Feature | Loie Hollowell

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Loie Hollowell, Pregnant Red (detail), 2019. Oil paint, acrylic medium and high density foam on linen mounted on panel, 183.5 cm × 137.5 cm × 9.5 cm. Photograph by Melissa Goodwin, Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Head. Breast. Buttocks. Belly. Groin. These are the five elements at the centre of Loie Hollowell’s investigation of the body, her own body in particular. From the artist’s paintings concentric circles emerge from each canvas like planets. Pendulous forms, crescents, ovals and spheres are tightly rendered in otherworldly palettes. In concert with colour, subtle sculptural elements bend and emanate light.

Rendering the female body with a discreet vocabulary of shapes, Hollowell’s practice hovers between abstraction and figuration. The geometrical compositions illustrate not only the physical body, but also the psychological space of the body itself. Above all, they chart personal experiences of pregnancy, childbirth and sex. 

Point of Entry (lingam between teal circles), for example, presents the moment of penetration during sex. The 2017 composition depicts a large golden phallus moving towards a turquoise sphere against a cherry-red foreground. Hollowell’s oeuvre reads like a timeline of her own life, undulating painted bellies accompany her own pregnancies and explicit references to breastfeeding follow as subject matter. Trickle Down illustrates the latter. Five cantaloupe-coloured semicircles emerge from a white, central dividing line, lactating into a swirling foreground of lathered greys and open mouths. 

The artist’s steep incline from artist-run space to auction house is testament to the impact of her paintings. In 2015, a chance encounter with her former professor Ridley Howard led to an exhibition at his Brooklyn artist-run space 106 Green. At the time, New York Times critic Martha Schwendener prophesied that “The next time you see Loie Hollowell’s paintings it will probably not be in a small, artist-run gallery in someone’s apartment that is open only on Sundays.” She was correct. It wasn’t long before Hollowell’s was the youngest in the stable of Pace Gallery, New York. Less than a decade later, in December 2021, the artist’s 2018 Lick Lick broke a personal record of HKD 14,650,000 (USD14,650,000) at Christie’s 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale. 

Art Historian and Writer, Elizabeth Buhe first encountered Hollowell’s work in 2016. She owes the success of the artist’s work to the fact that “very early on, Loie hit on a way to marry the use of abstraction in a phenomenological and even sculptural way with the body.” A scholar of abstraction, Buhe says “what’s most exciting about Loie is that she continually uses her embodied experience to reinvent abstraction in her own language. She manages to engender a type of bodily relation to the paintings. Upon viewing, we are attached to the paintings through an umbilical cord”. 

Hollowell’s practice, across a number of mediums, has always emerged from the female form. Trained in Sculpture and Performance Art at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the artist’s early feminist-driven nude performances carried into her painting practice. While the artist originally used sawdust to hand-build sculptural surfaces of her work, she now uses archival materials to manipulate the light more precisely around each piece. Now, the sculptural elements are created from high-density foam shapes which are digitally rendered, milled, and adhered to linen panels before the painting begins. 

Prior to the birth of her first child, Hollowell recorded the changes of her swelling belly via the language of geometric painting familiar to her. The approach is exemplified in Pregnant Red (2018), which presents a changing body broken into modular parts. Of her second pregnancy, she says, “I realized I needed to be much more direct in my visual language to explore the new, more visceral state of mind I was in during this time. And so I actually started trying to depict my pregnant breast and belly in a realistic way in pastel drawings… From there I began to use the cast I had created of my own body when pregnant with my first child, which I had originally made just to have as a document of myself. This was the first time I took cast body parts and put them on the painting surface.” At that point, her practice became as much about portraiture as it is about issues, ideas, and experiences of birthing and motherhood.  

The sculptural elements are fixed directly on the surface of the canvas and become the narrative engine of each piece. “I am interested in how something dimensional sitting on the surface can alternatively become a recessive element due to how it is colored and textured in juxtaposition with the flat areas of the painting.” she tells me, “Ultimately, the built-up surface permits a deeper investigation into the figure-ground relationship.” 

More recently, the artist has taken to casting the bodies of friends as well as her own. Highly detailed Aqua-Resin casts make room for the smaller imperfections, divots and dimples of the skin to seep through onto otherwise smooth surfaces and hard-edged shapes. As well as higher precision body casts, the introduction of new bodies has, in the artist’s words, “allowed for significantly more diverse and really fun formal explorations into abstraction, organic shape, and composition, since each of our bodies are extremely different in size and structure.” In pieces such as Colostrum well (Cambria and Loie), the variation in shapes works against the geometric principles used to portray body parts previously. 

While some of the titles of the paintings point to the source material (Horizon on my Pit of Hell, for example, echoes the “fiery” burn of childbirth), the pleasure of Hollowell’s work is that you’re often excused from knowing beyond what you already recognise. Instead, the viewer is given license to be inundated with immaculate colour gradients, float along the rippling shapes to find clues of bodily forms, and move around each canvas to investigate the fine rise and fall of shadow from subtle sculptural additions. 

When I speak with her, Hollowell’s studio is busy. In the old red brick row building (an ex-knitting factory) live-in neighbours walk overhead and the studio cat stalks a family of mice while the artist prepares for three upcoming shows. First up is a solo showcase at Pace Gallery’s Seoul outpost in May. The exhibition will feature pared back “brain paintings” which explore the psychological experience of colour. Consisting simply of the oval shape to represent the head, Fuschia Brain and Teal Brain are rendered in gradients that offer a journey inward both formally and metaphorically. In the fall, the artist is set to exhibit a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara and a group of new paintings in early 2023 at the Manetti Shrem Museum at UC Davis.

The two immediate upcoming shows represent antithetical directions. “The work I’ve been making for the past six years or so has fluctuated between these two spaces, being both minimal and bodily, and now I’ve taken these two elements and separated them into two distinctive bodies,” says Hollowell. “These latest iterations push the two concepts to extremes – in one, incorporating literal bodies, and in the other, flattening into pure colour experiments.” 

Among the first generation of artists who grew up with the internet, the perfection of Hollowell’s gradients and immaculately formed shapes translates exquisitely on screen. Still, the illusory nature of each piece adds a playful, performative aspect especially reserved for those who see it in-person. In addition to the sculptural elements, the tactility of the paintings arises from her application of paint. Seen close-up, tiny, almost manic, swirling motions add to the refraction of light.  

“I am simply making images of the body.” Hollowell says, “And I’m not focused on the body’s relationship to its surroundings, I am interested in the psychological space of the body itself”. It is this unapologetic and direct approach, Buhe comments, that sets the artist apart. “It’s not that she can’t see outside of that experience, but rather she finds it to be really truthful… This is the body she has, this is the experience that she has at her fingertips: as a woman, a mother, as the partner of a sculptor. For anyone who has grown in the female body, given birth or breastfed, these things are real and the tactility of speaking to the body manifests directly in the work.” 

On first glance, the compositions are familiar; situated in the lineage of American artists such as Agnes Pelton, Georgia O’Keeffe and Judy Chicago with nods to the Californian Light and Space Movement and Abstract Classicists of Hollowell’s home state. The artist also calls on the Neotantric painters such as G.R. Santosh. Despite the meditative aspects of her compositions, she denies any spiritual affiliation. Rather, the artist pivots from the Neotantric use of modernist painting concepts to depict the body in geometric and symbolic modular elements. Though Hollowell’s practice shares the concerns of many of these artists, the confluence of art history and personal autobiography create a visual lexicon all her own.