Notes on Neo-regionalism and Mark Holmes

Holmes Installation view
Installation view, Mark Holmes, painted clay forms, all pieces are Untitled and stand 6.5 ft. high, photo by Paul Krainak
Mouse 2005
Mark Holmes Mouse painted wood, 20″ by 24″ by 18″. photo courtesy of the artist

“The flatness, event-less-ness, and openness of the surrounding landscape opens a space to go deep.” MH


I’m drawn to art that advocates for the rural – formally and conceptually rigorous work that connects critical texts to geography and categories of communities. In inland America, particularly outside the metroplex, the most memorable projects are contemplative and protracted, liminal, silent, cyclic, or anthropological. Middle American visual culture is a clear alternative to the depleted spectacle of much coastal art, one too dependent on market trends and curatorial luminaries. Inland artists make work outside the shadow of globalism and celebrity, distant from the art-industrial complex, where equanimity and nonconformity is distinctive. Neo-ruralists can’t ignore the political, educational, and economic character of their immediate surroundings.  They do business with the designers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs and tradesmen and women in their vicinity. After all, that’s what urban and coastal artists do – but their ideological construct is determined by a narrow gathering of tastemakers. Imagining that coastal cities’ art communities have any right to a national identity or a global voice is delusional. Coastal and urban culture is a cloistered, well-funded, highly entertaining business but not the sole representative of American art.


The rural/urban axis, however, is a mutable, contestable premise that is falsely represented as either/or and positive/negative to favor prestigious addresses with vested economic interests. Inland art-culture represents not only a significant consideration of community and art practice, it does so in relation to an exploration of the suburb, re-descriptions of place or community, critiques of cultural institutions, re or de-mapping of geography, local histories, the role of academia and quality of life for artists. Despite popular perceptions, smaller art communities are conceptually adventurous, economically flexible, and socially productive for young and mid-career artists alike. University art programs and artists residencies all over inland America are cultural magnets.  A constant artist and faculty turnover insures an influx of ideas and provides fertile ground for dialogue where residents interact with artists whose practice is not shaped by an obsession with celebrity.


Mark Holmes chairs the art department at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois and is recognized for hybrid objects that demarcate the zone of painting in the structural vicinity of sculpture. His work is indebted to a tradition of paint application inherited from Johns, Rauschenberg, and other neo-Dadaists, who enjoyed frustrating disciplinary and medium distinctions. Mark is a product of Yale University’s graduate art program, well known for its rigorous attention to the legacy of Minimalist and Post-minimalist art, as well as the discourse that critiqued and re-assembled it. He is a staunch advocate of a re-imagined and re-sited, status of the autonomous art object. The significance of his work, with respect to the idea of neo-ruralism[1], is that it exists prominently outside the approved urban confines yet not in opposition to it. It’s what rural art can do that contemporary urban art generally doesn’t – refer paradoxically to the interior/exterior dichotomy of culture. Rurally produced art is not as constricted by its surroundings nor limited by an obstructive and polarizing urban social climate. Holmes’s wall pieces best demonstrate a vibrant, transitional stage of studio production – one on the threshold of installation and the other the bare stage of skilled labor.


Holmes inherited a practice that questioned the nature of mediation. Rather than narrativize an object like much post-modern art, he drills deep into the material and grammar of form, assembling physical armatures that are highly improvised and fairly self-reflexive. He abbreviates details of the built environment taken from his life in rural as well as urban settings and lets his design instinct towards geometric patterns and unfettered space override the decades old “problem of painting”, i.e. to refresh representation or re-assert its utopian history. Pre-modern painting established hundreds of years of illusionism to establish cultural consensus and disciplinary practice. No wonder thatpainting still struggles with the most intelligent way to replace allegory for amore effective model of expressing radical subjects of contemporary culture.


Holmes cites this history directly by painting laminated wood and modeled clay forms.  His aptitude for constructivist art language is enlivened and emboldened by an endorsement of skilled labor as process and as subject. His method stems from 17 years as a furniture designer and crafter. The utility of his design work informed his art not only in terms of perception and production, but with a commitment to discovering what might link refined carpentry, functional design, and post-formalism. His work articulates craft tradition, albeit fragmented and embryonic – producing an object on the verge of an image and vice-versa, where skilled labor is distinguished. A critical acknowledgement of the vascular integration of hand and eye is an unexpected subject and moving target.


Holmes pushes beyond a constructivist foundation and urges us to re-think the terms of pictorialism and objectness. He refines painted assemblages to generate ensembles of wall modules and vertical columns whose accrued color and shape turn the galleries themselves into pictures or plans for more pictures. His bundled wall forms resemble fragments of Bauhaus architecture.  Columnar hand-built clay structures balance on shallow rolling pedestals in a send-up of the anthropological and museological. Viewers encounter the instrumentalized space in full procession, intelligent and understated.  The work functions like sentence fragments that have been parsed and rearranged.


Holmes’ work is further animated by his unlikely experiment with painted clay. Its plasticity clearly affords him to be more improvisational with form, producing organic, asymmetric, volumes that wood predictably resists. While his wall pieces display the inherently smooth material, planar details, and meticulous joinery of woodworking, he now savors the dimpled surfaces and formal distinctions enabled by the slow hand-building of the worlds oldest art medium.


Holmes Installation view
Installation view, Mark Holmes, painted clay forms, all pieces are Untitled and stand 6.5 ft. high, photo by Paul Krainak

In the Midwest and in non-urban settings in general there is plenty of time to recuperate classic unresolved issues about presence and visualization and Holmes’ work succeeds by advocating for craft and skilled labor as a subtext. This is significant because the artworld veered away from any aspect of the worker/artist discourse that once was robust in the 1930s, 40s and then 60’s.  Any discussion of craft or studio processes is now roundly thought as inconsequential just as it’s impossible to think about art as having any relationship to ordinary experience, or extra-urban living.


The hybrid nature of Holmes’s work suggests one language about form which is legitimate – that a certain kind of knowledge outside the current globalist spectacle or DIY collaborationism is a legitimate way of conceiving the world. The space of the object is no longer romantic, essentializing, or proscriptive. It isn’t hierarchical nor obligatory. Its just language useful to framing other debates, and it’s an excellent notion for connecting with working class aspirations, which could not be more appropriate to American culture at the moment. Most contemporary art has been the least likely vehicle for connecting with disenfranchised publics who have also lost any economic advantage after about 20 years of neo-liberalism. Art that represents the world with a respect for craft and skilled labor is likely to makes a deeper connection to people whose lives have been diminished by digital technologies and oligarchs.


  1. For my purposes neo-ruralism does not refer to regionalism as that term is fraught with all sorts of negative perceptions about art in the heartland. Ruralism and neo-ruralism are more commonly derived from political philosophy, originally with agrarianism, a theory that privileged individually run farms as an economic and ethical basis for a more productive and secure society.  Neo-ruralism here indicates a space outside the urban to invest artwork with a more contemplative, historical, and speculative practice not beholden to or defined by the art market – one who’s form and subjects are constrained by global interests.



Paul Krainak is an artist and writer. He is Founder and Director of the Inland Visual Studies Center at Bradley University, Peoria, IL.