Holly Hughes is a full Professor in the Department of Painting at Rhode Island School of Design. Born in San Antonio, Hughes helped kick off the ‘80s East Village gallery boom with her first NYC show at Piezo Electric. During her "travels abroad in America" as a visiting artist and critic at over a dozen colleges (including Bennington, Brandeis, Middlebury, Parsons, Kansas City Art Institute, Sarah Lawrence), she developed an insight into curriculum planning and pedagogy, and an unquenchable thirst for new vistas. Holly has been reviewed in ARTnews, Art Forum, Art in America, The New Yorker, The New York Times and D’ARS, Milan. Her work is represented in the collections of The RISD Museum, the Kemper Museum, Davis Museum at Wellesley, the Atlantic Richfield Corporation, Pepsico and the Freedman Gallery at Albright College, among others. She is represented by Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, NY and Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence, RI. The Big Empty
, Oil on canvas, 46 x 32", 2005Brian Sherwin: Holly, can you tell us about your early experiences? Why did you decide to pursue art? Where did you study? Who were your instructors?Holly Hughes:
We started out in Texas. I was born in San Antonio. My father was a jazz percussionist. I have a great old photo of his big band with HH on all the bandstands. My brother and I were both named so that our initials would be HH - like his. Pretty theatrical. We moved New York eventually, as my father found the racism of Texas to be a horrible contrast to his diverse friendships in the music business. Later he managed singers and was a recording engineer. Hal and I both tried playing instruments as kids – but were not particularly gifted so it was suggested that we find other artistic arenas in which to focus. Art captured my heart immediately. (My brother became a pro bowler and pool whiz kid.) So I was seriously drawing and painting very early on – classes after school and lots of support from the family.
In high school I apprenticed with a very skilled portrait painter, Frank Covino. We were living in Westport, Connecticut by then. I assisted him mixing palettes – 9 values and three intensities of every color he planned to use. I learned his systematic classically inspired painting approach, completing fully developed underpaintings before building up color afterwards. It gave me a ready mastery that I was very suspicious of, even at that tender age. I wanted painting to feel more risky and provide more of a sense of the discovery. And then I went off to art school – Pratt at first, then Silvermine College of Art (only a guild now, but it was a college in ’69-‘70) then two years in France, initially with a Silvermine abroad program, before finally finishing my BFA at SUNY New Paltz.
Through all of these educational experiences I was privileged to have some amazing instructors. Jack Whitten was my drawing teacher at Pratt and I still remember some of the challenging exercises from his drawing class. Silvermine, back then, was run by an exceptional art educator who really knew his stuff – Robert Gray. I complained about my dislike of Pratt’s approach of breaking things down to study and never reassembling them. He had me read the big white book on the Bauhaus and took my questions so seriously. He gave me his version of the bastardization of Bauhaus teaching methods that occurred through its importation to America. I also worked with Murray Zimiles there and we are friends to this day. He opened many doors into how ambitious one can be using drawing as the base skill to build upon. Zimiles also introduced me to printmaking – a medium which is almost too much fun to study.
The acquisition of skill and technique is always engaging– but for a young artist printmaking can also be dangerous. Learning to rainbow roll or edition, when I had never made anything I was happy with or would want more than one of, luckily veered me towards a "one of a kind" painting and a works on paper practice. Just now, at this stage in my career, do I understand what I could do with prints.
At SUNY New Paltz I really enjoyed working with Henry Raleigh – who helped me realize that I was not getting enough of an intellectual education in art school and that I would have to continue to educate myself for the rest of my life if I was to "feed" my art responsibly. To continue learning, for an artist, is a survival instinct. It is like gardening – if you want to pick something later you have to plant it so it can grow.
And there was Joop Sanders, a seriously good New York school painter who was an important teacher for us there. He directed me straight to New York and began opening my eyes to what a hard place the art world was going to be. I began to understand that your own deep seated curiosity about what your work will be like "down the road" as you live and it changes and grows is really your biggest ally. Your biggest enemy is to let any bitterness creep into your viewpoint -- as you confront the complex balance of triumphs and struggles the life of art maker is bound to present. Ceramica Historica
, Oil on canvas, 46 x 32", 2005
BS: Holly, can you tell us more about your experience in France? Give us the ins and outs of your early years as a painter?
HH: So living in France for a couple of years at a formative stage really changed my life forever. Travel opened my eyes to how much exquisite visual information is out there and how much it can tell us about who we are and what we are capable of as human beings. I remember going into Venice on the vaporetto for the first time and spontaneously weeping. I wondered how it was possible for the Grand Canal to be so beautiful and for New Jersey to look like it did.
I understood the need to look for your artistic roots with a sense of freedom and the spaciousness of the world. Your artist’s family tree invariably leads beyond our shores. The dropped threads I was interested in picking up and going forward with…. would come from many time points in history and from many cultural locations.
Learning to speak French cleared the way for me to understand the visual language of painting in a more complex and expanded way. If my sense of humor was different in French, clearly the approach to drawing and painting one undertook would effect what one could communicate as well. Art was not about a display of skill or a stylistic positioning but about seeking a "voice" and a use of means that would enable some clarity to emerge. It was propositional - about the way we understand reality.
Bows in My Hair, Greeks in the Sky, Oil on canvas, 46 x 32", 2006
BS: You have traveled much of the world... as a whole, how have your travels made you a better artist? HH:
As mentioned, my travels have played a huge role in making me who I am today. They have been central to my continuing education and to my sense of the complexity of the world I try to express in my painting. China, Laos, Thailand, Mexico – I could do the whole interview on what these voyages have meant to me.BS: Why did you decide to instruct? You currently teach painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. What can you tell us about the department? Do you have any advice for painters who are considering RISD?
I never suspected I would teach while I went to school. I went to four schools just to get my BFA and never went to graduate school. That choice was not so obvious in my generation. Just go to New York and try and make good paintings was the advice I got. I was demanding and not always satisfied with the quality of my education. The really good teachers along the way made a big impact and remain voices in my head. Only in retrospect is it clear what each of them offered me. I appreciate this question for the reflection it has encouraged.
Being in New York City is like watching the river of art flow past – and after a number of years I really felt I had something to share. Invited to do a visiting artist gig at the University of Delaware after a painter teaching there saw my show at the David Beitzel Gallery – I found that I really enjoyed the experience and had the ability to verbalize very creatively about painting. I can offer insight into what someone’s work looks like to others and help them contextualize it both intellectually and visually. I seemed to really connect with the students and found the conversations very entertaining. I am sure I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. They trust me as I invest a lot of energy in their personal growth and the development of their work.
So that was the beginning of teaching – more visiting gigs followed including a semester at both University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Kansas City Art Institute. Getting the full time job at RISD was great and the challenge of teaching there is very stimulating. For an art education you really can’t beat RISD. The students – both undergrad and grad are amazingly talented and terrific to work with – and the peer group they form for each other lights a fire under them. They take the art world by storm and it is gratifying to see their shows.
Shazia Sikander, Julie Mehretu, Ben Snead, Benjamin Edwards, Kara Walker, Chris Ulivo and more all passed through our grad program on their way to making great careers for themselves. From the undergrad, Do Ho Suh, Molly Lowe, Kevin Zucker, Leah Tinari, Daniel Lefcourt, Megan Pflug, Marc Handleman, Ramon Vega, Fiona Gardner, etc., are doing fascinating work and showing. There are too many to list. I stay in close contact and count many of these RISD alums as my friends. New York is really a small town when it comes to art.
Memoryware, Oil on canvas, 36" in diameter, 2007
BS: How did you find balance between being a working artist and art educator?
HH: It is very natural and has been the way of the world way back into history. I consider myself very lucky to have this amazing institution paying me a good salary to think and talk about art in the work a day world. It also opens a lot of doors – I just created ceramic pieces in the Italian hilltown of Deruta. I painted images on majolica forms in a workshop and studied the 7000 object collection in the region’s beautifully renovated ceramic museum on a faculty development grant during my paid one year sabbatical. How bad is that?
When I was in Italy I was the artist and the people I was working with were educating me. These roles are constantly shifting. Artists are lucky to be in a field where we learn new things everyday. Art involves learning to pay attention in very particular kinds of ways and that applies to making and teaching and appreciating it.
BS: How do you give to one without taking something away from the other? Or do they mesh together?
HH: Yes - they mesh – but do I wish there were more hours in the day – of course I do. Finding time to write out the answers for this interview has been hard as at the end of fall semesters I always have 15 – 20 students, past and present, who want letters of recommendation for untold numbers of grad schools, residencies, and teaching jobs. This is the price we pay for teaching them to be go-getters. These kinds of balancing acts are part of grown-up life. It is all work. But one thing I have discovered about artists is that they are "big time" worker bees. I really only have one speed – full steam ahead – and I apply it to making work and to teaching.
BS: Tell us more about the philosophy and motives behind your work...
HH: I paint like I am drawing. And drawing is the first witness of -- ‘mark, image and word’s’ promiscuity. Marks combine with the activities of the mind – allowing the surface support to become something else. I experience an itchy urgency of interpretation when working with the forms as they appear. As though I am in heated conversation with them. I am at play in fields of language – visual, verbal, historical – citationally linked to the fullness of time and geography. Out of necessity, descriptions are formed of the near, the far, the global, and the ancient. There is cross-pollination, hybridity and a sense that we are all adrift in one and the same vast cultural soup.
Our minds teem with encoded versions of all they have processed – and much of what others have as well. Painting allows access to that attic of the mind with great efficiency. Memories are structural trees hung with words and images, roots deep into the subconscious, back into history and gene pools. My fascination with potentially arbitrary juxtaposing acknowledges the results of the overwhelming quantity of information in our age and thus the certainty of incorrectness. When it comes to the inventory of the visual I have inherited it all - and own it - at least to the same negligible extent that others do.
Artists count on the inevitability of the connection between description and interpretation – and through this circuitry organized paint becomes our proposition about reality. It is this very persistence of painting’s ability to serve up the world that allows us, individually and as a culture, to experiment with who we are becoming.
Dove Plate, Majolica made in Deruta, Italy, 12 1/2 x 121/2", 2007
BS: Can you discuss how your work has matured through the years?
HH: My earlier work was greatly influenced by painters like Gorky, deKooning, Lee Krasner, etc. Paintings, like the ones in my show at Piezo Electric in 1984, raised expectations from abstract expressionism – yet ended up providing different kinds of experiences. They were very verb oriented and compositionally inclined.
I remember a critic, Ronny Cohen, who asked me if my persistent use of the central void was some aspect of an eco-feminist approach. I did not fully understand her comments at that time but suspect she was on to something. Even though I like thin paint – the active accumulation of marks formed the surface and every implication of what could be seen. I remember Michael Brenson’s NY Times review discussing the tension between what was painted and the painting itself. My interest in the shift from "mark" to "sign" was already in place. "Sign" has been winning this battle recently.
The work I am currently doing takes advantage of my engagement with both textile and ceramic traditions – and particularly the way images from nature are treated fascinates me. I see it as a code – a visual language that allows us to get at what we need, what we desire, what we remember and what we cannot do without. I explore images built, accumulated and collected – packed full of the suggestive and the recognizable, the legible and the "just sub-noun."
Working with historical sources allows me access to broken narratives where I pick up dangling threads to develop. History is a tattletale - with not so hidden "other possibles" lurking everywhere. You can retell, reinvent, reorder and re-imagine. I can let nature images speak. I can take the liberty of toying with the coats of arms of the once powerful without having my head cut off. Recombinatory strategies unearth new meanings, sound warnings and reveal the telling instabilities of signs.
BS: Holly, you are known for avoiding boundaries in the art world in that you are willing to exhibit anywhere. You don't contain yourself within any geographic... you explore the market. Would you suggest that emerging artists do the same? Do you think that younger artists focus to much on New York and other hubs of the art world instead of paying attention to the opportunities that can be found throughout the world?
HH: I think you are skirting the issue with that phrasing of your question. I would be very happy to have a one person show in a good NYC gallery tomorrow should the chance present itself. I work at making this happen. I have the art and am ready and eager. However, Piezo Electric, David Beitzel, and Dru Arstark – my previous galleries all went out of business.
As I have spent more time in Rhode Island and gotten older, opportunities have come my way less easily. Out of sight, out of mind really applies to the art world. Lots of people whose opinions I value know and respect my work but younger dealers tend to show younger artists only naturally. We are all aware how hard it gets for mid-career artists to be seen – even those doing their best work right now. So for the moment, I’d go along with what artist Nancy Shaver said during her visiting artist lecture at RISD this fall -
"Art – like vegetables and politics – should be local and global."
I show wherever and whenever I can, within reason. Over the years this has included many states and several countries. Many people see these out of New York shows but most importantly - I see them. Looking at the works in context with one another is always revelatory, offering signposts for the development of the work.
With regard to younger artists – I feel they are more equipped than ever to make their own opportunities and to be creative about it. They are savvy and schools talk about these realities. This preparation is far more helpful than when I went to school. Yet, let’s not kid ourselves, it is important to go to art centers, to become part of the dialogue, and to see the work of your time flowing by. Curating shows oneself is always a good move – I am working on a monoprint show right now with fellow artist Nancy Van Deren for spring at the Spencertown Academy, a beautiful little not for profit gallery in Columbia County, NY. It will include, among others, Stephen Westfall, Melissa Meyer, Joan Snyder, Roberto Juarez, Stuart Diamond, and Ken Buhler.One Hundred Suns Rose
, Gouache on paper on panel, 16 x 12", 2007
BS: Holly, can you tell us about your recent exhibit, Farming Umbria?
HH: I felt the show had a magical light to it…. The space was a small white box of a room flooded with light in the afternoons. We did a Salon Style hanging on one wall that I was very excited about. It was a hue map that led my eye – flashing about the wall from one work to another was almost like a drawing in and of itself. You could follow all of the blues, or all of the yellows. It was almost musical.
I like to show oil paintings, gouache paintings, monoprints, and ceramics in one show as that combination reflects what I actually do in the studio. For me each of these material approaches has fed experimentation in the others. The show was named "FARMING UMBRIA" for one of the four gouache paintings that sat alone on a ledge on the other side of the room. It acknowledges the amazing wealth of ideas I have gotten looking at historical Italian majolica and my intense respect for artisanal traditions.BS: Was it a success?HH:
I was very satisfied with the way the show came together, both the choice of works and the hanging. That and my two-person fall show at Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence, RI had a radiant quality, if I do say so myself. There were some sales but I certainly won’t be quitting my teaching job. Some of these shows are as much about community as anything.BS: Will you be involved in any exhibits in 2008?HH:
I will be starting the year in a large group show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg.BS: Speaking of success, how do you describe a successful artist? For example your work has been reviewed in ARTnews, Art in America, Art Forum, The New York Times and other publications-- one could say that that you are a very successful artists based on those accomplishments alone. However, do you view the success of an artist in a different light? In your opinion, what are the forms of success that an artist can have?HH:
I remember being in France, around the age of twenty. I was sitting in a stone building making a painting and listening to the radio when they announced "Picasso est mort." It was the end of an era. I was deeply moved and at the same time felt completely connected to how he had spent his time. I still do. My curiosity compels me to go on.
A day comes in life when you realize that they may not announce your death on the radio and that it may not bring tears to people’s eyes – but that does not make me any less interested in processing my experience of the world through the making of art. My job is to make work in a conscious way – not to decide how others evaluate it. Second-guessing is not empowering.BS: Holly, I'd like to know your opinion about the influence of technology on painting. Today information is just a finger-tip away-- students have access to what appears to be an endless stream of information. Have you noticed a change in the mentality of students who enter art programs today compared to in the past? In other words, has technology and the advent of the Internet created a new breed of artists?
Students access a lot of photographic information via the Internet and have to struggle to learn how to use the photo sources and not be used by them. Clearly we do not see the photograph as truth anymore. Just one more thing to be manipulated – a new kind of plasticity perhaps.
Some visions of how painting operates are more like hypertext than the more straightforward narratives, expressive explosions or formal immersions of the 70’s and 80’s. Some artists seek to understand how computers alter our understanding of the world and want to reenact that experience in painting – reintegrating the hand. For others technology supplies the evidence and/or specifics of the layered complex reality they want to mirror or comment upon or situate themselves within. This would be my case. Some see painting as the antidote to that overload. Some have made paintings upon which to project digital imagery. In any case, there are as many responses to and uses for technology as there are artists.
Yet, I do not see anything I would describe as a new breed of artists. I see them more individually. They have a huge amount on their plates these days and being able to make choices and realize that you cannot do everything at once is a strength for any young artist. At RISD, I always have a lot of students who play music and are in bands. Speaking with them leads me to think that the Internet may have changed music and its industry more than the visual arts thus far. (We do, however, have a graduate major in digital and time based media at RISD and I am sure the faculty in that department would have more to say on this question than I do.) Simply put, I still see painting as a technology.BS: What do you think of sites like www.myartspace.com and networking sites in general-- have they empowered artists?
My students have almost all made networking sites part of their daily life. I seriously wonder where they find the time. Young artists have great opportunities to see what is out there, to form connections and communities and to promote themselves. They use these tools fluidly. It is really too soon to know just how all these sites will change the career paths of artists. The Tattletale
, Gouache on paper on panel, 16 x 12", 2007BS: Holly, I understand that you are interested in the current media fascination with art schools and the shaping of creative talent. As you know, the media often portrays artists in a way that ads to the collective myth of what an artist can and should be. Do you think these myths are dangerous in that they may give potential students a false sense of identity in regards to how they should behave and what they should pursue upon entering an art program? Or do you feel that most students are able to cut through the hype in order to focus on their unique personal growth? What concerns you about these media created expectations in regards to art education?
I am interested in art education and how it is perceived by the public and through the media. I initiated a series of shows called CRIT at the Spencertown Academy investigating what we in art schools do in critiques. I did the first show with RISD undergrads and then Buzz Spector did the second one with Cornell students. We are currently planning the third. At public programming for these exhibits we carried out the kinds of conversations that take place in front of objects with their makers inviting the public to participate. People seem astonished by the breath of topics that come up in critiques.
Art education is a changing field that reflects much that goes on around us culturally, politically and economically. Books like Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class examine just these kinds of reflections that artists and their communities offer society. Many of my students at RISD are very aware of their responsibilities as citizens, as cultural producers, and as the potentially "out of the box" thinkers of their time. We live in an image driven time and young artists were raised awash with information. Their struggles to find themselves are no different than in the past and I personally find that they are less romantic about being artists than we were when I was in school. They are more aware of what is needed to make a go of the commercial art market.
Some are intimidated or feel that that direction is not for them. We encourage them to investigate many different options – including careers in museums, conservation, art therapy, art ed, etc. It is not a horse race – and there are many paths to personal fulfillment and many ways to make a living. RISD offers a problem solving education that turns out to be inspiring and practical for most students. As educators, we try to keep them in touch with "reality" and to address an awareness of world problems. We are not a trade school and these young artists are getting more well rounded educations than some might imagine.
BS: Finally, do you have any further advice for emerging artists?
HH: Pick your friends like you were going on the wagon train together. Choose those who will get out and push through the mud when the going gets tough. Look for hard working, fun, generous, supportive people and be that for others. Skip anyone you’d have to throw off in Ohio – it’s a long road and you do not need undermining folks around you.
Take care, Stay true,