San Francisco

Tom Holland

Lanyon Gallery

Holland’s show is undoubtedly one of the most exciting ones in the Bay Area so far this spring. Entering it has some of the aspects of stumbling accidentally into a primitive tamberan house. The effect is electric. Nick Wilder has purposely crowded the show, even to hanging one panel on the ceiling, where the visual impact exceeds anything possible with a traditional vertical arrangement.

Holland, exploring the possibilities of stretching canvas over zoomorphic frames, in the manner of Japanese kite-makers, has even stretched a gigantic mask for painting. His color, always strong and usually greyed, here hits a barbaric high note and drums with the insistence of a tom-tom, especially in the temperas, where he refers more to Nolde’s savagery than to the brilliant Indian festival hues notable in his oils. (Raising the question as to whether Holland’s use of actual rather than implied dimension isn’t his solution to a color chord which has become too dominant to be comfortable.)

One could question Holland’s technical approach to painting. His pigment is thick and rubbery, sometimes hardly more than dry to the touch when he hangs a canvas. His torn and splintered wood offers a trap for moisture. His reliefs are often hollow, crushable bubbles of fabric and vinyl medium. But no one can deny his huge zest for painting, or the mysteries of his personal symbolism.

Many of his compositions are based on the cross, which he may use as a symbol of harmony quite apart from any conception of Christianity—even though his concern with it followed a year of study in Catholic Chile. Yet, in the ten-foot-high mask mentioned above, anthropomorphic features are simplified to brow and nose ridges to form the shape of the Crux ordinaria, the most exalted emblem of the Christian faith. A great lizard clings to the brow, trailing body and tail downward to suggest some monstrous crucifixion. Symbolic and obscene, it embraces ideas of the totem, the ancestor figure, and certain aspects of both icon and idol. A compelling composition.

The lizard, the coyote, the mask, the plume, the cross, the mandala, the ascending node. These are the totem animals and symbols Holland uses. With them he is building a special vocabulary, one that challenges existing boundaries of association, and restates the case of memory inheritance. His present idiom was “liberated” in Latin Chile, he says, and cross-bred with Indian symbolism, but its roots are in the cold, dark forests of the ancient Teutons.

––Elizabeth M. Polley