Spatial Conversations: exploring the work of Holly Rowan Hesson

Holly Rowan Hesson resists neat categorisation. We could call her a sculptor, whose primary materials are space, light, colour and time. A painter, who draws on photography, architecture, projection, and the physical and aesthetic qualities of different man-made materials as her painterly tools (sitting within the field of expanded painting). A conceptual artist, who deals as much with sensory experience as ideas. Or an installation based artist, who uses the shell provided by whatever space she is working within as the generator and facilitator of her work. She is perhaps all of these things, and not entirely any of them.

To date, Hesson’s practice has mostly been based within built environments that have a somewhat forgotten quality to them, or the function of which has changed over time, leaving a trail of subtle markers behind at each stage. Using these spaces as her raw material, she engages in a process that could almost be described as a visual form of ‘deep listening’; absorbing the infinity of minute details and overlooked particularities that contribute to the unique tone and texture of our surroundings, and which shape our existence within them. The traces of this process – or ‘conversation’ – materialise through Hesson’s physical interventions; adding to, layering and distorting in response. The overall effect creates a grounding, complex sense of presence.

These physical interventions have taken many forms across different works. In some cases, seemingly incidental objects, such as the chairs in Assembly (2016) or plastic sheeting in Echo (2017), form new surfaces or ‘visual planes’ onto which Hesson projects photographs of the surroundings; creating a somewhat disorientating refraction of viewpoints, all anchored in different coordinates of space and time. (The photographs perform a similarly disorientating function; often in fact photographs of photographs, projected and re-projected – their original referent becoming less clear at each stage.) In other works, like Division (2017) or Control (2017), the visually appealing, semi-opaque qualities of barrier mesh and debris netting have been employed to establish uncertain depths of focus, and to challenge the commonly perceived solidity and ‘concrete’ permanence of buildings.

None of Hesson’s works can truly be experienced in the same way twice, but are instead inextricably bound within the momentary pocket of space and time in which they are encountered. The reflective quality of the fifteen Perspex coloured rectangles that make up No more disco (2016), for example, means that both the appearance of the material, and the disjointed view it provides, constantly alters depending on the viewer’s spatial relationship to the piece. Likewise, the floating and projected elements of Echo (2017) constantly change according to naturally fluctuating variables, such as quality of light or imperceptible air currents in the room (brought about, in part, by the viewer’s own presence). This interplay between the moving and static elements within each work inevitably taps into a wider dialogue around notions of permanence and transience.

Placed within these fluid, ever-evolving (occasionally looping) compositions, the rules of engagement become less defined. On a physical level, the often lack of any obvious back, front or side to each piece, for instance, temporarily undoes whatever spatial conventions are connected with the surrounding area, adding further to the overall sense of disorientation. On a conceptual level, it is unclear as to whether a purely phenomenological encounter is intended, or if a rational set of ideas is also being explored. A guarded, resistive quality takes hold as the work evades any superficial attempts to be ‘read’, and feelings of uncertainty and unrest abound.

Hesson not only makes us work to find meaning, but also invites us to sit with her for a while in this place of uncertainty. We are asked to accept an in-between state of grey (whilst surrounded by colour), and acknowledge the validity of this position amidst the world of black-and-white binaries and fixed meanings that humans instinctually seek and construct. ‘Content’ is far from absent, however. In fact, a multiplex network of ideas resides below the surface of Hesson’s practice, providing the driving, collective force that threads throughout.

One entry point into this web lies with the artist’s interest in 20th century modernism, minimalism and abstraction; coalescing not only around formalist aspects of painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the narrative of optimism and utopic ideals that underpinned the spirit and ideology of these movements. Yet rather than echoing this, Hesson seems more interested in the seeming contrast between the world of then and now; channelling a sense of loss and hopelessness in the face of the present. Her frequent use of construction-related materials and often underused or makeshift environments, serves as both a metaphor for, and echo of, the material and social fabric of our times – an age of division, pessimism, economic breakdown, austerity, lack of investment, precarious living and future uncertainty. Everything is either just holding together, or moments from falling apart.

This sense of contemporary angst also connects to a wider, timeless condition, as the iterative, déjà vu effect in so much of Hesson’s work seems to acknowledge. We see this in Overwrite (2016), for example, where a rolling series of projected images capturing countless obscured and distorted perspectives of the surrounding space is presented behind a glass door. The looped, cyclical nature of the piece can only be grasped over time, as it becomes gradually apparent that we have encountered many of these blurred angles before (both within the work, and within the space itself). Meanwhile, the feeling of frustration caused by the physical barrier of the interceding door resonates with a broader acknowledgment of our inescapably limited, subjective, mediated and obscured vision of the world around us.

Conceptually, each space serves Hesson as an essential ‘container’ or ‘vessel’ in which to gather, store and work through these, and many other areas of personal, artistic and philosophical concern. As such, her practice has clear potential to also respond to a traditional ‘white cube’ gallery; the standardised four-walls still providing the same essential framework and important set of parameters as she attempts to navigate her way through a complex sea of ideas. Perhaps the futility of this basic, fundamental human impulse to seek order, create structure and pursue resolution as a means of overcoming uncertainty, is partly the source of the unsettled, abject quality that forms the core of so much of the artist’s work.

The white cube is certainly the next awaited challenge on Hesson’s horizon, presenting an opportunity to explore the myriad of subtleties and idiosyncrasies that characterise even the most seemingly uniform or non-descript of spaces. Her practice is fundamentally intuitive and process-led, making it hard to predict what new direction this may take her in. What’s certain, however, is that Hesson’s command of light, rhythm and colour, and finely tuned aesthetic, will leave a deep-seated trace behind upon whatever space she turns her attention to.


Sara Jaspan, December 2017

Sara Jaspan is a freelance arts writer and editor based in Manchester. She contributes to Art Monthly, Aesthetica, AN News, Artsy, Corridor8, This Is Tomorrow and other titles; manages PAPER gallery's online magazine; and is the Creative Tourist Exhibitions Editor and Corridor8 Regional Editor.