writers.
“The painting is not from a specific series,” Hollingsworth said, “but part of an ongoing narrative on world events. I’m motivated to make statements to appease my soul.” He showed me other works that appease his soul, such as one from the “Neo-Plague” series in which ghoulish skeletons terrorize a neighborhood. It held multiple allusions, but an important theme related to displacement through urban gentrification. That painting demonstrates adeptness at incorporating art historical precedents. Hollingsworth informed me of another series from that time related to Apartheid in South Africa, “during the Reagan presidency.”
Keith Hollingsworth, Untitled from the “Neo-Plague” series, 1994, Oil on canvas, 5' x 10'
To be certain, Hollingsworth’s visual language is objective and representative. His regard for images called to mind something Francesca Fuchs wrote in her Glasstire review of Robyn O’Neil’s newest paintings. Fuchs said that she and O’Neil were both “artists who still do the unthinkable - MAKE IMAGES.” That high-minded endorsement of representative imagery stuck with me because I had been spending quite a bit of time thinking about Keith Hollingsworth. Seeing his Love Birds at Mother Dog’s Studios a few months back reinforced something I’ve believed for many years: Hollingsworth makes images with total disregard for commercialism or the dictates of avant-gardism.
Most readers know that Fuchs and O’Neil are Hunting Prize winners. Each collected the Hunting’s $50,000, one of the largest art awards in existence. According to the Houston Press, blogger Buffalo Sean eloquently described the award as “a boner-inducing amount.” I mention the award because Hollingsworth was a Hunting Prize finalist.
Let’s look quickly at Love Birds because the “Bird Brains” exhibition is at Mother Dog Studios through February 14. About his painting Hollingsworth said, “The work was part of my efforts to better control the fusing process of the encaustic method in which I am currently working. I suppose its 'ambiguity' is due to the intermixing of the wax as it was being heated (fused). I titled it "Love Birds" to convey the closeness - literally melting together, of the pair of the forms. The medium is beeswax, crayola crayons, and damar resin. I also incorporated an acrylic medium as a glaze to help prevent the wax from migrating, trying to produce encaustic works that look like oil painting, but with a greater luminosity which the wax provides.”
It’s been said the Hunting Prize people freak out over political submissions, so it’s ironic that Hollingsworth became a Hunting Prize finalist with politically flavored art. “The painting is from my “Souls Ascending” series, sixteen or more works created to commemorate those who lost their lives in Bush's war based on lies,” he said. “The ‘Souls Ascending’ series shares the same perspective of a previous series called, ‘Spiritual Landscapes,’ that from a ‘bug's eye view.’ I incorporated beeswax emulsion into the oil for a more luminous surface quality. Like in many political works, I employed skeletons, human skulls in this case. This painting has a beautiful surface quality.”
"Souls Ascending" was significant in Hollingsworth’s development because the result of mixing wax emulsion into the final glazes resulted in luminosity and surface depth that deepened his interest in encaustic. He would continue to use Crayola crayons as an art making medium.
I pointed out the universality of skull imagery. “The series was inspired by Bush's wars,” he said, “but the series is a universal statement about war, and a meditation on what happens to the many souls forced to leave this realm because of those without a conscious soul. Yes, universality is the language I want to incorporate into my work, is the reason I used skeletons in many works prior to this series. All art work is political! My artistic language, overt or otherwise, responds to that which I encounter in the world.”
“I endeavor to create images that are consciously informed, and universally appealing,” he told me in a separate conversation.
Keith Hollingsworth, Untitled, “Souls Ascending” series, 2003, Oil and beeswax on linen, 72” x 60” (Hunting Prize finalist)
Last year while flipping through one of Houston’s illustrious art publications I spotted a photo of Hollingsworth. He had won first prize in the “Museum of Fine Arts 16th Annual Citywide African American Artists Exhibition,” the two sentence announcement informed me. “That’s it?” I recall thinking, no more information than that about this hard working and dedicated artist. It was then I knew that one day I would try to learn more about Hollingsworth’s art and career.
So when I ran into Michael K. Taylor the other evening at Nathaniel Donnett’s Art League exhibition, we sat on the patio and had a chat. I asked Taylor, who served as curator and organizer of the above mentioned “MFA’s 16th Annual Citywide African American Exhibition,” why he thought Hollingsworth was awarded first place. Taylor explained that his curatorial plan for the exhibition was to show art unidentified by race, class and gender, to “curate out stereotypical expectations.” Not only did Hollingsworth’s art fit that requirement, but it was beautiful, indicated an elevated level of skill, seemed to require diligence to produce, was in an unusual medium, and “there was nothing else like it in the show,” Taylor said.
The winning painting, In the Garden We Worship a Higher Source from the “Spiritual Landscape” series, was made with oil, color pigments, beeswax and resin on canvas, and was devoid of political commentary. “All art work is political,” he insisted in other conversations, precisely the same thing James Harithas says practically every time I visit him at Station Museum.
Hollingsworth initially said the painting was one of numerous landscapes he’s made through the years, “from my imagination, with a bug’s eye view from below.” I questioned him further about what inspired so docile and serene a subject, and just about fell off my chair when he revealed one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard an artist say, and I’ve talked to plenty of them. “'The Spiritual Landscape' series was inspired by an out of body experience, where I saw a light, which was a sun-like entity, and I was among other glowing sperm-like entities making our way towards the big light source. Imagine male sperm swimming towards the female egg. In the process, I realized that if I continued towards the source, and became one with it, then I would cease to be - I would be dead or something. I asked the source if I could return to the physical realm, where I would then dedicate the rest of my life to shedding light and beauty in the world. So the theme of combining nature with the light, or an energy source that makes it all happen, came to be the impetus behind the 'Spiritual Landscapes' from a 'Bug's Eye View' series. I incorporated the bug's eye perspective seeking to give the viewer a sense of the light’s grandeur, its connection to nature, and how small we humans are in comparison. The title of the work references the common religious beliefs expressed by people everywhere on the planet, what I am trying to get across - that there is a higher source that is worth worshipping, and that we could learn something from how nature worships the source that gives it life.”
Keith Hollingsworth, Untitled, Spiritual Landscape series, 1996-2005, Oil on Masonite, 1996-2000
It can’t be easy to glimpse the sublime and return to ordinary bullshit. Hollingsworth was losing his studio and being forced to move, a logistical and financial hardship. And his wrist was fractured from a hit and run driver who sideswiped his bicycle. Instead of stopping to help him off the ground, that lovely person “gunned it” to get away. I wondered if anger or negativity could diminish whatever was transformational about his out of body experience. He said at times it is difficult, but he has the ability to clearly recall the experience. “I don’t know what happened to me, but its effect was profound.”
Hunting Prize’s big bucks eluded him but he managed to snatch some of Lawndale’s money when he won First Place in the 1996 “Big Show.” The winning painting "When Worlds Collide" was a “collaborative panel,” a term Hollingsworth uses to describe the 4’ x 8’ wooden panels he created between 1991 and 2000 in his Summer Street Studio. They are named for his practice of organizing studio exhibitions and encouraging guests to mark the gessoed panels with crayons, a starting point for more fully realized works. “I embellished the images on the panel, and composed them into unified narratives.” Those preliminary markings formed the basis for more “refined works of art, made with crayola crayons.”
Keith Hollingsworth, When Worlds Collide, about 1992-1995, Oil, crayon on “collaborative” wood panel, 4 ft x 8 ft, Big Show winner
The last collaborative panel brought technical challenges that furthered his knowledge about encaustics, while seeming to allegorize difficulties in his personal life. “I had to redo the last panel in the collaborative series because the original image was destroyed by chemicals I thought would preserve and protect it, and caused the wax base to melt and the colors to run. I eventually re-worked it into its final form, which I titled MRC Blues, a reference to Michael Ray Charles, about whom I argued with two old black ladies at his exhibit in Austin, over his use of "Sambo" imagery, which I believe is derogatory towards black people. So the title MRC Blues came from that experience as well as a rough time in my life - divorce, losing my studio, etc. The piece’s working title was ‘Melting Pot,’ the red color tones of which are like red hot lava flow and appropriate for intense emotions, with the 'Blues' in the title referencing my emotional state. I painted in one of Charles’ Sambos.”
Keith Hollingsworth, MRC Blues (Melting Pot), late 1990s, Oil, crayon on “collaborative” wood panel, 4 ft x 8 ft
He won a “Big Show” and was included in eight others, but ultimately quit entering Lawndale’s annual juried competition because he became increasingly disillusioned with the organization’s exclusion of traditional representational art. Hollingsworth recalls a board member telling him that Lawndale “will not show certain genres of art such as traditional landscapes as long as he is on the board." He added, "I was around during the original Lawndale days, when it was a part of the University of Houston art department, and the art shown there was more representative of the local flavor - cutting edge, and inspiring.”
Hollingsworth senses a lack of reverence for artists, and a concerted effort by some in the art community to “dumb-down” the arts with the practice of defining art as “anything you can get away with,” which discourages and dilutes opportunities for those who have talent. “Today it is the curators, directors, and board members who set the agendas, resulting in art that lacks soul.”
Keith Hollingsworth, Untitled, Lilly Pad series, 2010-2011, Crayon on canvas, 4 ft x 8 ft
He experienced a similar rejection of his style by the University of Houston art department where many of the instructors thought little of representational art. Hollingsworth has a memory of Derek Bossier telling him his art was too much like an “illustrator” and that “the edges of my figures were too defined.” During class critiques, he was forced to defend his stylistic choices, which looked back to “Albrecht Durer, Leonardo de Vinci, and Rembrandt, who were out of style in my instructors’ opinion. I went against the grain and against their advice by pursuing Old Master techniques.”
Hollingsworth sketched prodigiously as a child, and earned income making mechanical drawings before entering the university to study engineering on an academic scholarship. Once there he switched to art which displeased his family. “After a semester and a half of engineering and advanced math classes I enrolled in fundamentals of drawing with Richard Stout, and was persuaded by Richard and James Surls to consider an art degree. Of course it was their job to recruit students into the art department, and so I fell for it, and took all art classes the following semester. I must admit the fact that there were more women than men in the art classes also motivated me.”
Keith Hollingsworth, Untitled, Master Works series, 2007, Crayola, Size unknown
While discouraging his style his instructors taught him “some basics,” but Hollingsworth believes he began to truly develop when he moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and painted full-time. “I honed my skills as a draftsman while riding the buses and hanging out in coffee shops, and every where else I went. I filled every moment sketching the people and places around me. I consider that period my graduate course in drawing. I often visited the Getty museum to study the paintings and drawings, and other museums and galleries.”
A trip to Amsterdam inspired a series of Old Master still lifes painted in encaustic in Old Master style. When Hollingsworth exhibited some, they caught the attention of Kelly Klaasmeyer who described them in the Houston Press as “opulent.” A lovely one in his studio turned our discussion to the fact that the use of encaustic spans back hundreds of years, and that he deviated from tradition by incorporating Crayola crayons as a coloring agent. Hollingsworth summarized his process. “With an electric griddle I heat beeswax, damar resin, and crayons to a liquid state. The temperature must be hot enough to melt the wax and resin, but not enough to cause the mixture to boil and smoke. I use a natural bristle brush to apply the wax to a hardwood panel with a gesso ground, occasionally incorporating ground glass for texture.” After drawing or tracing a preliminary design, he renders the image three to four times and fuses the waxy pigment with a heat-gun between renderings. “The first rendering is usually the best and the freshest, but after the first fusing, the wax migrates and is less rich and lacks the surface depth that the subsequent renderings entail. There is a give and take with the process, but I am continuing to improve it.”
Untitled (Still Life), Master Works series, 1999-2001, Crayola crayons on wood panel, size unknown
What else? Hollingsworth reminded me he works in all medium, and his representation spans “political commentary, sensual eroticism, natural and imagined landscapes, still life, and portraits.” He is currently exhibiting paintings in The Cloister Gallery at Christ Church Cathedral downtown. He said he is eager for the opportunity to exhibit the “Lilly Pad” series, and very much desires to have a major exhibition of his drawings which comprise a large category of his artistic output. I ended our visit knowing I had spent time with a superb technician.