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Jan Holthoff’s ‘Frozen Gestures’ (2013)

Comprising a series of painterly explorations, Jan Holthoff’s images chart a landscape of gestures, capturing the fluctuating light and rhythm of their urban surroundings. Stepping out from the artist’s studio, the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn stretch haphazardly into the distance. Under a wide sweep of azure sky, lofts and warehouses dissolve into a patchwork of brick facades and metal roll-gates traced by the looping arcs of spray-painted graffiti. Nature here becomes an experience of mobility and space, a sensory landscape that unravels in all directions amidst a shimmering haze of asphalt and concrete.

Born in Duisburg, Germany in 1977, Holthoff’s paintings channel a playfulness that mitigates the sober formality of the artist’s education at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, notably under the mentorship of the Swiss painter Helmut Federle. This formal rigor is discernible in the artist’s paintings, which engage with the thematics of a craft still firmly indebted to the legacy of mid-century Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism.


Holthoff cites Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Jaspar Johns and Christopher Wool as a triumvirate of artistic influences; to these one might also add Cy Twombly, although the absence of text- crucial to the semantic operation of that artist’s work- denotes an important distinction. By contrast, Holthoff’s paintings are more purely abstract.

The interweaving of abstract and representational themes initiated in Holthoff’s early paintings gives way to a more subtle dissolution of structure and form in the artist’s most recent ‘Frozen Gestures’ series. The paintings exhibited here explore a vocabulary of formal techniques, notably in the layering of surface effects to achieve textural variety. While the handling of paint and the apparent looseness of its application suggest a degree of unchecked spontaneity, there is also a sense of deliberation in these works, as in the superimposition of compositional forms. Indeed it is this mediation between expressive impulse and exercised restraint that makes these paintings so visually satisfying; these are images at the cusp of harmonic resolution, the gestural traces of their execution frozen in time.

Hung portrait-style, these vertical images are leading us to reflect upon the interrelationship of subject, medium and process. As paintings they register in both directions- as markers of the artist’s material trace, just as they simultaneously summon something outside of themselves like illusion and space. Painting consequently assumes a more conceptual definition, hinging on a notion of confrontation between artist and canvas in which the distinction between subject and object effectively dissolves.

While the intrusion of language provides the most evident marker of a conceptual turn in painting, its absence is not to say the medium retreats into itself. The paintings present here are works of expressive depth and formal intelligence, revealed through the skillful handling of color and balance of compositional structure. Each image offers a moment of reflection in which the eye is never still but rather dances from one event to the next; their verticality confronts us and we in turn peer inside and beyond their many surfaces.

Ultimately, Holthoff’s works affirm the view that painting still holds a capacity for expressive revelation.

William Helfrecht is an independent curator and critic based in NYC. He received his MA in Modern Art from Columbia University.

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