Samantha Holmes: Abstracting Narrative Clarity / Michelle Woo

One thing that initially struck me about Samantha Holmes’ work was its attention to historic notions of permanence and a reverence for patterns found in nature. Through conceptual experimentation in traditional media such as mosaics and sculpture, she recontextualizes familiar symbols and centuries-old techniques to explore the ever-changing urban landscape and conditions of contemporary life. The familiarity of medium and approach to form brings to mind an art history of European traditions that greatly depended on architectural and spiritual spaces as vehicles for both canonizing narratives and supporting artistry. The relationship between an art object and its surroundings was in many ways, inseparable from the work itself. As seen in Byzantine mosaics, this once innate association between art and environment has been replaced by the autonomous art object. Commercialism and the pervasiveness of virtual spaces that favor quantity, affordability, and expediency have supplanted the prior model of site specificity and one of a kind production of artistic goods. As a Ravenna-trained mosaicist, Holmes stresses the importance of present-ness, materiality, and the handcrafted as central components to her work.

Mixed with an interest in found objects, Holmes aimed to usurp and transform unused or seemingly forgotten spaces into forums for renewal and community engagement. One such space was the Rich Knowledge Institute, a former business school in Jamaica, Queens. Unable to obtain access, she instead activates a vacant storefront with fragile hand-cut paper forms entitled, Empty Windows 1 & 2. Holmes based these works on photographs she had taken of shop windows and their displays of apparel, shoes, wigs, toys, and home products, among other items. She appropriates these configurations through negative space – starting with a sheet of handmade paper, she cuts out the product shapes so that only paper remnants remain to denote the spaces in between. The content is, in a sense, removed while still maintaining a sense of shape and reference to recognizable forms.

In her project statement, Holmes describes, “Our mind is free to seek out patterns among the shapes, moving from the stimulation of the sale to the meditation of the abstract.” She is concerned with the impact of consumer culture on our visual acuity and imagination, and likewise, our capacity to think critically about the things we place value on. Perhaps Holmes’ draw to the repetitive silhouettes of mass produced commodities seen in the actual shop displays and similarly, hinting at such elementary forms through paper cutouts, can be attributed to her experience creating mosaics, tile by tile.

Juxtaposed with the raw setting and hung from the ceiling in a somewhat dark recess, audiences are forced to contemplate the nature and referent of these associative shapes within the context of a space that bears no distinction; not even the familiar glaring light typical of storefronts is present. The two paper cuts (with one directly hanging behind the other) serve as small windows in and of themselves. Light from the adjacent room filters through the holes of the paper, calling further attention to the abstract, almost organic looking voids where the merchandise once was. Their shadows are cast onto the concrete wall behind creating even more “windows” into empty spaces, suggesting the interchangeability of the mass commodity form and prevalence of commerce in the area.

These delicate works are nestled quietly amongst the array of shops and small businesses, challenging the confines of conventional gallery walls and forcing us to pause on the busy thoroughfare of Jamaica Avenue. In a neighborhood that is redefining itself and undergoing rapid growth and cultural transformation, Holmes stresses a lack of narrative precision in order to galvanize new interpretation and perspective.

Michelle Woo

Michelle Woo is a New York-based art historian, art producer, and freelance writer. She received a BFA from Pratt Institute and is currently an MA candidate in Art History at Hunter College.