In Conversation With Riley Holloway | Episode 1

Interview Riley Holloway, Bode Projects
February 26, 2021
© Riley Holloway Westside Studio, Image: Artist's archive
© Riley Holloway Westside Studio, Image: Artist's archive

Browsing through your website, your works seem to show a big family. Who are the people you portray?


Everyone that I paint is family. Or friends, someone I meet.


Do you also talk to strangers when you see somebody you would like to paint?  


Absolutely. It happens quite regularly. It’s always a little strange, I am rather introvert, but you need to leave your comfort zone.


Especially among the male portraits, there is a sense of immediacy, boldness. Some of them are posing like saying “Ey, Yo”, like a prompt demand or an invitation. Where does this feeling come from?


A lot of the portraits are my casual way of seeing the sitters. The more casual it comes, the better. Lately, there’s more emotion coming into the paintings. So, the boldness, or fragility are essentially coming from the persons I paint.


Do you see your paintings as veritable portraits or do you - mentally and visually - continue the stories of the portrayed?


Once portrayed, the persons become characters. I abstractly continue their stories and add my way of seeing them. 


What happens when you paint a person several times, do you always re-continue their story then? 


Kind of. One character I painted very often is my uncle. I guess I wonder about him often, that’s why I paint him often. Each time I paint him, I know more about him, in this way his story is continued. There is one very recent painting titled "The Cook". It came about because I found a photograph of my uncle when he was serving the military, working as a cook. My dad then told me my uncle used to set up the kitchen in the Holiday Inn’s and other venues. And I had no idea about it. That’s how stories lay out as I paint.


As diverse as your portraits are, one feature which is quite consistent among your portraits is the ¾ - frame. What are the motives behind this artistic choice?


Sometimes it comes naturally, I think from references I have from portraits that I love. The ¾-view always happens to be the classic view, but it is also my favorite. The profile shows off a lot more of what is going on in the face, even if you don’t see the totality of the face, it is very unique.


In nearly all works, there is an unfinished quality, like a space being left open. Do you have specific intentions or thoughts behind this space?


I have some intention to it: I always taw my paintings so I like to make that useful wherever I can in the piece. So sometimes you see the paint around a blank area, sometimes around the edges you see the underpaint. I kind of stop when I feel like I have accomplished what I do.


Your oeuvre also contains true-to-life portraits drawn on paper. Do you feel the mastering of precision is a necessary premise for leaving things out or canvas space blank?


Yeah, because the eye can finish more than you think, and it also leads to a much more interesting image. Instead of going straight direct and forward losing some areas. It always feels like a great opportunity, especially if you do it right.


In 2011, you attended a portrait workshop at the Florence Academy of Art, Florence. Was this essential for your turn to portraiture, or did this focus exist before?


I had it before. That was the reason for going out. At that time, I was a big fan of Leonardo. I really loved going to Florence, and it was a big confirmation: At that time, I didn’t know if I was doing anything right, and being there, talking to the instructors, doing my sketch book really helped. I came back to the States and started my career.


How did the contact to the Florence Academy come about? Again, what were the main influences of this period? Did you travel to other places in Italy, Europe? 


I did not, I stayed in the studio. My mum came with me and we took a tour of Tuscany, but that was it. I was going to the Art Institute in Dallas at the time, studying graphic design. Florence was a part of finding out who I want to be. The instructor came to me and suggested it and from that time I was hooked. I didn’t know these places still existed. 


Did you go to see any museums during that time?


Yes, I did, but I can’t remember all the names. But of course, I went to see the statue of David and the likes.


A series of portraits from 2019 seems to combine classical Greek-Roman portraiture, traditional Afro-American and general contemporary culture. There’s a strong tension and ambivalence within these works, a timelessness despite their contemporaneity. Where do you think does this come from?


Sometimes it happens, and it feels great, and is very intensive. I feel like my last solo exhibit was good because I worked very intentional, and the works had this timelessness to them. One work shows a funeral scene. There’s some of my family outside in the field, all looking into one direction. And you see the subtle expressions on their faces in the collectiveness of them together. And immediately, you get the sense that it is a funeral. For me, this is timelessness. It is a sense of story that I have been trying to lean on more. If you look at story telling in film, it is often 2+2 instead of 4, so you leave room for shock, for people to think the story together for themselves.  And I think that this creates the sense of timelessness as well as a technical approach of course.


Do these works form a comment on the timeless temporality of humanity? In a sense of: we are all new, and yet everything has been yet.


I do feel that to some degree, a familiarity we can have with the past. Lately, I’ve been painting a lot of paintings from family photographs, so I am living in the past to some degree.  While always returning to the present.  I try to show that in the works. Some of these moments on the photographs carry a certain nostalgia feeling for me, even when I wasn’t born yet. I guess, this relates to a kind of cyclic connection.


Last year, you made very beautiful, and colorful works on paper. Compared to earlier drawings, the colors are brighter and livelier. Was there any specific event or decision behind this ‘step forward’?


I wanted to deal more with color, I wanted to challenge myself in different ways. At the beginning of my career, I always painted one portrait at a time. There were two things on my mind, first I wanted to be a stronger storyteller; secondly, I wanted to deal with multiple figures. Painting from the family photographs forced me into that direction, forced me into color. A lot of these moments feel like classic moments, so once you pick the right moment, painting and telling the story around becomes somewhat easy.


Citing a standard question, what relation does the medium, oil on canvas and on paper, possess for your artistic practice? Does the paper come before the canvas?


It’s a good question, I never thought about that.  Lately, I have separated the two. But I work very different to than I used to. I used to sketch and then create the paintings.  But now the paintings are a singular thing, I tend to do the sketches after. Basically, I work out the whole painting on the iPad. I’m sure that if I put it on paper it would be similar, but for me that is not the point. Sometimes I only have a slight idea, and then I jump into the painting and figure it out as I go. But generally, the iPad feels like the best way to lay out an idea before executing the whole painting. For Switzerland [an exhibition by the artist which opened in March 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland], I wanted things to match in particular way, and the iPad helped me a lot in doing mock-ups and sketches. And I also borrow from other print layouts because I deal with typography a lot. Some of the smaller paintings feel like a form of magazine covers. Which relates back to me and my mum drawing together when I was little. She was in fashion design and it was always fashion magazines I would draw from.


Riley Holloway, Studio view, 2021, Oil on canvas 122 × 91 cm (48 × 36 in) Image: Courtesy the artist


Last year, in January 2020, you exhibited with Bode Projects in Cape Town, South Africa. Though your work had been widely shown throughout the U.S., this was your first exhibiting experience abroad. How did this influence your practice and artistic approach?


It made me think a little more globally. I usually deal with textual paragraphs in my work, which not everyone will be able to read. Exhibiting in Cape Town turned that down, it lead to a more universal approach of telling the story. My work now has less typography in it, and I am not leaning as heavily on my words as on my visuals. It also changed some technical aspects; I nearly exclusively paint on canvas now instead of panel. It is easier to role a work and ship it. So Cape Town has effected both my practice and approach.


In general, what is your relation to art fairs? What are the core benefits for you as an artist?


Art fairs are great in a lot of ways. The experience for me has always been great. International exposure, being able to show with people I admire are some of the opportunities when showing at an art fair. It is also an opportunity to put together a smaller group of works which I did with Lars when showing in Cape Town. The booth was entitled All for Coin and Crown and it talked about ambition, art, and being humble – each painting related to and was a kind of poem. I wanted people to walk in and have something to figure out, have an experience.


Your work is strongly linked to Afro-American culture and people. You tell their stories and make them experienceable for us – in this case: Europeans. Do you have any expectations to these new audiences addressed? 


Not expectations, but curiosities. I haven’t been to Berlin or Switzerland, so I am curious about how it is like in these places at all. While painting I thought, ‘Okay, so let’s lean on what I do know’. I may not be familiar with the people overseas, but I do have my experience. When African Americans were brought from Africa due to slave trade they had to branch off and use what they had to create our own. Afro-American culture is still very much tied to that. In my work, I want to highlight the differences, and hopefully some of our similarities will show up.


How might the different context change or influence - the reception of - your work?


I do think about that, I just don’t have answers yet. I create the work I would show in my home. When showing in Cape Town, I didn’t know it would change so much.


Your early work shows solely black protagonists. For about two years now white or people of other color have been entering your work. What does this opening up mean – to you personally and seen from your artistic approach? How did it come about?


I tend to paint the people around me. My daughter’s godmother for example, she is white, and I admire her, so I paint her. But interestingly, these works are not always selected for exhibitions. Predominately I paint me and my family in my work, specifically in my last two exhibits where I dealt with ‘family’ as a theme. It will also be present in the show with Lars this summer. But after that, I am working on a book called Popular Culture, which will be a book of illustrations. And then I’ll be painting all sorts of people, taking ‘the future’ as a topic. So, it will become a lot more diversified from there.


Having had solo exhibitions at various public institutions in Texas, among them the African American Museum, Fort Woks Art and The Neighborhood in Dallas, and with your works being included in the collections of the University of Oregon and Stanford University, among others: how deeply is your work grounded in the Community? 


In some of my earlier projects I heavily depended on the community. Especially when me and my wife worked together, there were various projects on the community. One of these projects was entitled Made in America. A Portrait of the City, and I talked with several activists, a council woman and people in the educational system about the population in South Dallas, which is a neighborhood that is very poor and has a lot of violence right now. I had a show in the African American Museum, including a panel and we addressed some of the issues that concerned the people living there.


How do you experience working as an artist in North Texas? How would you describe the local/regional art scene? 


There is a big artist community, but I am more of a loner. Dallas makes a considerable effort to create these communities. In Boston, for example, there is only one artists’ studio initiative. Here, there are studios popping up every time seemingly. That is one of the main aspects for the artist’s mental well-being – sales and studio space. And Dallas is doing well in providing that.


Lately, your work has developed a nostalgic sphere, with works such as Nostalgia (2020), Westside (2020), or Way, Way Back (2020); your solo exhibition at Erin Cluely Gallery last autumn was called Home. What is the source of this vein, does it correspond to an experience you have had in real life? 


It’s my current interest, I think it was brought about by the pandemic. I’ve lost a couple of relatives [during the pandemic], not as bad as others, of course. It made me think of this sense of family a lot more, also by being isolated here with my family at times. In the beginning of the Pandemic a lot of people were uncomfortable with coming to my studio to have their portrait painted. So, having a photo became a necessity and was a cause of the pandemic. I learned to use what is available to me and I feel I am good at that. I use a photograph and try to make the best out of it as I can.


For Home you wrote an impressive poem, called American Soil. Your paintings and drawings are often marked by textual intervention. What kind of correlation has your writing and your visual art practice?


I don’t read a lot. I think all the time though, in terms of ideas. Music often helps for initiating a thought, there are rhythmic schemes in some of my writing. Sometimes the writing comes before the painting, the words lead the paintings or determine a whole show. Sometimes I just take certain elements which relate to the story I want to tell, for example a birth date relating to the topic of a conversation represented. The words and elements in the paintings are information about the situation or person sneaking in. 


The poem you wrote is very critical; yet there is an incredible fondness in your portraits. Does this come from a kind of love you feel for the individuals portrayed?


Yes, that’s quite spot on. There’s a level of wanting to value some of the people in my paintings. I have a lot of things on my mind, and my work is an opportunity to say them. I am not a great vocal person, I don’t speak often, but in my work, I take the opportunity. 


Truth’, ‘Crown’, ‘Home’ or ‘Grade A’ are recurring words in your works; can you briefly comment on these?


‘Crown’ comes up quite frequently, holding on from old writings. I was a big fan of Basquiat’s at that time. When I was writing poems, I would put a crown in the end – it’s quite useful, as motif, it tells a story. I even have a tattoo on my wrist. ‘Grade A’, actually, was the title of a poem. It was written a long time ago. There were two paintings where I wrote it, one was a self-portrait. The other was a man wearing gray jumper. It was my cousin dealing with self-consciousness’ issues at school. ‘Grade A’ was like saying, “You’re valued.”


We are planning an exhibition of your work later this year. In three words, which aspects will be characterizing the show?


It is quite cheesy, but I wrote on a painting yesterday: “This is Nostalgia for your Soul”. It is kind of saying “Truth for your soul”. In my last show, I had a lot of people coming to me saying how familiar a lot of the moments I painted were to them. Some of them brought up emotions, and I hope that the body of work for the show in Berlin will be somewhat on the hill.


Artwork by Riley Holloway showing a young African American man or boy in front of a sabulous landscape.

 Riley Holloway, Nostalgia, 2020, Oil on canvas, 168 × 117 cm


Read More about Riley Holloway

Interview conducted by Christina-Marie Lümen