Venice must be the most painted city in the world. Keith Holmes is among the latest of the long line of artists who have made their way there since Canaletto himself defined our image of it. Canaletto's Venice, and that of almost every artist who has followed, was the Grand Canal and its palazzi, the great Baroque wedding cake of the church of the Salute, the Byzantine fantasy of the Cathedral of San Marco and the elegant space of its supreme piazza, the Gothic pile of the Doge's Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and the glitter and shimmer of all this white marble and stone seen rising from the sea in the southern sun. Later, artists such as Turner, Whistler and then Monet, discovered the lagoon in which Venice is set, with its incredible sunsets, sunrises and infinite variety of mists and atmospheric effects. Following them, in the twentieth century the floodgates opened.
After the Carnival 23 x 23cms
It is almost incredible therefore, that Keith Holmes has found a fresh and personal approach to Venice, the nature of which is explicit in the title of this exhibition. Exploring the city, he became fascinated by the unregarded detail of the very fabric of the built environment. But just because this detail is unregarded does not mean it has no significance or meaning. On the contrary, for Holmes the fragments he was arrested by and which he presents in these paintings are redolent of the life of the city - it is tempting to say the real life, beyond the tourist icons and the tourist trade - and of its history. Indeed he fears that this real Venice will be lost to the relentless tarting up demanded by the tourist trade, although paradoxically it is only thus that the city can be saved.
To give just one example here, in Crosses we see a white marble cross which, it is almost immediately apparent, is a detail of structural elements of the façade of a building. At its crossing is another cross, made of iron, which might also stand for a figure of Christ: claws on each limb attach it to the stone, and a streak of rust bleeds from it. So in this city of churches an accidental crucifix appears. But that is not all. The metal element is actually a tie, applied to hold together the two pieces of marble. At once the whole state of decay of Venice, and beyond that its rise and fall, is evoked.
In a group of his Venice paintings however, Holmes does pay tribute to one of the traditional tourist attractions of Venice - Carnival. Arriving in the city in the midst of it, he was powerfully struck by the extraordinary costumes and the sexual ambivalence of the personas they present, an ambivalence arising from the femininity of the costumes and the famous Venetian carnival masks, and the fact that their wearers, who are also their creators, labouring all year on them, are men. In the paintings, Holmes frames head and shoulders, rendering in glowing jewel-like colours the over the top exoticism of the headdresses, and of the masks, in the eye sockets of which heavily made up male eyes glow. The disturbing ambiguity of these works is enhanced both by a manipulation of scale - they are about one third over life size - and by an elision of the distinction between mask and the flesh beneath - the mask itself becomes a sensual, sinister living face.
Among the most celebrated of past artistic visitors to Venice is John Ruskin, the aesthetic guru of Victorian England and author of The Stones of Venice, great original of the now myriad guidebooks to the place. Stones is full of Ruskin's own sharply observed drawings of the city, many of which are in fact details of buildings - chosen for their exquisite craftsmanship of course, but nevertheless a kind of precedent for Holmes (as are in their way Whistler's etchings of water gates, hidden courtyards and the like, on the back canals). However, the real point of raising Ruskin here is his theory, put forward in his magnum opus Modern Painters, of symbolic realism. That is, of a kind of painting that while faithfully recording the appearance of things, also reveals or evokes deeper meanings.
Keith Holmes's Venice paintings are latter day examples of the Ruskin approach, and their almost hypnotic quality stems partly from their meticulous technique - oil on board covered with Japanese paper and then gessoed. But their formal structures also reveal the legacy of modernism. Images are radically cropped. Mondrianesque verticals and horizontals abound. Broad planes or narrow bands run off edges à la Barnett Newman. A close-up of a marble pavement repair suggests Klee or Miró. Planes of wall or pavement sit squarely on the picture plane. There are echoes of Surrealism both in Holmes's eye for unexpected juxtapositions and for the strangeness to be found in the everyday, and in the sinister and erotic fantasy of the mask paintings.
For painters an unavoidable aspect of Venice is its light. Entirely surrounded by water and with water everywhere within it, Venice under its southern sun is a city that shimmers and, as one moves from narrow calle to open sunlit piazza, or canalside, or sea view, of extreme chiaroscuro. Again, Holmes's response to this is unusual - his Venice is a Venice of sharp shadows in a multitude of strange and compelling forms, forged by the sun from the everyday fabric of the city.
Be Dazzled 40 x 30cms (16 x 12)