Too often we take words for granted. It’s when asked to provide a definition that we become aware of the multiple meanings a single word may carry – the shifting sands of language. In a single stroke, Swedish artist Cecilia Hultman called into question the word HOLD in a recent exhibition bearing the same title at Studio 17. Did she mean HOLD as in to hold onto something, or a hold as in a space that contains objects, or a hold as in a handhold or foothold, something to grip onto, to hold a hand or hold your breath? The exhibition consisted primarily of miniature graphite drawings rendered in photorealistic detail that characterize Hultman’s work. For such physically small artworks (and gallery space), the exhibition incited very large questions. A walkthrough of the exhibition and discussion with the artist led me to view the artwork through a variety of different perspectives based on the various definitions and etymologies of the word HOLD.
HOLD: verb – grasp, carry, or support with one’s arms or hands; keep or sustain in a specified position; embrace (someone); be able to bear (the weight of a person or thing); continue to follow (a particular course); Archaic: keep going in a particular direction.
The first image that comes to mind is not one of people, but of Hultman’s small drawing of a forest. A trunk has fallen over and is propped up by the limbs of the surrounding trees. While the rest of the forest is drawn in exquisite detail, the fallen (presumably dead) tree is left blank, a simple outline of negative space. The presence of absence.
These feelings of presence, absence, and support pervade the entire exhibition through its physical display. Rather than hung on the wall, the drawings are presented horizontally on a meandering grid-like structure of white planks suspended from the ceiling. The miniature size of the drawings and the choice of display further force a feeling of intimacy and interaction with the works, and Hultman confirmed that this was her intent. It also allows her a greater sense of closeness with her artwork and the content/emotions that she is trying to express. The presentation could seem gimmicky, but it’s subtle enough and successfully creates the effect of a single artwork rather than separate drawings and found sculptures. Through the arrangement, the viewer is encouraged to connect the dots and find commonalities between the seemingly disparate images and objects.
My mind jumps from the forest drawing to another small drawing of two figures embracing, clutching each other. Again, Hultman’s skill and attention to detail drive the image home – the lines on the knuckles of the hand as it squeezes, the wrinkles in the shoulder of the cloth jacket. At first glance, this drawing and the above definition seem to be a straightforward marriage of concept and illustration. But upon closer inspection, I question if the figures are holding each other in a mutually supportive embrace, or more menacingly forcing one another to stay, to bear the other’s weight. I wonder if it’s the passionate embrace of new love, or the struggle and refusal to let go. Which leads me to consider additional definitions:
HOLD: verb – keep or detain (someone); keep possession of (something), typically in the face of a challenge or attack; keep (someone’s interest or attention).
noun: a particular way of grasping or restraining someone, especially an opponent in wrestling.
noun: a way of influencing someone; a degree of power or control.
When viewed through an alternative reading of HOLD, a sense of desperation becomes evident throughout the exhibition – an attempt to hold onto something or someone under duress. Clinging. The use of force. An attempt to retreat or to hold close to you. With this in mind, other artworks stand out. I notice a small drawing of a person curled in the fetal position, nestled in the crevice of a large tree. The face of the figure is hidden under a superimposed image of another figure holding a black curtain. A person hiding, taking refuge. A face obscured. Vulnerability and aggression, power and fragility. Following this thought to its end, I understand that with detainment and limitation comes a sense of time, of waiting.
HOLD: verb – keep for someone; prevent from going ahead or occurring; Archaic: restrain oneself.
To wait. To reserve something or someone for another. To restrain oneself from action. Hold a place in line, hold your tongue, please hold while I see if he’s available, hold yourself apart. From this angle, Hultman’s installation takes on a sense of stillness and interminable waiting. There is also anxiety present and an element of the sacrificial. But I wonder what is being prevented, and to what effect? In the entrance to the gallery space, a video on the floor shows a ticking clock made of green leaves. I connect this single video in the exhibition with other strong drawings of nature – the fallen trees, craters, a scene of an ocean with a circle of negative space in the middle. I have a feeling of angst, of time running out while waiting for some action to be taken. It’s here that the relationships between the human and the environment converge. Images of nature become personified and full of emotion, while depictions of human interaction are consumed by the natural realm. Upon further contemplation, the picture of the ocean with its waves and tides begins to feel very similar to the aforementioned drawing of the man and woman embracing – the push and pull of human emotions.