‘Soundings’ by R Holcroft

Soundings’ is a retrospective of mixed media works created over a decade by Rosemary Holcroft, painter and Royal College of Art graduate. The paintings trace an ongoing and determined philosophical investigation, embodying polarities of thinking and feeling, chaos and order, truth and mystery. Through a material process of inquiry that involves intuitive selecting, organising and manipulating, Holcroft has produced objects that have to be experienced physically. The heavily re-worked surfaces are created through an embodied ‘searching’ process which Holcroft describes as “like finding the right key”, and they stimulate a deeply phenomenological response. The paintings are initially encountered as a satisfying corporeal wholeness that belies the hours of work that went into them. Spending time in the direct presence of the work, meanings emerge gradually, glimpsed through layers of the history of their making. These works need to be experienced actively as a durational journey, in which something new is always waiting to be discovered. Holcroft has developed a distinctive visual language that marries a balanced aesthetic sense of geometry with fragments of ephemera, chaos, and accident. For Holcroft, geometry is the one thing that holds true, while everything else changes throughout time as things are rediscovered and re-appropriated. In her work, found objects are given a sense of preciousness, carefully collected and horded, selected and ordered so that each finds its place in the overall structure of things. Materials speak with a voice that is physical, symbolic and narrative. Each object seems carefully invested with meaning, and can often undergo an alchemical transformation in the viewing of the work.

The earliest series in the show is inspired by an inherited collection of facsimiles of some of the earliest ever made woodcuts from the John Rylands Library, Manchester (where Holcroft’s great grandfather Henry Guppy was librarian). These are both a connection with the artist’s past, and a history of image-making itself. Their iconography of St. Christopher, the Annunciation and St. Antony is re-appropriated and carefully juxtaposed with other elements, hinting at inter-relationships. In ‘Crossing the Water II’, a running skeleton appears on closer inspection to be made not from bones, but from bandage or gauze; not hard inner structure but soft outer protector of wounds. The material of the gauze connects to the right with wisps of fabric that clothe Reubens’ Christ figure; over to the left, a barely visible fragment of a Muybridge running figure brings out the skeletal form of the gauze. In ‘Annunciation I’ the grid pattern of tiles and leaded windows from the woodcut is echoed by a cylindrical metal tractor filter and mesh pencil lines, creating a grid structure that traps elements, or keeps them safe. A row of three fragments of driftwood show traces of woodturning, a faint circular indentation in each, such that a row of three wood scraps is also a row of three circles. The wood is shaped by accident, tides and human craft, and given significance by Holcroft’s careful arrangement. Circles are a repeated feature of her work as important symbols of infinity. Take a single slice through time, she says, and everything is everywhere all at once.

There are depths here to be plumbed – with Soundings, quite literally. This series of works plays with multi-sensory ways of perceiving. Sounding, using a plumb line, is a way of determining depth. Sound can be experienced as the musical cavities of a cave; an echo can locate you in space. Sounding-out can help an idea to take form. All of these meanings can be felt in the work. ‘Soundings I’ seems to locate sound as it is experienced through the torso, resonating through the skeleton of the body. The painting breathes, from inner depth to outer light. The body is a recurrent form that appears in its scientific guises, for example through Muybridge images and biological diagrams. There are also traces of a body, in one case from the artist’s own blood. In ‘Darwin I’, the delicate tracery of veins and muscle depicted in a biological illustration is juxtaposed with leaves and insects creating a sense of the shared structural complexity and vulnerability of all living organisms.

The final series of paintings are very much of a geographical place, from the artist’s previous home on a farm in Pembrokeshire. The works depict memories of distinct events, such as ‘New Year’s Day’ in which the grid structure of field systems hints at the labour of managed farming. The weight of iron trapped in the tube is too heavy to follow the arc of white into the air above it. Yet the whole is surrounded by light, a complex surface that gives a sense of the whole embedded within the sublime. In ‘The Dream’, all has become dark, but this seems the darkness of space, deep sea or the unconscious. Colour peeps through marks on the surface. A feather hints at flight, the deep-blue colour of the raven, while a galloping horse suggests a flight over land. A natural sponge, normally at home in the depths of the sea, is held on the surface with lines of white thread like a twisted musical stave. Carving the composition in two, a white arc splits the dark like the orbiting path of a star.

Whilst Holcroft’s work shows the influence of Rauschenberg, Schwitters and Cornell, her work has moved firmly onto its own trajectory. Her paintings invest objects with a distinctive sense of balanced purposefulness, making everything seem both ‘meant’ and at the same time opaque and mysterious. Something might suddenly drift into view, achieving a lucid clarity, before you become lost again in a swirl of uncharted territory. Symbols appear as talismanic guides, a sense that there is some overseeing order – then you are plunged into a powerful felt response that resists codification.

‘Soundings’ is on at Water Street Gallery from 10 May until 9 June 2013.