BLOG Nathan Munday

NWR Issue 109

Harry Holland and NoFit State

It’s strange seeing someone familiar on a gallery wall.

Last month, my housemate’s cousin stayed with us. I asked her what she did and she replied that she was an aerialist and acrobat. It’s not every day that you meet a circus performer. She’d come to Cardiff to perform with NoFit State, the UK’s leading contemporary circus. A couple of weeks later, I went to the Martin Tinney Gallery where Harry Holland’s paintings were being exhibited. The paintings are all inspired by the circus performers and it is there that I think I saw a painting of her.

I walked into the gallery. A warning: the floors creak loudly! I passed the Welcome Desk before entering the circus. The painting is situated on the right-hand side of an annexe-like room after you’ve passed the desk. The oil painting, called Rope, depicts a girl that looks as if she is about to perform the Indian rope trick – a similar scene might have adorned an older, Victorian-like circus poster. But there are no lions or tigers here and the clowns have disappeared as well. Instead, the circus is saturated with humans whilst the paintings zoom- in on glances, postures, and the individual beauty of each performing artist.

There was something uncanny about the painting…

I think it’s because the paintings are all very life-like. Harry Holland is well-renowned as one of Britain’s finest figurative painters. The acrobats and trapeze artists jump around the room whilst their faces look at you - the light capturing moments, or movements, framed in a single camera click. At first glance, a friend of mine thought they were actual photographs. Many of them focus on an individual whilst something else is usually going on in the background. Aerial hoop is a love triangle on canvas. Waiting does not focus on the acrobat but chooses to light up the yellow-clad girl who waits patiently in the queue. This is a re-occurring theme in the paintings.

Rehearsal (pictured) was one of my favourites. This circus scene could be anywhere and anytime. It took me back to a traditional French circus that I saw as a child. As I stood in the gallery, I mentally painted in a pair of tigers in between the juggler and the hand-standing man. It all seems very orthodox until you really start looking at the picture: then it becomes surreal. The central figure is a life-like girl who seems to be balancing on a pair of greenish, Dali-like legs which are statuesque and lifeless compared to the other girl’s features. The sudden appearance of a shoe, descending from another level, draws our eyes to an unknown scene where hidden activities go on above the circus floor. Holland does not take us there but chooses to focus on the centre point which is the stage. The cat-like woman in the corner is mirrored by a lone green figure waiting for her turn on the trampoline where she might jump out of the painting. Perhaps the man who is perched in the forefront is the artist himself; he is watching as if he is preparing to join in with this festival of life.

Newcomer is another favourite. A young woman is waiting to cross the threshold into that tent. There is something very current about this picture. The idea of borders, newcomers and thresholds dominate the headlines, and who knows, perhaps this picture mirrors the myriads of newcomers that are themselves currently involved in bigger border crossings.

Those were the paintings that I stared at the longest. I must admit, that Harry Holland’s work has not been my favourite in the past. However, Rehearsal and Newcomer are definitely a couple of steps nearer my wall.

I don’t really know whether Rope actually depicts my housemate’s cousin. She definitely looked like her. What I do know is that I was given a glimpse behind the tent curtain even though I never actually saw a live performance.

Nathan Llywelyn Munday is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University

Harry Holland’s, ‘NoFit State’ is at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff until 28 November

Pictured: ‘Rehearsal’, 2015, by Harry Holland


previous blog: Clare Woods: A Tree A Rock A Cloud
next blog: Frizzi 2 Fulci at Aberystwyth Arts Centre


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