Suzanne Holtom is a painter by self-definition. Yet she does not limit herself to the Western European tradition of applying paint to a flat surface. What she produces is, nevertheless, a decorative image on a surface in the convention of picture-making. Her inclusion amoung the nominees for the Jerwood Painting Prize, all very different in character and technique, shows the great range of expression in British painting in the early 21st century.
In ambition Holtom reverts to a much older cultural idea of art as artefact, giving pride of place to her materials and their manipulation. In making the scorched canvases selected for the Jerwood Painting Prize, painting is involved only in the initial structure of the design, followed by a long, laborious process of creating the image by a variety of other means. "Abstract painting is for me an open field stuttering with many voices, rather than a closed formalist tradition" she has written, while always arguing for the feminist aesthetic of her work. "I am particularly interested in discourses of the feminine, and in whether decorative art, and craft skills have a place and value in art".
Holtom has been exploring this aesthetic for over a decade. In 1989 she spent a year of her BA course at Cardiff College of Art in Kenya researching and developing her ideas in relation to a tradition in which craft constituted the essence of art. At this stage she used bleached cotton duck, washing it, then ironing the white surface into subtle folds and patterns. From ironing lines she chose another unconventional graphic mode, burning the canvas with a domestic iron, then enriching the patterned effect by pullling out a grid of threads. It created an extraordinary hybrid, part drawing, part weaving, which established a cross between the formal and organic. Paradoxically her method disrupted the flat surface while leaving the scorched image ingrained in the fabric, suggesting an analogy with body painting or tatooing. Holtom began describing her material as 'Painting's body". In 1996, following a post-graduate diploma in Fine Art, which she took with distinction from the Slade School of Art, she pursued these ideas in more depth while on a Duveen Travel Scholarship to Kenya. There she absorbed references from Islamic and African architecture, and made a special study of Swahili art forms, particularly the carved doorways of the Swahili house.
The African experience generated new ideas. On her return she began to use soldering irons of different sizes to scorch the canvas in a variety of designs, taking her inspirationf rom a wide range of natural sources, including ethnic arts, geological formations and the structure of DNA. A £5000 bursary from the Woo Charitable Foundation in 2001 enabled her to develop the potential of this new abstract language. 'Section 1, Rock Temple' (2000) and 'Sequence II" (2002) demonstrate somethng of its range and complexity; and its further approximation to traditional female occupations and craft skills.
Holtom acknowledges the sheet labour of her technique but the heavy and demanding work is offset by her pleasure at being physically involved in the process of crafting a painting. Typically she prepares the canvas by first painting a design in black dye using a brush. She then proceeds to dye the fabric with different coloured inks, carmine and vermilion reds, blues, blacks and pearl grey, deftly controlling the pools and clouds of colour, and manipulating the pattern. The next step is to stretch the wet fabric onto the frame to dry. Using soldering irons she then evolves a pattern of scorch marks over the surface, following the weave of the canvas. Frequently she applies the iron twice or more to achieve the right, gradated intensity withour burning a hole in the canvas. A pattern resembling bamboo rods in 'Section 1, Rock Temple' (2000) suggests an architectural inspiration, while 'Sequence II' (2002) with its more watery, undulating pattern suggests a purely organic source.
Suzanne Holtom's work undoubtedly stetches the notion of painting in which she was trained, presenting a contradiction between the delicate effects achieved by her handing of the material, and the strength of her results. Is it painting? Or is her work a finely crafted object? Holtom blurs the line that still exists between art and craft. In the result, her inventions have all the weight and presence of large scale painting.
Judith Bumpus, Jerwood Painting Prize Catalogue, 2003