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The Grant Museum of Zoology in Euston is a curious shrine to the departed. Extinct and rare specimens are stuffed, bottled or stripped down to dry bone and shelved in rows like library books. Snake heads and baby moles are preserved in clear liquid, while strange fish stiffened with age, bulge wild-eyed like Tex Avery’s cartoon characters. This flayed world of pickled corpses is Suzanne Holtom’s chosen territory, the inspiration for her new oil paintings.

What draws Holtom to this mausoleum of crocodile teeth and ammonite shells is not one specific specimen but the museum itself. Her works are created in response to the visual excess of 68,000 objects in one space. ‘The Fates’ is a gutsy abstract dominated by red the colour of dried blood which coagulates in the centre of the painting while spears of fleshy pink and anaemic yellow (the colour of embalming fluid) extend out into the subterranean green wash beyond. 

Born in Birmingham in 1966, Holtom studied at UWIC Cardiff and The Slade School of Fine Art. In 2001 she received the Woo Foundation Bursary and in 2003 she was nominated for the Jerwood Painting Prize. For the past ten years, her work has been an exploration of how we, as individuals, navigate through the visual and sonic stimuli of our daily lives and, how those with autism, interpret these surroundings differently. 

Each work begins with the unusual technique of unpicking threads from the canvas which are then used to give an embryonic form to the painting. She is fascinated with the connections between the brain, the body and the external world for which these threads could be a metaphor, certainly they are the centripetal force that holds the paintings taught. At times, like in ‘The Fates’ the threads become arteries, pumping a virulent scarlet through the picture in long, loopy curls. When varnish is painted on top, the strings become glistening coils of guts as if dropped on an abattoir floor.

Not all her paintings are quite so visceral: ‘Swamp Legends’ retains the rawness of scraped knuckles, yet the forms are sinewy and pale and appear to have become entangled with the threads, which now seem as irreducible and indigestible as chewing gum. In some ways, Holtom’s paintings resemble the automatic drawings of the early surrealists, except that the multiple layers of paint reveal a much wider narrative going on under the surface. Wrought from the unconscious mind certainly, yet there is none of the jittery neurosis of those drug-fuelled experiments of Henri Michaux here. Rather, it is the restless imagination of Paul Klee, who took a line for a walk, except that here the lines drag us down with a cannibalistic urgency into the fleshy remains.

Jessica Lack, 2015

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