Edward Holland is an NYC-based painter. This interview was conducted in a slightly-too-loud bar, January 2016 by Mark Ramel.

How do you describe your artwork to lay people?

My elevator speech is fucking horrible. It's collage-based abstraction and the abstraction is very atmospheric. It sets up a situation where the collage elements tend to be more figurative and interact with the abstraction. So it's about creating a space for the atmosphere and the collage come together seamlessly through layering and pictoral interaction. 


So you only work in series?

Yes, since college. I pick a topic that has almost nothing to do with painting and then explore it through painting.


Where do the concepts for the series come from?

Something that interest me. For example, I really want to do a series where I listen to one of my top 20 favorite albums of all time non-stop while I work – each painting is one of those albums. They’re experiments of limitations. It's really just a point of departure, so it can be whatever I want. It just needs to be something that's interesting enough to me so that I can keep it going for three years, if that's what it takes.


The Bull (Version 2), 2015 acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper with collage 14x11 inches

The Bull (Version 2), 2015
acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper with collage
14x11 inches

The Archer (Version 2), 2015 acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper with collage 14 x 11 inches

The Archer (Version 2), 2015
acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on paper with collage
14 x 11 inches

How do you stay focused on whatever concept you come up?

Before I do a series of the paintings I do a lot of research – it's writing, reading, listening to music, going to see shows — it's feeding my brain with information and visuals that I just store up, then I just process it all through the canvases. Or I give myself enough time to process it, distill it, and then I just start making paintings. Every now and again, after a year or so, I do go back and reread something to refresh.


Some of the series go on for a long time then?

All of them last more than a year.


Do you ever feel boxed in by the series and want to do a one-off in a different direction?

I've only ever felt that way when I was doing the Hudson River School series (2009–2011). I'd taken very specific paintings of the Hudson River School and I tried to distill them in a way where I was using the same color palette or composition or literally repainting a section of the painting and working on top of it. And it was too rigorous. The process of doing it was too much. It was visually a dead end. So I just stopped. I had plans to do 24 and I only made it to 12.
So I repositioned things. I did some stuff that was just more immediate and it really loosened me up. So in that scenario, my strategy is to shift the focus of the series to keep me interested — rather then start doing one-offs. Because when I have that one-off, I don't know how to contextualize it in the way I want to be able to with my work. I'd rather shift the focus of the whole series than do a castaway. That feels like an empty gesture to me.


In your process how do you create parameters for yourself?

It goes back to the concept — whatever I'm interested in. In the Zodiac series that I'm working on, the initial limitation is that every painting needs to have a zodiac sign it. It's not an old-school illustration, it’s a star chart. The star chart comes from the internet and I can only go to the same website — so I can't mine though the Internet to find a new one that is more interesting. It doesn't always have to be on the surface. I can put it on there and paint it out if I want to, but it needs to be there at some point. That was enough to start with. As the series developed I give myself more challenges. Now every painting has ROY G BIV in it – the full spectrum of the rainbow. It was in one painting accidentally through collage. I tore out a color sample from a Restoration Hardware catalog. And it really worked. I really liked it. In the next painting, I found another sheet that was similar and I used it again. In the next one, I drew out the color spectrum. So now that’s just another limitation.  


...I feel the biggest stigma because I want to make a beautiful painting and there is a definitive reaction from certain sections wondering why I’m concerned with that...
The Scorpion (Version 2), 2015 acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on canvas with collage 36 x 48 inches

The Scorpion (Version 2), 2015
acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on canvas with collage
36 x 48 inches


Different artists, in different ways deal with parameters. Some feel stifled, others crave parameters in order to bring a project to completion. Where do you fall in that spectrum?

I need the parameters now. There was a moment when I didn't want it. But as I've matured (air quotes) as an artist, I need it. The limitation automatically creates a cohesion in the body of work and it automatically gives me something to react against. And I'm a reactionary painter – I need  to have something in there and then work against it.


Is there a stigma in in the art world against being reactionary versus being proactive as an art maker?

No, not anymore. If anything I feel the biggest stigma because I want to make a beautiful painting and there is a definitive reaction from certain sections wondering why I'm concerned with that as opposed to other things.


Like what?

Lofty concepts or new materials or scale or undoing the figure or post abstraction or whatever. I just want to make a beautiful painting. And I’ve only known about this stigma through people voicing support for my work. I had a very well-known curator look at my work and her response was "I really like this and it's okay that it’s beautiful.” And I thought that she was complementing the work but what a really bizarre way to phrase it.


When do you think the art world took that turn away from simple beauty toward largely conceptual ideas?

Who writes the narrative? The winners write the narrative. Different –isms, periods in art, ideas, and pursuits run parallel to one another and what happens is that the narrative just gets written by somebody post facto. So when abstract expressionism started, it wasn’t as if everybody stopped painting the figure. Some of the greatest work of the 20th century in America is still people painting the figure. There are still a lot of people that just want make beautiful paintings. For me, the bottom line is the painting has to look good. You have to want to spend time with the painting. If it’s painted like shit or it’s ugly or not well-made, you’re not going to want to spend time with that and you’re not going to learn from it. So I have these concepts—it's what I'm invested in emotionally and mentally—but it starts and ends with, is the painting good? Is it successful? Is it beautiful? Is it cohesive? Does it formally hold together?


The Scales (Version 2 – Inverted), 2015 acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on canvas with collage 36 x 36 inches

The Scales (Version 2 – Inverted), 2015
acrylic, colored pencil and graphite on canvas with collage
36 x 36 inches



What's the driving force of interest in your work answer for your viewers?

I have no idea. {laughs} I just know that I make the work that I want to make and people still respond to it and people still want to buy it and I think they're responding to the way that everything comes together aesthetically. I think they're drawn to how I solve the problems that I set for myself—the problem of marrying abstraction and geometry and found paper collage on single rectilinear canvases. They're not murals or sculptures or digital prints. It’s not a photograph—it's paint, brush, canvas, old-school materials. And that's enough of a problem right there—talk about limitations.


You keep using that word rectilinear. It makes me uncomfortable.

Sorry. It’s a good word.


That's a very strategic way to blow out the idea that people are aesthetically driven to your work.

Yeah. It starts and stops there. It's an object —a decorative object to be hung in a space where people are.


Do you ever create failures? If so what's your pro/con analysis?

I teach in one of my lectures that there really is no such thing as a failure. You don’t fail at something, you just abandon it. If I screw something up, I just work through it until it's done, until it's better. I think some paintings that are finished are more successful than others, but I still stand by them.


But it is indicative of your painting process that there's so many layers that you can just afford to continually do that. How do you justify that concept to your students who are working with a different technique where there aren't necessarily as many layers?

I just make them work until it's done. I push them until we reach a mutual level of satisfaction. More often than not I tell them to stop before they fuck something up. A hand isn't very well painted but it's working within the context of the painting's system. The moment you make it better, it’s going to undo everything else.
It’s all about balance. It’s like the story of the Middle Eastern rug makers who always leave a mistake so that it's not too perfect and doesn’t offend God. It’s this idea that you need a little bit of failure, a little bit of something falling apart so people know there's a human element involved—there's a moment of chance and a level of uncertainty. The moment something looks too beautiful and too slick it's boring again. There's no tension. And that tension is what I go after as my primary focus. I continually tread that line of tension where the painting works but there's always a moment where it falls apart, where somethings are a little bit off.


Why do you think that visual tension is so alluring?

It makes you work harder. It’s a game. You try to figure out what's wrong. You stare at something for a long time and your brain is subconsciously trying to process it and it keeps your attention.


How do you think living in New York City impacts your work?

Have you ever noticed New York skies at night are a really nice purple but it gets hit by light pollution and there’s a weird orange glow to the purple? It’s a gray-orange-purple. It’s almost impossible to paint that color. I’ve been trying to paint the fucking color for almost 13 years and I can’t get it stable. And that’s really the only time that New York City influences my painting.


Are you creatively satisfied?

That's kind of a bullshit question, Mark. Right now? Yeah. But as for tomorrow? No.


What if you recently been listening to?

I've been doing a lot of 90s punk rock and indie rock and then really spacey ambient rock. Last night in the studio I was listening to Shipping News, Clikatat Ikatowi, The Shortwave Channel, and Explosions in the Sky. I want epic when I work – epic in the orchestra-sense like Explosions or Pink-Floyd-epic or early-Miles-Davis-epic. I just want to listen to stuff that's raising the stakes so that it forces me to raise the stakes in my own work. I don't listen to pop top 40.


Taylor Swift is going to be displeased with this.

I listen to her in the car all the time—both of my kids love Taylor Swift.


How much do you think I can bench press?

Right now? Maybe 67 pounds.


Edward Holland was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1980. He received a BFA in Painting from Syracuse University and a MA in Studio Art from New York University. His work has been shown at Causey Contemporary, New York, NY; Peter Marcelle Project, Southampton, NY; Gerald Peters Gallery in New York and Santa Fe, NM; the Covington Art Center in Covington, KY; and Phyllis Weston Gallery in Cincinnati, OH. Upcoming exhibitions include a solo show with Long-Sharp Gallery in Indianapolis, IN (March 2016) and a group presentation at the Pulse NY Art Fair with Causey Contemporary (New York City, March 2016). He lives and works in New York City.

For more of his work, visit edwardholland.com or follow him on Instagram

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.