Featured Artist: Holly Rowan Hesson at Pyramid Arts Centre

Words & Interview, Eli Regan

Interview with Holly Rowan Hesson whose installation ECHO is showing at Pyramid Arts Centre, Warrington (29 September 2017 to 27 January 2018)

You’ve been exhibited widely (Coventry Biennial, Bankley Gallery in Manchester, etc, and at present at the Pyramid in Warrington) and your work directly involves a dialogue with the site you’re exhibiting at. How do you tackle the limitations and strengths of a building and space and how does your work change as a result of the space in which you’re exhibiting?

It’s a really intuitive process, I definitely use the space as one of my materials. I think about the space a lot before I start making work for it. I’ll have some ideas about what sort of work I want to make, in relation to what I’m thinking about or particularly interested in at the time and often how I’m feeling about the process of working in that space to date will creep in to my decision-making as well.  I lead with my interest in the visual: how does the space look and what can that particular space do for/ with my work and often I’ll add in oblique references to other aspects of the space (utilitarian/spatial). These elements are purposefully not too explicit. I want them there but embedded deep in the layers of the work if that makes sense. I use the space as a container to work through all of this and come to an outcome that reflects that thinking.

Colour has long been used to create atmosphere in Art from Mark Rothko’s atmospheric, almost religious abstracts to Dan Flavin’s sculptural neons. ECHO can be seen as part of this tradition – what draws you to this kaleidoscopic, rainbow-like palette? Do you wish to draw certain emotions from the viewer?

Yes, I’m drawn to colour and often use it. I’m not looking to elicit certain emotions from the viewer but am interested in the viewer perhaps not knowing whether they should be thinking or feeling. I’m interested in disorientation and revealing and obscuring and I use colour as part of that process. I hope that the viewer will get more out of the work as they spend a little time with it. The process and all the layers of making and meaning I add in to my work are important but I’m perhaps most interested in the visual end result and I think colour’s important in that respect.

Holly – ECHO isn’t static. You have added and subtracted colour panels as you’ve gone along. I remember watching Anselm Kiefer in Imagine say that he sometimes adds materials and paint to works that he’d not tackled for years. Why is it important for you to work in this way? Is a work ever finished?

While I’m making the installation I’ll be adding and subtracting but when I feel it’s right then the work is finished. It is true that it’s only after the exhibition opens that I’ll see a whole range of further ideas, references and links and I’ll capture these and use them in future work. Sometimes this has even meant that imagery from previous shows has appeared in subsequent work. Also I like for there to be some breathing space and ambiguity in the work, that’s part of the point for me. I was originally going to re-work Echo, the installation currently on at Pyramid Arts Centre (commissioned by Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival) but I decided not to when I realised I liked the existing tensions, links and gaps and it just felt right as it was.

In a 24-hr news, relentless culture, do you think ECHO acts as a counterbalance by its uncertain nature or offers some respite to the viewer? There is no text, only changing panels of abstract colour, light and image. This could have a disconcerting or quieting effect for the viewer – are you interested in knowing the viewer’s reaction to the work?

That’s a great question, I definitely play with uncertainty, ambiguity and impermanence in my work and whether or not that provides respite from what’s going on external to the installation or is unsettling I think depends on the individual viewer, but the fact that it could be either extreme is important. I’m absolutely fascinated by viewers’ reactions to the work. My work is so personal and I get so involved in it that I’m always relieved and amazed that what I’m doing seems to resonate with others.

You had a very interesting route into becoming an artist. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

I had a professional career in project management and marketing consultancy and never dreamed I’d become an artist. I didn’t even do art at school. What changed all of that was seeing an advert for a short course called ‘Art for the Terrified’ and something just made me sign up, though I’m not really a very join-y person. I got really into it and after a couple of terms signed up for a BTEC in Art Foundation and went through it in record speed over 2009/10. I was desperate to progress but found out a BA would be impossible since the fees had increased dramatically for those who already had a BA, albeit it in a different subject (French Studies in my case!) My previous tutor thought I’d be capable of going straight into an MA and I really got the bit between my teeth when other tutors on the course said that just wouldn’t be possible. Skip to 2013 and me scaring myself silly holding my own solo final show in a huge raw concrete shell of a building making all new work from scratch on site over the week before the preview and then happily finishing my practice-based MA Contemporary Fine Art with a Distinction and I’ve been practising since then.

Your work uses your own interventions and manipulations to create new catalysts for the work. From Land Artists such as Richard Long and Robert Smithson – this intervention streak has long been part of artist’s practice. Your interventions have been mainly in galleries – are you interested in intervening/interacting in other spaces – whether these are outside, in community groups, public spaces, etc?

Interventions and interacting in different environments would certainly be something I’d be interested in, particularly outside and in the built environment. As I use the gallery or other exhibition space as a material and also a container to work through all my layers it would be really interesting to see how my work might evolve without that defined physical area.

You have received funding from the Arts Council, A-n Professional Development Bursary and other awards. How instrumental have these been in being able to make the work?

These awards have been absolutely crucial from the very practical financial perspective supporting me to experiment and make new work as well as building my confidence, knowledge and skills by allowing me to work with mentors and other experts.

How crucial is the artistic community to your practice?

Working and discussing with other artists, writers and curators is so important to me. My work is very personal and can exist only in my head for long periods of time so it’s always amazing and gratifying to me that others are interested and it’s been hugely valuable to be able to discuss my work more in depth with curators, writers and other artists this year.

Which galleries or shows have you enjoyed this year and have sparked your imagination?

Too many to mention as usual! But stand out for me was my first trip to Berlin. I could have been there months and still not scratched the surface of the contemporary art scene and great architecture. I will definitely be revisiting it! In particular I had a “moment” at Blain|Southern (the Michael Simpson solo show), the space is just jaw-dropping and amazing.  Also König Galerie (showing Katharina Grosse among others). I’ll admit that sometimes I really have to remind myself to concentrate on the work rather than solely looking at the gallery space if I get caught up in an amazing building or space and thinking how I’d like to interact with it.