Nancy Holt: Selected Photo and Film Works
There has been a renewed interest in Land Art of late fuelled by the groundbreaking, and controversial, reappraisal of the movement, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, held by LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art last year. While Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria are perhaps the best known of the artists who began experimenting with the use of the natural world as an artistic medium in the 1960s and 70s – considered Land Art’s “Big Three” – recent exhibitions reveal that the movement was far more diverse and international than was commonly believed. Nancy Holt, a frequent collaborator with Smithson as well as his wife, was at the centre of this generation of artists who began creating enormous artworks by intervening in the landscape of the American West. Holt’s evocative and probing engagement with the natural world is the subject of a small but tightly focused exhibition at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery. The CAG has amassed a selection of Holt’s photographs and videos – many of which are exhibited here for the first time – that serve as both documentation of her site specific projects as well as compelling works of art in their own right.
Although Holt is considered a pioneer of public art, having created more than 25 site-specific works for museums, universities and public parks, her photographic practice is less well known, and Nancy Holt situates the artist’s work within a broader discourse of image making and the history of the photographic medium. An early work, Concrete Poem (1968) is a revelation and reveals Holt’s interest in the Beats and concrete poetry. The image of the black letters strewn haphazardly on public steps exhibits Holt’s appreciation of the formal qualities of image making as well as alluding to her own work as a poet. Holt would later fuse this penchant for words with her nascent earthworks practice in Buried Poems (1969-71) in which she provided five friends with maps that directed them to remote places where the artist had hidden poems in the landscape.
Shot at a concrete yard in New Jersey, Concrete Visions (1967), another early work, plays with notions of vision and perception; Holt uses the concrete blocks to frame her photos, playing with the light and shadow created by the structures and inviting the viewer to look through the holes, a device she would continue to use throughout her career. Ruin View (1969), taken at the Temple of the Sun at Palenque National Park, similarly challenges the viewer’s sense of perception and scale as the Temple is depicted through an opening that frames the picture and serves as the point of access to the Mayan ruin. In both of these works, Holt represents the act of seeing as much as the objects that are ostensibly the subjects of the photographs. Holt’s interest in the formal aspects of light and shape is most evident in her Light and Shadow Photo Drawings from 1978, which explore the architecture and composition of light. The images have a rhythmic quality and in their engagement with photographic processes are the most removed from the landscape of the works on display. Yet in their curved lines and circular forms the images allude to Holt’s ongoing interest in the optical effects of the sun and the earth’s place within the solar system. A very different work, California Sun Signs (1972) – a series of photographs of billboards and signs that contain the word sun – further references Holt’s examination of solar properties as well as continuing her earlier investigation of typography and repetition that she began in works like Concrete Poem.
It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Holt or her work without the writer mentioning the artist’s relationship to Smithson, creating the impression that his formidable presence somehow haunts her artistic output. The CAG’s exhibition is notable in its effort to have her work stand on its own, free from the legacy of an influential artist who died tragically at the height of his career. Despite the small number of works in the show, Nancy Holt provides an overview of the artist’s practice and reveals how her engagement with the properties of vision, space and perception has been manifest in her work. It’s a testament to the subtle power of Holt’s photographs that such a small exhibition is able to provide so much insight into her varied, and lengthy, career.