See Emma Holister’s Far Out Series
Fantastic Voyage by Martin J Walker
In the late eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth century, the painted vision tended to be an objective construct, recognisable by most audiences; the struggle for the artist was often a technical one, to make the image, tinged with emotion, as real as possible.
Already with Turner, towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the nature of the image and the exposure of the artist’s inner being were coming to the fore and with the advent of the camera the need for exacting representation began quickly to disappear.
Constable’s landscapes with their perennial characters, like the Hay Wain, were the last representations of a dying nature, a nature soon to be displaced by the factory and the machine, eventually by the digital image, Freud and our displacement from the land. In most art the reality of nature was soon to be replaced by a display of the less governable internal mind of the artist.
Many of today’s artists give us unique views into the individual’s subconscious. We are presented with representations for which we have only rudimentary language and no symbols, quite often representations which we can only grasp if we have a good understanding of the artist’s particular character and subconscious world.
Not obsessed with technical brilliance like most male painters, a number of female painters, not linked to schools or groups, even estranged from the male-dominated history of art, had already reached into their subconscious to produce their images. It is perhaps easy to understand the submersion of the female artist in those centuries when men were so undeniably the leading figures in power and civil structures. But as we approached the 21st century, many more women made a serious contribution to painting especially, yet were never integrated into art history or criticism. This was perhaps because in many cases their artistic preoccupations often remained as incomprehensible to male historians and critics as did women themselves.
It is always ironic to consider that while Damien Hirst has been considered an almost instant success and a formidable, if not great artist, an artist like Frida Kahlo, whose whole oeuvre is an exhibition of a physically trapped life and therefore dependent almost wholly upon an inward journey, is pushed to the sidelines of art history and seen as some kind of personal oddity.
There are so many, perhaps more apt, comparisons that spring to mind when one looks at the break-up of technique and the desperation to re-create a psychologically infused reality which began with cubism. The work of Raoul Dufy, the French decorative colourist who specialised in bourgeois social events of the 1930s, is a good example. Dufy’s work gained him a prominent place in the pantheon of art history, while the life and work of the tragic Charlotte Salomon, whose style could be similar to Dufy’s but who broke the mould of technical realism by introducing prominent lettering and messages to her work in the 1940s, are almost completely unknown. Salomon’s work reached deeply into her history and her subconscious; similarities with the lightness of Dufy’s style did not stop her from painting a massive biographic and theatrical tableau during the last couple of years of her life before she was murdered by the Nazis. Salomon remains almost completely unknown, even to those who take a deep interest in the history of 20th century art.
There are three technical aspects of the drawings by Emma Holister in the following book which must be explored if only briefly: the fact that all the drawings were first of all executed in charcoal (later coloured for this publication), that they are all within an oval frame and the fact that all the images are accompanied by texts. It is also worth making the point that the work in this book is the work of a practised and mature artist; those who consider that Emma’s drawing is not as good as it could be should look to earlier work to assure themselves that Emma Holister is an accomplished draftswoman.
With respect to the charcoal, it is difficult to imagine any more suitable medium for exploring the subconscious mind. Although charcoal can be sharp and decisive it ultimately rubs off into clouds of confusion. But even more exactly than this, charcoal and chalk perhaps, though not recognised as such, are the ultimate plastic medium. When we think of painters in a reverie, we might think of Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock, we might even think of Nick Nolte in New York Stories. However, when the artist wants to get lost in the medium, charcoal is the thing. All the work in this book began as charcoal drawings, later to be coloured. Emma said recently to me, after her first set of drawings, done almost in a dream, ‘My fingers are sore and black from charcoal and my easel is looking rather battered.’ Her drawings show all the signs of an obsessive fusion between the artist and her medium, and they were completed over a period of manic activity. Charcoal does not allow you waiting time.
With respect to the oval frame of each drawing, the shape is clearly reminiscent of the mirror, the artist’s muse, and the drawings seen within are perhaps best read as reflections of Emma’s inner thoughts. Nor is the oval of the mirror that far from the circle, the shape that contains the longest narrative, alluding to past and future, dreams and reality and a sense of life’s continuity.
With respect to the use of texts, in my foreword to Emma’s book of cartoons Doctored Accounts, which contained the traditional bubbles of text, I wrote, ‘Recently I was looking through the photographs I had taken since the 1960s and it struck me that many of the pictures had typographical messages in them that sharpened the satirical nature of the picture. Looking through them with a new eye, I realised that this was a fundamental aspect of my work that was always more graphic than painterly. I think that I felt very early on in my artistic life that the range of emotions negotiated by painting was too restricted to explain contemporary urban life’.
While this might still make sense in relation to the following drawings, the words in these works are of quite a different nature and have an entirely different purpose. While the bubble-speak in Emma’s cartoons and the signposts and graffiti in some of my photographs help to explain or instruct the image, and represent a main portion of the message, the texts in these drawings counterbalance the images. It is as if the image and the text are saying different aspects of the one unified message. In the early days of television, the clear picture was often interrupted with snowstorms of electric blizzards, through which for moments one might see images and hear voices which though isolated laid down a brief marker to the ongoing narrative. In Emma’s drawings the texts are intimately a part of the images, you ingest both parts through the snowstorm of Emma’s mind; if you can unite both aspects and drag them out of the snowstorm, you might get the whole story.
The art of the post-modern period can be a Fantastic Voyage  into the artist’s ethereal brain workings. Some of the signposts and states will be readily recognised by their audience, especially women. From that first flash of recognition some viewers will be able to understand the ‘back story’ and the continuing narrative. Some of Emma’s leaps, links and sparks of connection will be lost on everyone because they are completely unique to her thinking or feeling. The lack of understanding projected by some of her work, is not of course a criticism of that work. While one can understand the universe of Goya’s late ‘psychological’ paintings, the exact meaning of them can escape us because they are 18th century aspects of the most unique nightmares produced by Goya’s social and subconscious history.
Is it absurd to mention artists like Goya and Blake in the same cultural breath as Emma Holister? Are not her drawings lightweight and lacking in gravitas? They could be. But on the whole I think it is an ill judgement which suggests that those few individuals who try to find a new language to describe their inner thoughts and fears cannot be compared. Emma Holister’s drawings are on occasions solidly frightening, especially when her subconscious mind is thrown into bloodcurdling conflict with consumer society. When this happens, as in her Supermarket drawings, there is a depth of horror worthy of a great master. In fact, while Francisco Goya’s images in the last of his ‘nightmare’ paintings illustrate nightmares of 18th century golems, mutants and ugly mystical monsters, Emma’s Supermarket drawings depict the growing 20th century horror of a conflict between the individual consumer and the corporation. Unlike in nature, men and women have no relaxed place in a consumer society which is beginning to split at the seams with the horror of endless choice, consuming time and the hemorrhaging of money on useless and often health-damaging products.
Emma Holister’s direction in life has driven her, although distractedly, towards a realisation of self and a desire to lose her dependence on manipulative and contemporary oppressive economic and social systems. Emma is the most post-modern of people. Experimenting with her environment, she has resolved sanitary problems, heating problems and even food growing and nutritional problems in an environment-friendly manner. Her drawings reflect this intense individualism and this movement from beneath the great conforming weight of social, cultural and economic distraction. Her asides about the system within which we all live appear at times whimsical, or even jokingly beyond comprehension; this, of course, is not surprising because in viewing this collection of drawings, many people will not know who Emma is and therefore what she necessarily means or values.
In Emma’s last two books, one of cartoons and the other of erotic images based on Japanese art, the trigger to the images is literal and clear. This book before you, however, is a cornucopia of DIY cultural messages and we have to try hard to understand where any image, any message, might have come from. The words, reinforced by Emma’s pictures, always tell a story, yet some of the stories are indecipherable, perhaps because we don’t know enough and secondly because we don’t know Emma well enough. At others we might guess and that after all gives some meaning to the picture. For instance, I have come to my own conclusions about the ‘learning Japanese’ pictures; these, I think, are Emma’s protest against globalism brought on by that feeling of inadequacy we all face when buying in globally stocked supermarkets. I might be wrong about this but I am happy with the mistake.
In some of Emma Holister’s drawings the initiating idea is completely obscure, possibly because they come straight off the press in Emma’s mind and she is just illustrating, not explaining a recent thought. Some, like ‘And then there were Algae’ are simply too surreal to bother trying to decipher, we can only look and wonder. Why are the shutters on the windows so tightly shut? Other drawings have simple explanations, unless, that is, the observer wants to take their interpretation further; ‘climb like a monkey’ would at first sight imply the simplest of messages, but then when you realise that there are no monkeys in the picture and the tree is not a ‘climber’ by any standards, you might wonder. Yet other drawings are perfectly literal, like, ‘Make a House out of Doors’, although one is still left with the sense that Emma is poking fun at her audience. Emma hands a few of her drawings over to the audience, as it were, daring them to make something out of it, a little like two delinquents preparing for a fight in a bar: “What do you mean, mate, ‘Interdimensional Trousers’”? Or “Don’t be silly, my trousers ain’t Interdimensional, think I’m a poofter or something, eh?”
Other messages appear very simple. ‘I am the Oxford Dictionary’ would be instantly explicable to anyone with small children. In this case, to mystify it more, it might be made into a rhetorical question with a slightly Jewish inflection, like, ‘So, I’m the Oxford English Dictionary?’ But as Emma has no children to my knowledge and she is not a Jewish person, to my knowledge, one is left with only one explanation. Occasionally we can all be filled with the presence of alien phenomena, perhaps in this case, the Oxford English Dictionary – frequently I have written a word which I have never used before but then, looking it up, have found it means exactly what I wanted and thought it to mean.
Many of Emma’s drawings are whimsical, and some hardened male critics could well mark them down for this reason; however, it might just be that the male consciousness is a long way from grasping the lone and perhaps despairing messages in drawings like, ‘Travels with my telly’. Why in this picture is the subject’s head dissected from her body? Does this represent a starvation of the sensory aspect of being or a disengagement of the brain? At the least it is hardly whimsical. Others are pure Zen and leave you with an empty space in your intellectual world view. ‘The Tree Was Forgetting and Remembering’. How can we interpret this, is it about the seasons and is the reference to a ‘tree’ or the vaguely amorphous human who seems to inhabit the shape of the tree? A few of the drawings outside the supermarket pictures are instilled with pure inarticulate horror, such as in ‘I was familiar with the tunnel’. The viewer is left wondering whether the tunnel is the Freudian one representing a vagina or the one in which artists and bipolar people inevitably lose themselves, or even could it be a reference to Alice in Wonderland? Either way the drawing has a sombre and frightening aspect like the entrance to a death camp. Equally ‘who pulled the string’, could be a reference to the famous hanging executioner Pierrepoint were it not for the word ‘string’ - far too flimsy to hang a person. Is it execution from a small animal’s perspective?
Just occasionally Emma seems to return to her cartoon characters, in which the individuals are far too simply described as what they are, those who are doing the things exhibited in the drawing. In ‘Was he man or robot?’ the question is rhetorical, just the box is left to be ticked and perchance for us to wonder at what a human robot now is. In ‘She hid Bits of Fried Chicken Under the Cushions’, we are left knowing that this is not Emma’s psyche that we are exploring but that of a dispirited female couch potato who has ‘let herself go’ and been made nutritionally mad by a terrible loneliness. Where, one wonders, did Emma meet this woman, or her stereotype, inside her head or on the street? The drawing also induced in me a feeling of confused concern, while I wonder about the next interview I might do – I must not put my hands down the side of the sofa!
There are inevitably some drawings for which explanations will surely have to wait. One of these is the apparently intimately personal, ‘C’est pas tes Oignons’. I was personally pleased that I am fatedly bad at languages, so making it impossible to ‘enjoy’ this drawing. ‘Read the Dictionary’ is another drawing in which the content is slightly squeamish – did Emma find one of these in her dictionary? I keep finding cut-out photographs of my late father in my dictionary, can I interpret the drawing in this way? To be enjoyed, many of the drawings should just be left without any interpretation. Amongst these one of my favourites is: ‘The particles were way too excited’. I like this drawing because, I would imagine, this is what particles do, ‘get excited’ and thereby change the nature of the substances of which they are a part. To someone who understands science as little as I do this seems like a good story. Another picture of simplicity itself is one of my favourites, ‘And she said let there be crochet: and there was crochet’, perhaps it is, I feel, slightly lacking a ‘lo and behold’ somewhere but this doesn’t detract from the epic humour. And finally, perhaps the most obviously political of all the drawings, one in which the slogan seems to be radically illustrated by the drawing within, ‘March out of Line’. This drawing is made for urban stencilling and I’m sure Banksy would like it.
Other drawings contain much more whimsy, a more unthreatening and relatively pleasant dream-like journey into Emma’s subconscious. The joy of many of these pictures is that they leave it to the viewer to interpret them. Their ‘real’ or ‘intended’ meaning doesn’t exist or is of little consequence because it has even escaped the artist herself – these pictures present puzzles for us to store in our minds and chew over at our leisure.
What we have in this book is a continuous stream of snapshots from inside Emma’s mind; they are not so much talismans or logos as she might suggest because they have slightly deeper narrative than both these things. They are signposts to Emma’s inner world and yes, her inner world is a difficult place, one which seems to be without any sense of logical reality. Her drawings describe a world a little like the early black-and-white episodes of Star Trek, a world where we know the elements but where everything is slightly out of place, rocks which should weigh tons actually seem to be made out of papier maché, plasticised and hollow, while voyagers on the Starship Enterprise run about on foreign planets with tight trousers and no air supply.
In her manner of presentation, Emma comes from a line of artists whose images, often created with photomontage, represent a part of the usually deeply hidden subconscious world. It’s a scary world overflowing with unusual thoughts and objects, it is a world where not everything can be understood or opened up without a key. It’s the world of Hartfield, Blake, and Richard Hamilton, one which is half awake and half sleep-walking, a disordered world in disturbing short bursts, in the wake of the pop art language of Eduardo Paolozzi.
Inevitably, with these quick flashes of drawing, Emma also jumps out of ‘art’ into the style of the comic book and the poster, a style which mirrors her previous cartoon work. However, while her cartoons and most comics articulate narratives of reasonable length, each drawing in this collection gives few clues to past or future, just a snapshot of a waking or sleeping moment.
There follows a book of photos of Emma’s inner workings, with only the slightest reference, depending on your definition, to anything social, cultural or political — this is Emma inside out, Emma without a translator.
1. In 1989, Nolte played an abstract expressionist painter in Life
Studies, the Martin Scorsese section of the film New York Stories.
2. Doctored Accounts: Emma Holister (France 2008 Out of print at present)
3. A 1966 film directed by Richard Fleischer in which a submarine is
shrunken to microscopic size and with a small crew, injected into blood
stream of a diplomat who has suffered an attempted assasination.
4. Doctored Accounts: Emma Holister (France 2008 Out of print at present), The Erotic Art of Elucie (France 2012)