17 May, 2011

17 May - Nancy Holt: Sightlines

On Sunday I attended a lecture and book signing by internationally celebrated artist Nancy Holt. The event was held at the Santa Fe Art Institute for the release of her newly published book Sightlines, a comprehensive survey of photography, installation, video, film, sculpture, and land art ranging from the 1960 through today.

I first met Nancy Holt several years go when she lectured at the Center for Contemporary Arts in conjunction with a Land Art exhibition I co-curated with Bill Gilbert, the Lannan Chair of Land Arts of the American West. The exhibition was a 5-year survey of the Land Arts of the American West program – a unique land art program shared by the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas, Austin (featured this month in The New York Times).

I recall being drawn to Holt’s incredible history (she spent her early years as an artist in New York with colleagues and collaborators including Michael Heizer, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson – to name but a few), her unassuming manner with the audience, her endless curiosity for the world around her. I had not seen Nancy in many years when I recently was invited to join her for dinner. The dinner conversation was as intriguing as her initial lecture, we meandered through topics including monumental works of land art, the process of digitalizing her image archive, the trajectory of art history, buddhist practices, Italian art hotels, her ongoing interest in reliquaries. Her lecture on Sunday followed a more focused but equally engaging and complex process of contemplation.

At the lecture we learned that Sun Tunnels, arguably her most renowned work of art, was created as an installation of orientation within the awesomely vast and impersonal landscape as the Utah desert just beyond the Bonneville Salt Flats. Holt's work often brings a personal and human scale to the immensity of the landscape within which she works - a vastly different approach than, and nearly opposite to, her male Land Art counterparts. Her work represents a moment of respite and orientation to otherwise vertiginously open and enormous spaces.

Holt is an alchemist of sorts, and much of her talk was about transformation – transformation of light into sculpture, sculpture into photography, photography into print, print into digital scans, digital scans into a power point presentation. She described a piece she created for an exhibition in Denver in the early 1990's. Her father had photographed a garden, and then created a painting from that a photograph. Holt photographed her father's painting, and then it was reproduced in a catalog. She then photographed the image from the catalog, and photocopied the photograph. She then faxed it to friends as an object of art that stated (something like): This is a facsimile of a photocopy of a photograph of a photograph of a painting of a photograph of a garden. She noted at the lecture that as each fax printed the image slightly differently, with varying proportions, ink output, and data markings, each person owned a slightly different iteration of that work of art. She then, chuckling to herself, looking at the image on her slideshow presentation, said she would have to add "digital scan of a slideshow presentation of a projection."

Her focused fascination with the alchemy of light, time, and technology recalls the Henry Miller quote, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." One perfect example - the holes that are spaced throughout the Sun Tunnels are made in the form of constellations so when the sun – a great star itself – shines through the tunnels it creates unique constellations inside the sculptures so each visitor can walk on stars.

So much of what we might take for granted on a daily basis – light, time, medium, perspective, reflection, optics – is explored in Holt's art with astounding dedication and focus. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery of Columbus University described that "Holt developed a unique aesthetics of perception, which enabled visitors to her sites to engage with the landscape in new and challenging ways.” Holt turns each moment into Miller’s indescribably magnificent world in itself and in doing so reveals complex and spellbinding new worlds for her audiences - at once meticulously intricate and limitless in scope.