Memory Shadow by Jeff Mahoney, Art Critic at the Hamilton Spectator
Perhaps more than any of the other arts, photography is the horse that memory rides on. Music can take us back, but it is not documentary in nature. And literature, for all its reach, precision and poetry, remains essentially abstract, from a sensory point of view, everything left to the imagination. Memory likes to have its feet in the stirrups of something concrete, like a physical image. When we make albums and scrapbooks, we use photographs. But still a picture is not a memory. They're not the same thing. And that is Margaret Lindsay Holton's point, or one of several, in Memory's Shadow, her thoughtprovoking and richly evocative new exhibition at the Burlington Art Centre. Memory is more important to some people than to others. For Holton, it's critical. She feels her life, her character and her art were largely shaped by her relationship to both the land she grew up on and the house on it. The homestead is still in the family, and even now Holton's recall of playing in and around its ponds and woods is vivid. The house was restored by her late father, Luther Janna Holton. He was a well-known furniture maker, owner of Holton's Fine Furniture Store on Canada Street in Hamilton. She grew up watching him make tables, cabinets, chairs, and became a furniture designer herself. But she is also a writer (novelist, poet, essayist), an artist, a photographer. The poet in her came up with the title of the show, which is just right. What Holton is getting at is the idea of texture, layering and removal. A memory is not what happened, it is not the thing that is being remembered. It is a shadow of what is being remembered, and a picture is a shadow of that shadow. We try to get at memories to get at the life, the time, the emotion behind them. But the sources are no longer available and immediate to the direct senses. Their residue in the brain gets mixed up with static; extraneous feelings, psychic noise, dream and mental error. We use pictures and other media to get at memory, to fix it. And that confuses an already confused issue even more. Pictures are partial stories, subject to perspective and quality of light, leaving out much -- smell, sound, touch, temperature, heart rate, context. How are all these ideas contained in Holton's art? In two ways. Computerized photo collage and pinhole photography. In the first, the collages, Holton uses computer manipulation to layer several colour photographic images, sometimes of the same subject taken from different and/or overlapping angles, sometimes of different subjects. Now this is what memory looks like. Or at least feels like. The results, as in Wolf Eye and Mind's Eye, are textured-depth compositions, often swirling with colour. They're at once recognizable, yet disorienting. They have both the confusing dreamlike quality of memory and the clarity and rootedness of something real and immediately present, though the presence is only an illusion of what is remembered. Wolf Eye is one of my favourites in the show. It is a tangle of brush and wood, branches and trees, with a shifting tonal palette, that draws the eye into receding layers of interrupted transparency. The effect is like walking through a thick wood and peeling away branches as onegoes. "What does it make you think of," asks Holton. "Being lost in the woods as a child," comes the answer. But the title, Wolf Eye, is a hint at a more specific suggestion -- the way the experience might appear to an animal. "That's how I felt," Holton remembers. Going through the woods as a child, almost in an animal state. Holton says that as she worked through the pieces for the show, she became more engaged by the land than the house. The land held the strongest, most animal memories. "I want to reroute the viewer through the dump of media back to first moments," says Holton. "Using photography, I want to force us away from photography." The house is rendered mostly through black-and-white pinhole photography. These are very well done, Holton having established herself in that interesting subgenre, but perhaps not quite as lyrical and multilayered as the collages. The collage works have an almost abstract feel in places, they are so mediated and multiply exposed. But they are beautiful, hauntingly so, more so for this strange unreality, and for the judicious phrasing of the colours. Sleeping Apple, for instance, with its dramatic action of shadow and wash. Memory's Shadow confirms our impression of Holton as an important mixed-media practitioner, with a genuine artist's eye and a probing intellect. The show, which runs at the Perry Gallery of the BAC, 1333 Lakeshore Rd. in Burlington, until Aug. 19, is accompanied by a book. Memory's Shadow (hard cover) has 55 additional images not in the exhibit, and includes a foreword by famed Canadian documentarian Peter Wintonick. Only 50 copies are available.