Sam Holt

Ahead of his solo show at Artereal Gallery, Sam Holt chats to Artist Profile about his evolving practice since winning the Marten Bequest for Painting and relocating to Berlin.

You studied print media at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) after a career in advertising. How did your institutional training shape (or not shape) your practice?
My practice has always been quite explorative and rather self-taught. I attended uni as a mature aged student, already showing and exhibiting, and I chose to major in Print Media. While my practice is and was at that time heavily in painting, I never really considered the painting department and was more interested in Print Media or Sculpture as ways of furthering and throwing new ideas into my practice. SCA provided me with international exchange opportunities, first in China and then six months in Berlin – opportunities which later became crucial for the way they informed my successful proposal for the Marten Bequest for Painting.

This award saw you relocate to Berlin in 2018. How has this move shaped your thinking and making?
It’s been a phenomenal opportunity and I feel completely blessed. I actually threw up when I found out via email! I guess reading those first two sentences sounded like any other rejected proposal ‘til it said ‘congratulations’. It’s given me a chance to spend a lot of time experimenting with new work, and last year I really focused on exploring that, taking time to visit shows and immerse myself with individuals from different creative fields in Berlin and Europe.

I think the biggest influence is the mentality of Berlin; it’s very open and diverse and people are really chasing their dreams there. Not only artists and creatives, but also it’s also the hub for start-ups in Europe and that energy is really felt in the city. The community has a fundamentally different approach to how they see the world, life and barometers of success and failure, and I think that has helped to liberate my practice and, holistically, my vision for the future.

I’ve seen some fantastic shows recently and the ones that really stood out were Helen Marten at Kong Galerie, Nairy Baghramian at Galerie Bucholz and Donna Huanca, whose painting practice is amazingly expansive. All of these artists are creating environments; transforming space through painting and sculptural installations.

What is the role of improvisation in your process?
It’s intrinsically part of my personality, the same part that struggles to follow a product manual is the same part that informs me picking up a material at Bunnings to see how it behaves. While I have clear direction to my practice, if it was too measured or thought-out, I wouldn’t be interested in making it. The magic lies in the surprise of how materials interrelate; the coming into the studio the next morning to see how a mould or materials have dried; the not knowing how it’s all going to turn out. All artists work differently, but for me improvisation is very natural and because of that I believe the works are more honest and giving. I’m always aiming to have a sense of movement and imperfection in the work. There would be no real drive to make if I knew the outcome; it would just become a notion of executing and production. Life is full of curve ball opportunities and decisions which lead on to one another and hence being open to changes and improvisation in my practice is for me an extension of this.

I’ve had a lot of comments about the change in direction of my work recently, but I believe my practice has always been evolving and I think when you look back there is a lineage both of concept and aesthetics. The idea that people know what to expect from a show I might make in five years would scare me!

This evolution can be seen in a lot of your new work, which looks to be moving more towards sculpture. In what ways are the sculptures related, or not, to your long-running painting practice?
Line and composition have always been important to my work and I see sculpture and installation as a natural extension of the work into three-dimensional spaces. I’m interested, more so now, in how art can transform into environments of contemplation. When I think about the art that really invigorates and speaks to me it’s about the moments they create and how I felt. 

Tell me about some turning points in your practice.
There have been a few really transforming experiences for my practice for which I’ve coined them as ‘art orgasms’, when the fuzzies come over you because it’s just that good! The first moment was visiting the Rothko chapel in Houston in 2015, where I’d arrived straight from New Orleans on an overnight bus, after my friends’ bucks party. Exhausted in the chapel I sat, rain pouring down outside with the space bathed in a beautifully meditative naturally lit dim light. I sat there alone for hours in the late afternoon. It was this religious experience the space had in that moment, something more than what I thought of art being at the time. It’s a memory that could never be recreated again, intrinsically my moment. And I guess I’m interested in the multitude of distinctive variables we bring to these moments as individuals.

The other time was at Naoshima Island in Japan, an insanely great realisation of a concept and space. Japanese architect Tadao Ando was a revelation to me then, particularly the Chichu Museum, naturally lit the museum was minimal clean and made for the housing of three installations by artist Walter De Maria, Monet and James Turrell and it’s the closest thing to perfect you could ever hope to achieve. Every decision by Andao it seemed was without ego and only with the purpose of making the artwork shine brightest.

Remnants of previous bodies of work are incorporated in your latest series. What does re-using and repurposing mean to you?
They have travelled from Sydney to Berlin and back again and with that, they’ve been with me and have grown with my art practice. I’ve always kept scraps of linen and other work with the thought that it may be used later, and the work just evolved out of doing that. I didn’t formulate a plan; it just happened. I’m interested in our decision-making and also the history stored in those fabrics for me personally; they form a narrative of progression and I also really like incorporating found objects that catch my eye during my commute, they all have a history. 

Blue is the dominant hue in this series…
Early on I realised a blue hue to the series was emerging, which I really wanted to fixate on. Blue is the constant backdrop to our lives, the sky, the sea and the highest frequency. Mediative, deep, dark and light it seems to be the colour we are forever bathed in, a quality that encapsulates the full spectrum of feeling. I’ve used blue in this sense to bind together the multitude of decisions and opportunities.

There are some fun images on Instagram of your mother in your studio, making a cast of your face and arm – do you collaborate often?
She is amazing and has always been ridiculously supportive of me pursuing art. I think it’s great to share the process whenever I can. I have a really tight knit family and that’s probably been the hardest part of being in Berlin. So it was really nice that she could help – she absolutely hated it and I thought it was hilarious. I realised halfway through, unable to talk or use my right hand, that she wasn’t rinsing the bandages off enough and they wouldn’t harden properly, so there was some very interpretive left handed written notes, which were finally deciphered, kind of. But the job got done eventually, take two.

You’ve made comment in the past that viewers should feel welcome to bring their own personal or collective memories to bear on your work, creating a relationship of discovery between the audience and the art. How do you hope viewers will approach your solo show at Artereal Gallery?
I want viewers to be really present with themselves, I hope that a conversation may emerge or a reflection about their own choices and decisions, taking a moment to reflect on now and the decisions that have brought them to this moment. Art can be really great in creating time out of nothing. So while the work is essentially a narrative of my own decisions it is an exercise in taking stock and truly looking back and forward, to see patterns of habit, opposition and the spontaneous opportunities that present themselves together.

Sam Holt: Caught between snorkelling and drowning, we swam
1 May – 1 June 2019
Artereal Gallery, Sydney




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