‘Andy Warhol putting on his wig; Picasso having his morning shower; Leonardo sharing a glass of wine with Mona Lisa; Rothko contemplating his own paintings. Holly Frean’s art is full of oblique – and playful – glimpses into the lives of artists and the history of art. But the obliqueness and playfulness are held within a definite structure. Her pictures may be infused with lightness – lightness of tone, lightness of statement, lightness of spirit – but it is a lightness that buoys up – rather than undermines – a seriousness of purpose.
Over the last five years Frean has explored the possibilities of building up pictures from multiple images arranged in formal grid. It has proved a rich seam. Amongst the first paintings in the series were arrangements transcribed from old master portraits – and self-portraits: men in beards, men with hats – seen from the front, imagined from behind. They were images that both celebrated individual genius and dissolved it into pattern.
That series has now evolved into the current sequence, which – as its starting point – imagines the working lives of Frean’s painter-heroes. It is an inspired conceit. The pictures – for all their visual wit and sly humour – acknowledge the fragility of art, and celebrate its triumph. Through her imaginative projections Frean shows how great art is created amidst the mundane cares and daily routines of an artist’s life.
Despite their hints of narrative these multi-image works have little in common with strip cartoons. In their approach to story-telling they resemble more the predellas created to run beneath Renaissance altarpieces, neatly summarizing the achievements of a particular saint in a series of individual scenes.
By choosing to work on such a small scale – often using little squares of cardboard or gessoed panel – Frean has been obliged to evolve a succinct and abbreviated style. It is a brilliant technical achievement, at once highly personal and highly effective. It has been born out of long years of close observation as well as a rigorous training in draughtsmanship. Frean began her career as a relatively conventional portrait painter, and it is this background that now allows her to suggest so much with so little: the shape of a head, the line of a chin, the set of a neck, the weight of a stance are enough to give a full account of a bust or figure.
Frean has exhibited extensively in the UK and America. This year she won the National Open Art Competition prize awarded by Grayson Perry, as well has having her work selected by the critic Skye Sherwin for the ING Discerning Eye exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London.’
Matthew Sturgis 2012
Courtesy of the artist’s website.