Critics’ Picks

View of “Katie Holten,” 2020, Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow, Ireland.

View of “Katie Holten,” 2020, Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow, Ireland.


Katie Holten

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art
Old Dublin Road
March 23–October 17, 2020

Katie Holten’s Irish Tree Alphabet (A-Z), 2020, is based on an agreeable, legible conceit: matching each letter of the ABCs with the silhouette of a specific tree. Read her twenty-six original pictograms and they become a new language, or at least a new way of using it, in which every letter is an evocation of dendrological diversity. A is a lanky Scots pine; B is a scrawny birch, C is a squat hazel; all the way to Z, these neatly-trimmed tree-glyphs are as individual and graphically nuanced as the Latin characters they replace.

The New York-based, Irish-born Holten has created versions of this adroitly refined bonsai alphabet before: one earlier experiment was the 2015 book About Trees, an anthology of essays—by Tacita Dean, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others—translated into her distinctive sylvan script. For her exhibition at Visual, Holten has updated, localized, and expanded the concept, re-making the tree alphabet with reference to Irish species and creating an environment that introduces understated drama into this potentially didactic endeavor. The tree-letters are pasted in even intervals and at eye-level, a curatorial effect that recalls classroom poster displays or the Stations of the Cross. The exhibition might, thus, be a pleasant place to learn about trees or—with worldwide wildfires in mind—a place to pray for them. In the center of Visual’s high-ceilinged white cube, Holten has positioned a pale timber dais with accompanying benches; the austere design aesthetic hints again at both earnest educational engagement and solemn religious observance. But the intent, here, is to provide a platform for spoken-word performances: it is a clearing amongst the trees, a space where other living forms may unpredictably appear.