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Mamie Holst


Do you think of your paintings as having a sci-fi quality?
I didn't intentionally set out for them to come across as having a sci-fi quality, but as I mentioned in a previous Q. & A., for me the Landscape Before Dying series alludes to questions concerning the mysteries of life. That would of course include outer space. Some of them are more sci-fi like than others. I have long had an interest in UFO's and one of the titles of some earlier paintings in this series "High Strangeness" is a term used in UFOlogy.

And do you find these eight recent paintings also seeming particularly biological or cellular?
No, I don't see them that way. If there is an internal component to the paintings it's more of a mind thing rather than biological or cellular, as in telepathy or extrasensory perception etc. Also the inter/outer is something window like. You, the viewer, are the observer and at the same time you are also the observed.

Many of your images appear frozen, stop action; are they culled from fleeting internal images or sequences and how do you get to freezing the frame - stills from films?
They are something like snapshots; freezing of movement or a moment in time. Like when someone says "I saw my life flash before my eyes" only this is slowed way down and much less specific. Not so much snapshots from my life but life in general. The work is more instinctual; shooting from the hip rather than taking aim. I've never really thought about stills from films.

Over the past few years, you have painted some images several times and they are usually quite similar. Why return to an image?
I work in a pretty large circle - rather than making 10 similar paintings one after the other, I like to work on a number of different images, sort of jumping around. Then I'll go back later and see what I want to explore further. I guess I get bored rather easily.

Is it while making the painting or rather upon seeing it completed that you sense yourself closer to understanding the mysteries of life?
Neither. I'm not sure it's really possible while we're here on earth to figure this stuff out. That's not really the point. It's about asking the questions. The paintings are posing some of the questions. I'm certainly not expecting any answers. If I got any answers I'd probably stroke out or something.


Burton, Johanna. “A Number of Invertible Dynamisms,Seeing Is…,” text for exhibition catalogue, BFAS/Blondeau Fine Art Services, Geneva, 2003

But what a spiral man’s being represents!  And what a number of invertible dynamisms there are in this spiral!  One no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the center or escaping.  Poets are well acquainted with the existence of this hesitation of being . . .

—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space


Were Mamie Holst a poet rather than a painter, one can imagine that she would pen haikus.  The traditional form, derived from Japanese verse, operates by way of a discrete set of defining features: avoid rhymes; remember that lines one and three have five syllables, while the second line has seven; and, importantly, make (if even the most subtle) reference to a season of the year in order to establish an expansive, intuitive tone.  Holst’s paintings are driven by a similarly efficacious template: avoid color; remember the unending complexity of circles and lines; and make (if even the most subtle) reference to a season of one’s life in order to establish an expansive, intuitive tone. 
            While the compulsion to repeat has taken many forms in modernist and postmodernist painting, Holst employs her own limit-set for reasons that extend beyond an interest in variations on a theme.  Haiku’s form ensures that a handful of nomadic words coalesce into a fragile snapshot of a single breath, a shuttle of the eye, a fleeting warmth on the skin.  Holst similarly isolates a solitary, if more abstract, scintilla in each of her works—though one might argue that this is less a freezing of movement or time than a transitory, even elusive, step out of the rules that govern space and duration.  The lure of such ephemeral escapes (and the ambivalent desire to return from them) is keenly, even tangibly, felt by Holst.  For fourteen years, the artist has lived with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, a condition whose vast array of symptoms include deep exhaustion, memory loss, vertigo, visual disturbances, photophobia, spatial disorientation, and disequilibrium.  The paintings are hardly one-to-one mimetic representations of the artist’s illness, but it’s impossible to ignore the ways in which Holst’s canvases deliver a potent sample of the effects of the list above for her viewers to experience.  And, indeed, Holst’s working and reworking of ovoid spheres, nestled into each other, floating in stacks, orbiting, surrounded by dense dancing particles or framed by queasy lines, are attempts to document the things a body sees (and doesn’t see) when it has been forced to become overly aware of the act of perception.  Holst provides so many images of supple, invertible dynamisms—her seemingly simple spheres reading as an oculus one moment, camera lens the next; vaulted cathedral roof from above, or beckoning light at the end of a tunnel.  Always indeterminately convex or concave, the only thing that is certain is that this is the view from the inside looking out looking in.


The term “landscape” was coined by 16th-century Dutch painters who needed a designation for the pictures they were creating of particularly pleasing views of natural settings.  The etymology of the word is from the Dutch, land + schap, where schap translates quite simply as ship.  These artists, then, imagined themselves as steering land itself, as unmooring the earth and guiding it toward the desired destination-vista.  This conceptual destabilization allowed for a destruction and reconstruction of the known, for a willing and exhilarating suspension of disbelief—and proposed an unusual mode of travel where it was unnecessary to go anywhere at all to get someplace else.
            For some years, Holst has continued slowly working on a series of paintings cumulatively titled Landscape Before Dying (each bears an additional parenthetical subtitle).  Composed entirely of Holst’s signature palette of black, white, and gray, the works describe the intricacies of a topography that is at once adamantly physiological and yet naggingly otherworldly.  Given that the artist returns repeatedly to the same schematic, abstract forms and uses only hues enervated of their tincture, Holst’s “landscapes” do, in fact, differ from one another, sometimes radically.  Some canvases have been practically sculpted, the application and re-application of paint growing up into ridges, others (particularly the latest works) resolutely flat, pulling the eye deep into the surface of a more self-contained object.  In every case, the viewer’s body is asked to reorient, to be steered, to be put on course for this most alien of grand tours.  While Holst’s canvases hardly bring Holland to mind, they—perhaps quite tellingly—uncannily resemble photographs and drawings made by the famous group of earth artists working in the 70s (Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, to name just two) who sought barren deserts and vast wastelands, and then literally unmoored pieces of the ground they traversed there. 
            For Baudelaire the ideal embodiment of the so-compelling yet so-abstract notion of the vast was, appropriately enough, a ship.  Occupying a unique ontological status, a ship in motion provides a liminal though definite space, occupied by objects and people but simultaneously unlocatable, a perpetually readjusting volume suspended upon the amorphous, immeasurable volume beneath it.  The ongoing serial title of Holst’s work suggests that her landscapes, too, float upon and take their direction from a source too infinite to comprehend.  It’s tempting to read Landscape Before Dying in a temporal fashion, as though Holst is mapping her unusual journeys in preparation for mortality.    Yet, read spatially, Holst places her (at once airy and claustrophobic) interior landscapes on a continuum with that vast notion of death itself—in front of it, in its impossible presence.  Unmoored within one of Holst’s landscapes, one (to borrow from Bachelard) no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the center or escaping.


Why black, white and gray, and relatively small?
I sometimes jokingly blame the black, white and gray thing on Richard Anuszkiewicz. He was one of my graduate instructors and was kind of tough because all he wanted to talk about was color, but he was really good and made me think about color. Before I had to move back to Fort Myers in 1992, I did five or six big wall pieces which were black, white and gray. I had also started a 6-by-6-foot black, white, and blue painting that looked somewhat like the Landscape Before Dying series. I ended up tearing up that painting into smaller pieces and used the canvas for the first LBD paintings. Also I did a lot of drawing and printmaking in undergraduate school and have always liked the graphic quality of black/white. I have tried to imagine these paintings in color and it just doesn’t work. I think they would end up being too “pretty.”
They are the size they are because physically I’m only able to paint two to three hours at a time, sitting down, and can do that maybe once or twice every couple of weeks if I’m lucky. And I pay for it afterwards. I have recently built some larger canvases but haven’t gotten too far on them because I run out of energy before I get much done. Only time will tell...

Are these images replies to things you see or sense within yourself, or do you consider them based more in the psychological or the physical?
I am kind of uncomfortable with these paintings because when I am done with them, and then go back a few weeks later to look at some of them, I can’t remember how I did them. With my sculpture I usually have a pretty good general idea of what the finished piece will be. I never know what these paintings will end up looking like. I think they must be coming from someplace in my brain that’s not always open. Once in awhile I see things in the physical world that might spark something, like the lines on the television screen when the station won’t come in properly.

When the painting comes together, does it confirm an experience, or is it more a matter of recognizing formal success?
For me, a painting not only has to look right, but it also has to feel right. So to answer your question I would have to say both.

Do you consider the layering of the structures to be in conflict or peaceful coexistence? When you are building this complexity, do you find it amusing?
The “layering of the structures” is not so much “conflict” or “peaceful,” but more push-pull, back and forth, and a flexibility between the two. I find this part of the question, “when you are building this complexity, do you find it amusing,” amusing. I find the paintings that are less complex, kind of humorous and sometimes think of them as my F.Y. paintings because I suspect some people might see them as being lackadaisical or easy since, I’m not trying to hide the application of the paint.

Is it important to you that the viewer be aware of these paintings as having an origin in a/your physical condition?
I don’t think it makes any difference to the painting, if the viewer is aware of my illness. I would hope that these paintings have a much broader scope than that; more about the mysteries of life. In a personal sense I like to make the viewer aware of Chronic Fatigue and Immune Disfunction Syndrome because even though it has become epidemic, and there’s plenty of information available about it, there are still many people, including doctors, who choose to remain ignorant and brush it off as psychologically rather than physiologically based. This disease is referred to as a “hidden” disability since we usually don’t look sick. Most people don’t have a clue as to how devastating this illness really is. Maybe when the name gets changed, which is now in progress, it will be taken more seriously, as it should be.

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