Riley Holloway’s work is all about the now. At 24, Holloway has just completed a three-month residency at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas where he produced much of the work for his show Shook! at the hotel’s gallery. In this new show, Holloway flirts between the figurative and the abstract as he tries to reconcile his social environment, notions of black power, and what it means to be an artist.
In Self Portrait, the artist’s image is buried in a confusion of mark-making and scrawled graffiti. The artist, who is clean-cut in appearance, collages a picture of himself as a young child with an afro, and writes the words “a woman called me a black king today, it inspired me to grow my crown back.”
Throughout the exhibition, Holloway’s words often war with his prowess in creating visual images. In The Story of SHOOK!!!, he scrawls a long poem across a large black canvas. From afar, the words simply become patches of green, orange, and blue. The more the words are hidden, the more visually interesting they become. In Genius of the Highest Regard, a triptych, Holloway finds the proper balance. Although the words on the black panel are superfluous, as is the repetition of the title, the rest of the piece—from the color wheel, collage drawing, and the layering of 1 black kid, 1 brown kid—is subtle and engaging.
The highlight of the show is Maintain and Let Go, a minimalist red painting with two buttons, purposeful, scratchy marks, and the faintest of portraits of the poet Will Richey. This piece is powerful—an engaging mixture of rage and tranquility, motion and stillness, a distillation of the artist’s contradictions. Without using the actual color, it is the blackest painting in the room. There is a sense of restraint in this piece that allows the viewer to be enveloped by the rich red and gaze into the image constructing wisps of meaning. The quiet of the surface makes the moments when you notice the mark-making and especially the portrait, all the more forceful.
Although the show is promising, the work is sometimes crammed into the space, and the drawings of Basquiat and Keith Haring should not have been included; although they are technically adequate, they do little to advance Holloway’s social vision. The portrait of Tony Bennett: Guest Service Champion, a black employee of the Fairmont, is powerful, but feels out of place amongst the obsessive mark making and personal exploration of the other paintings. Sometimes Holloway’s poetry begs for a different expressive surface (multi-media perhaps), and sometimes his words fall flat. But when the marks are interesting, they sing.
Shook! is Holloway’s first attempt to process not just the black experience, but his personal experience with being a black artist. He is not shy about being explicit about this in his work, with references from Frederick Douglass to Mobb Deep. Although this might be difficult territory for some viewers, with his honest mark-making, Holloway challenges the viewer to stop being “scared to death and scared to look.”