Holton Rower’s Cutaways – Process, Substance and Sociology Compressed. By Sandra Antelo Suarez
Holton Rower’s studio is a microcosm of a commodity-based society’s absurd obsession with accumulation. But it is also a microcosm of human desire in a search for connectivity and belonging. The impulse to acquire material wealth and the opposing drive for social assimilation are in constant tension with each other. And when material accumulation crowds collective space to the point of igniting conflict between groups, conflict is inevitable. Rower’s objects reflect the desires of the most acquisitive society in the world while embodying the absurd human cycle of creating and destroying the very thing we think we need most—social redemption—with the things we believe will help us attract it.
Rower’s expansive production of such simulated excavations is analogous to a socially self-absorbed manifest destiny in its continual conquest of territory and occupation of space while exploiting natural resources and human labor in the process. The emptiness at the center of its impetus, while seemingly forever growing and refurbishing matter, is starkly drawn out as a voluminous parable of unconscious self-dissolution by material suffocation.
Rower’s Cutaways evoke the cycle of producing, marketing, purchasing, and discarding of manufactured goods, with their cross sections of colors resembling the tons of compressed garbage found at dump yard sites, waiting to be shipped to the processing plants of poorer nations. It’s the work’s striated layers that remind us of excavation sites that are hundreds and thousands of years old, except that their vibrant-to-lurid coloring can only be symbolic of contemporary marketing and consumer tastes.
Rower’s approach is predominantly sculptural even when it is color that on first acquaintance appears to benefit most from its interplay with form. Each work has been produced by piling up monochromatic layer after layer on junctures of plywood that are then literally cut away three-dimensionally into formal volumes, sometimes in the shape of a stone or monolith or some other natural formation. In their state of suspended commodification while doubling as mimics of natural geological forces, Rower’s Cutaways give rise to considerably complex, sometimes contrasting, even oppositional readings of sociological, psychological, and existential contexts. While some works elicit admiration, others produce a sense of angst for their embodiment and signification of micro-controlled and unwieldy, proliferating industrialization whose chaotic climate effects have no end in sight.
In Rower’s studio, the layered paint of the Cutaways undergoes a structural apotheosis of sorts. Beyond a studio door there is a plastic barrier for containment of the contaminated air from the paint’s gasses. There are heaters to maintain softness in the layers and air fans for curing. Rower and his assistants wear respiration masks, gloves, and goggles for protection from the stifling toxins. Hundreds of gallons of paint are brushed out, layer upon layer, each a different color. The layers dry in striations of multiple colors. Upon drying, the layered mass is cut into volumes of diverse forms until they are given a shape that is to Rower’s satisfaction. From nothing but paint, a multilayered, multicolored Cutaway is born, each having its own color chart, a color binnacle, with its own history of layering.
As Rower stretches materials to their contrary endpoints, he creates volumes with the layers of paint he has cut them from. The invisible blade is significant; its invisibility is more significant. It only leaves the trace of a smooth surface, but it is the surface of global capitalism and some marks of a change of direction in the paint when the blade stops. In this, the blade is a tool of recovery from trauma, the excavator, the cut of liberation, full of pain, blood, sweat, but also deliverance.
In mirroring the materialism and maximalism of modern industrialized consumerism, Rower’s oeuvre invites critical scrutiny despite its allure. It is a testament to the system of manufacturing he has engineered to layer and compress paint into starkly demarcated strata, not unlike the geological formations millions of years old. But Rower’s colors resemble an industrially packaged, commercially coded, market-tested color code that can either clash or harmonize in the fashion of junk food packaging overseen by advertising executives. We encounter this “packaging” as if it has already finished its commercial run and now awaits transformation as recycled refuse.
We recognize the lurid coloring as a newly coded packaging, but a packaging of what, we are unsure. All we know is that we can’t easily turn away from it as it loudly demands our attention, much as the commodities of which it is made to evoke. Converted into an analytic-ironic hybrid of Pop and Op Art, it initially distracts us from its own industrialization. To some viewers, the works are annoyingly loud, screaming for attention as we passively recognize them to be both attractive and alienating. More often than not, we fail to identify their function and meaning upon early acquaintance. The multicolored layers that are literally through-and-through are the sole semiotic remnants of the object’s collective past. The layers and colors are as much the traces of the object’s history as they are an essay in the physics of paint, though they also convey the object to be a comfort commodity newly born. The most successful stop us in our tracks to compel us to pass time with them as they relax us, even sedate us, like an ersatz pet waiting for our caress.
But Rower could never be content with a sentimental valuation. Each work must transcend personal and commercial denotations. Matter and mass must grow within each piece to trigger an underlying unease, even anxiety, by virtue of discomforting mutations. Although Rower’s massive-giant pieces can be visually stunning and physically intimidating due to their sheer size, weight, and volume—the average measurement of a Cutaway is 11 1/2 feet wide by 8 feet high, with a weight of 400 pounds, most of which is paint, the equivalent of 80 gallons. The blend of colors locks our eyes in a hypnotic travelogue: the effect of their lines, the strata of flattened paint, layer upon layer, which, like the walls of exposed quarries or ecological excavation sites, compel us to feel lost among, even threatened by, our own association of the work’s strata with volcanic lava flows that have suffocated and petrified its victims while burying them alive.
But even before such extravagant imaginings enter our chains of psychological association, the work elicits entangled complexes that draw unconscious memories of angst-stricken dreams, even feverish states in which the mind’s inner visions are consumed by the imagery of nervously swirling, thick liquids failing to mix. They exist as an inform, a preform, stripped of meaning for not prompting object recognition by being something less than psychologically charged entanglements challenging our perception of reality, while re-awakening our visual experience with the discomfort of meaningless saturation.
But perhaps such foreboding interpretations are only for those who recognize the ominous and dire toll that commodity waste and industrialization have on our environment. For the innocent, the undulating lines of color incite pleasure for their rainbow similitude.
As undecipherable time capsules in the search for belonging and connectivity, the timing, the control of time, the compression and expansion of time, the perfect timing, the maturity and curing of the paint: all are essential in the synchronization of cutting away pain(ted skin), the embodiments, for some viewers, of bodies filled with anguish and a violence of materiality. Working with a deep understanding of paint as physical substance (its viscosity, surface tension, rate of drying) and the effect of physical forces on the fluid medium, Rower has created a physics of paint as object, at the same time that he has enacted a phenomenology of the audience’s experience of the object as art. For the naive viewer, such a work about painting as sculpture is a source of fascination and pleasure with dynamic color compositions. The more technically minded viewer can appreciate how the artist explores myriad possibilities for deploying the medium. The intellectual will discover analogies reflecting geological phenomena both physical and dynamic and their representation in various forms of mapping. The poet will see these analogies as metaphors enabling deeper and richer levels of understanding that may extend beyond the work itself. And there will be those who may experience Rower’s works on all these levels, and still be led to find further modes.
The series is called Cutaways because the blade cuts away, divides, recycles time as well as material. But there is also a parallel here between Rower’s sculpture and the skin cutting ceremonial rituals of tribal peoples, specifically in Africa and the New Guinea Sepik tribes. In the cutting rituals for making Sepik boys into men, when the layers of skin are compacted and cured, the skin is extracted for liberation. In others it is for markings of belonging to a tribe and recognition, a decorative shield that sometimes will save their life in a war. But such analogies only lead so far. Since the Cutaways are not living matter, nothing grows back. Instead, the extractions of paint are layered and pounded into compressed volumes of various shapes. As with the peeled skin of the Sepik men, the painted skin is compacted, then folded to rest upon a stool, table, or drum. But we may wonder whether, in the de-absolution of the material, Rower is trying to hold onto the object for its power of entrancement as a vision of excess, of the transformation of the excrements of society, much the way that an infant is believed in the Freudian model of sublimation to regard its own excrement as a thing of awe, and thereby as a gift to its parents. As such, the Cutaways are a grotesque-yet-sublimated mirror of a consumptive society in search for connectivity and cleansing through the material transformation from garbage to commodity.
In environmental terms, Rower makes the political ecology of discarded refuse an agency of assemblage, while investing it with the charges of angst, beauty, and horror. Yet in Rower’s frenzy, beauty is not enough, just as in consumer culture we purchase without end. The difference is that Rower’s aesthetic does not tolerate a trace of the manufacturing production itself, and the painted objects must be meticulously produced in the highest standard of craftsmanship possible. In this, the sculptures are anti-trash. They represent the craftsmanship of recreation, eruptions of desire hardened and exposed as if sediments of stone. What is this excavation but a process by which the Cutaways sublimate angst into liberation through expression in form and thought. But at the same time, Rower is composing a reflection of a society that wishes away discomfort and hard labor. This is why the labor of each piece is rendered invisible, made to look to be an easy gesture or a found object, when in reality it is labor intensive while reflecting Rower’s philosophy of labor and manufacturing.
Rower’s exploration of the commodity theme allows him to microscopically zoom into a technique as subject. The Cutaways are thousands of images collected and solidified into one form. The process is described by Rower in a parable of “denying self-realization,” the artist’s mix of dark humor about his own lurid craftsmanship, addictive process, self-indulgent eroticism, and perverse whimsy, in which he sees himself playing at being a harbinger for a deeply alarming, environmentally suffocating overpopulation indifferent to its own rampant self-destruction. Yet Rower’s process of materialization is the de-absolution of the material itself. While he works within a wide definition of meaning, there is no imposed message.
Rower says little to invest the work with meaning, but the gluttony of materialism is mirrored in many ways. His psychological entanglement with society’s fascination in accumulation and the absurdity of material itself, for itself, is undeniable in that each work is anchored by masses of painted matter, despite that only one substance is utilized in each. The work celebrates the elasticity and potential of the material itself. Rower’s exploration of physical phenomena, both as a romancer and a demolisher of matter, exposes his obsessive relationship with it. The substance goes through a process of absolution and de-absolution: indulgence, dispensation, forgiveness—exposing the filth of associations then cleansing the guilt imposed on its existence. He strips the physical masses to bare essentials while creating new folds (and meanings) by growing matter to enlarge a voracity of production of paralleling/mirroring/echoing contemporary consumption as drowning in numbers …. But there is harmony through humor in the space. There is balance. There is care.
Rower claims his work is more about process than psychology: “Form takes the lead.” But historically, form is dictated by psychology. The modernist cliché has form following function. Perhaps the artist himself is unaware just how much his background, experiences, opinions on materialism, and values regarding beauty and transformation act to produce these forms.
Which is why Rower is cagey about the meaning of his works, and why he makes them impenetrable. Yet we sense the sculptures are loaded with provocation and the unexpected in their reflection of cultural indignities and society’s morbid fascination with accumulation—while also celebrating and expertly manipulating the material substance that gives birth to them. In expressing no truth or dualities, only possibilities, what the works slowly reveal is existence. They are ever becoming, asking us to find our favorite moments. Then perhaps, if we dig deeper beneath the layers, we find a personal memory or interpretation.
Like the best of art, Rower’s work functions as a silent mirror waiting to reflect the world—a mirror that awakens and stimulates its audience’s examination of the everyday experience of consumer culture even as they participate in furthering the consumption. And if anything, perhaps it mirrors the way we are all connected. Even if that growth and continuity ultimately mean pain and death. It’s the process. And the joy found in the process of creation for itself—in and of itself.
As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in Blindness (1984):
If we understand darkness as blackness then Shakespeare was wrong … the blind live in an undefined world where certain colors emerge … I hope some day to improve and be able to see that great color, that color which shines in poetry, and which has many beautiful names in many languages.