Epistemology of Polka Dots: Evan Holloway responds to James Turrell

All images Evan Holloway Project Series 35, 2008, Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

Polka dots aren’t typically transcendental. They aren’t autonomous and they aren’t monumental. Yet in Evan Holloway‘s current exhibition, Project Series 35 at the Pomona College Museum of Art, polka dots take on some serious questions. Read below for the full article by Catherine Wagley.

Holloway’s installation seems like the perfect place to listen to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Lou Reed‚Äôs “Heroin” – it‚Äôs portentous and lulling, just like 70s rock at its best. But Holloway’s work also has the calculated restraint associated with minimalism. Pages of black dots cover nearly every inch of the gallery walls and a lightly gridded metal screen, installed to hang a few inches from the wall, adds a layer of empty holes. The holes and dots move in and out of each other, turning the exhibition into a brain tease that reconfigures itself every time you turn your head. The room only stops moving if you stand still and pick a spot of wall to stare at. At first, the installation seems like a lighthearted foray into the haphazard vernaculars of classic rock and youth culture. But an undercurrent of indecision and mistrust tampers with the fun.

Pomona College’s Museum of Art devoted its 2007-2008 season to James Turrell, an artist who took the Light and Space movement to an extreme by constructing craters and natural light observatories. Turrell openly traffics in the language of spirituality and sensory experience. His sculptural spaces exist to illicit a sensory experience that transcends our typical perceptions of light. He does this expertly, with well-crafted, big-budget projects. On one hand, Turrell’s work has a compelling serenity that can fascinate any audience with five senses. On the other hand, Turrell’s transcendental aesthetic can be alienating and insincere, too much about the illusion of spirituality and not enough about the world and the way people live. This is where Holloway enters the picture.


Holloway’s installation currently lives across the hall from Turrell’s End Around, a work that relies on neon lights and pristinely painted surfaces to create the illusion of endless space. To enter “End Around,” viewers must wear little blue slippers over their shoes and be accompanied by a gallery attendant. Still, the transition from Turrell’s work to Holloway’s is agreeable enough. Project Series 35 engages our sensory perception, even if the installation has more to do with the here and now than celestial light.

In a pseudo-catalogue that accompanies Holloway’s installation – it’s a newspaper-like pamphlet with sixteen pages of dots and two pages of text – Holloway and writer Bruce Hainly engage in an email dialogue about Turrell, baby boomers, contemporary poetry and gay porn. The emails have a biting earnestness, perhaps because Holloway and Hainly are as opinionated as they are uncertain. They have plenty to say about Gertrude Stein and pop music, but neither knows exactly how to respond to the monumental, poignant quality of Turrell’s work or to the contrived “poignancy” of art in general.

Near the end of the dialogue, Holloway explains his own use of perceptual phenomena, saying that he finds the mistrust of perception and illusion more interesting than revelation. He comments, “It was quite irritating to me that Turrell is often framed within a soft-core, new-age belief system. I always present my work in a context of skepticism.” Holloway prefers to pose question: why should art aim for poignancy and transcendence when perception is already rife with inconsistencies?

Holloway’s response to Turrell does something uncanny. The room of dots achieves the scale and experiential potency of monumental art without seeming epic. Like Turrell, Holloway holds viewer’s attention by engaging them in a large-scale sensory experience. But while Holloway does not require his viewers to put in time, Turrell’s work requires a commitment. It seems to say, “I can offer you a new perception of the physical world if you sacrifice your time to my work.” Viewers who spend an hour or two in Turrell’s skyspaces experience an ever-transitioning vision of light that they couldn’t have seen with their naked eyes.

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Holloway’s installation is more immediate. He engulfs his audience in an experience but he doesn’t require anything of us, nor does his work offer us anything that we don’t already have. He essentially says, “Here, look at how this familiar vocabulary of dots and holes can conjure up an experience.” Just one look around the gallery leads to a trippy sensation. The installation begs for free-association – it’s pixels gone gaga, a psychedelic trip in monochrome, or your favorite polka dot t-shirt stretched across the length of a room.

By the end of their email correspondence, Hainly and Holloway haven’t really reached any definitive conclusion. Sure, Turrell makes mesmerizing, epic work that relies on illusions of authenticity and revelation. But does this mean that his work needs to be challenged? What Holloway ends up doing is proposing an alternative. His installation gives us a foray into what perception-bending work can look like when it takes a straightforward, immediate route: a head-spinning but somehow uplifting sea of polka dots that broaches what’s going on in our heads and leaves the celestial realm to its own devices.