April 3, 2007

Green eggs and art: At Easter time, Jeffrey Scott Holland taps into the hunter-gatherer in all of us

illustration by Scott SchroeringOver the past month, he’s been staying up all night; stashing eggs across the nation is sleepless, hellish work. Art is often described as a labor of love, and Project Egg, Louisville artist Jeffrey Scott Holland’s effort to turn our saccharine-cloaked Easter-Egg-hunt tradition on its head, more than rises to that standard.  Instead of sugared goodies, however, the 40-year-old artist has concealed his own fine art inside more than 10,000 green plastic eggs. In the weeks leading up to Easter, he and friends throughout the country have been hiding them nationwide.“The element of chance, of mystery, of discovery, these are all factors of the egg-hunt concept we’re initiated into as children, and which resonate throughout our lives as adults,” says Holland, who remains withdrawn and distant when answering questions about his own life but animated when speaking about his art.“I’ve always been intrigued by the process of the scavenger hunt; there’s still a little hunter-gatherer in all of us.”Project Egg reflects Holland’s artistic appetites, which tend to feed on themes of mystery, chance, nostalgia and the purely weird. Using acrylics, in a painting style rough and starkly immediate (Van Gogh is one of his heroes), he depicts local folklore, clowns in love, squatting nudes and Kiss band members, all with the same sobriety. His work on the current project is clearly in keeping with his celebration of the obscure. Holland expects his work to include elements of “soul” and a lack of pretension, and Project Egg attempts both by hiding painstakingly created miniature artwork in whimsical places, all inside one of the Great American Traditions: the Easter Egg.The project hatched in 2005; Holland’s original idea was to hide miniature pieces of his artwork throughout Louisville. Before he did, though, he decided to expand by including an Easter-egg concept and multiple cities. The egg color — all of them are green — carries no special significance.Plastic green eggs: Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Scott Holland Plastic green eggs — some 10,000 of them — figure prominently in Jeffrey Scott Holland’s Project Egg. They’re full of miniature pieces of his fine art.In 2006, Holland turned the project into a regional happening by hiding thousands of eggs in Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis and Cincinnati. Inside each egg were hidden prizes — small paintings, micro-sculpture and hand-drawn comics — along with instructions for people to register their finds at jeffreyscottholland.com.The project elicited an enthusiastic public reaction that Holland found exciting but intimidating. After an Atlanta TV station revealed his phone number during coverage of the egg story, he got dozens of phone calls asking for help in finding them. He insists he’ll never divulge such clues.By December 2006, finders had logged in 57 eggs, with reactions ranging from, “Groovy project — I love it!” and “Thank you for making my day!” to the morally incisive, “This comic is not really appropriate for Easter” and the vaguely confused, “Don’t even know what to call it.” Holland was so pleased by the response that he decided to expand the project for 2007.During “The Late Seating”: Photo by Eddy Riou During “The Late Seating” in January at Actors Theatre, Holland acted on an audience suggestion and painted a red duck.He doesn’t want to reveal too much about the art inside the eggs. Some are originals and others are prints, he allows, but he suggests the curious look at responses from people who found eggs last year for more clues about the contents.For Phase Two of Project Egg, the former Cinderblock Gallery manager (2006) has spent months brainstorming hiding places, and as of last week he was still mailing boxes of supplies to friends and family nationwide. Hence the sleepless nights. In some cases he provides specific instructions on where to hide eggs, but he also wants his helpers to make their own choices. The eggs might be anywhere, indoors or out. He imagines most eggs will be found by chance, and he figures most of them will never be found or will take years to be discovered.Eccentricity and the mundaneHolland’s egg project is in keeping with his full-time vocation as art provocateur, and as such, it’s just one of many varied projects. Recently, a Greenup County schoolteacher commissioned Holland to create a large portrait of Kentucky author Walter Tevis, who wrote such renowned novels as “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” don’t call the cops: Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Scott Holland If you see a green plastic egg in an odd place, don’t call the cops. Open it!As part of his “Keyscratchings” project, he posts an offer on his Web site to send free inexpensive prints of his black-and-white artwork to anyone interested in exhibiting it in deliberately unusual spots such as “alleys, trash dumps, vacant lots, porno stores, gas stations, public restrooms, hallways of campus buildings, in basements, in apartments, in storm drains, on rooftops.” He promises to promote the “exhibition,” wherever it may be, as enthusiastically as if it were a major gallery opening.In January he was featured in “The Late Seating,” an Actors Theatre event that presented work by area musical, performance and visual artists. Holland’s segment, “Dark Observatory,” saw him taking an audience suggestion and painting a red duck with big eyes, a smile across his orange bill and horns, all while discussing his ideas about art.In June, Holland’s Kiss band series — featuring pieces like “Peter Criss down on his luck,” with the former band member sitting in an alley, about to drink from a bottle — will be hung in the KISS Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach, S.C.His images, mostly people or animals, seem shrouded in intentional mystery. They have a sense of Americana gothic, with danger lurking beyond the picture frames, indications that come from cartoon-like characters whose eye sockets hold no eyeballs or subjects who stare vacantly at the horizon or sideways.Holland and his painting Ghost of a Louisville Slugger.: Photo by Rob SouthardCharles Dunne of Prospect owns several Holland pieces, including the primitive painting “Midnight at Pope Lick.” Broad brushstrokes of black and white paint depict the Pope Lick Monster, a mythical horned creature said to inhabit a remote area on the outskirts of Jefferson County, with railroad trestles in the distance.Dunne finds Holland’s honesty and lack of pretension refreshing. “I’m an atypical collector,” he says. “I had never purchased an original piece of art, but his work really spoke to me in a way that compelled me to buy several pieces and get involved. He has a pretty straightforward reasoning behind his motivations to paint, which I like.”Observers have put labels on Holland’s work: outsider art, art brute, naïve, folk art, even kitsch. He doesn’t mind and he doesn’t necessarily disagree, but he does think they miss the point that he’s really a fine artist.Scott Scarboro, who started Cinderblock Gallery and now manages events at the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center, describes outsider art as “a self-trained, raw aesthetic, outside of the mainstream or any definition, and unconcerned about self-promotion or acceptance.” Scarboro says the term is slippery — his work is often considered “outsider art” even though he has a master’s of fine arts. He considers Holland more of a contemporary painter than an outsider artist.Butchertown Serenade, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland“He’s very aware of art and the movements and events, so to be labeled as an outsider would be a stretch,” Scarboro says, adding that Holland’s exhibits in other cities, including New York, indicate he is “hyper-aware of Butchertown Serenade, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland movements,” something Scarboro doesn’t consider typical outsider artist behavior.Similarly, Louisville artist and gallery owner Chuck Swanson doesn’t regard Holland as a folk or outsider artist. He describes Holland’s work as “bold, gestural” and “deceptively simple,” and says “there’s a purposeful layering of reasons and meaning behind what he does.“He operates outside the regular art parameters, because he’s got lots of ideas and stages things — unexpected things. I think of him more as a conceptual artist. I like his ambition. He can think in ways that other people don’t. And that’s something Louisville needs.” Painting over politicsNude Reading Comic Books, a painting by Jeffrey Scott HollandHolland tries to refrain from using his art as a political platform, but he does subscribe to most of the philosophy of Stuckism. That artistic movement, which dates to London circa 1999, has gained widespread popularity through the Internet (www.stuckism.com). Stuckism, which heralds the Second Coming of traditional painting, now claims 160 groups in 39 countries. It was founded by a group of artists who were reacting against recent postmodernist work, as exemplified by exhibits at London’s Tate Modern gallery and work by nominees for its Turner Prize. The Stuckists believed the gallery and the prize were too focused on notorious conceptual artists.One such artist, Damian Hirst, has created work around dead animals (sharks, sheep, cows), sometimes cutting them in pieces that are placed in containers filled with formaldehyde. Another, Tracey Emin, has become widely known for her piece “My Bed,” which consists of her bed, used condoms and bloodstained underwear, all in an abject state.Since forming, the Stuckists have staged protests against artistic and cultural events, such as the Turner Prize and the Iraq War, often dressed as clowns or using elaborate props.Holland buys into many of the Stuckist principles that relate to painting, including: • “Painting is the medium of self-discovery. It engages the person fully with a process of action, emotion, thought and vision, revealing all of these with intimate and unforgiving breadth and detail.”• “The Stuckist paints pictures because painting pictures is what matters.”• “It is the Stuckist’s duty to explore his/her neurosis and innocence through the making of paintings and displaying them in public, thereby enriching society by giving shared form to individual experience and an individual form to shared experience.” Holland believes larger museums have come to view painting as passé and shifted their emphasis to video art, performance art and sculpture.Intergalactic Cupcake, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland“The problem is, many galleries are only looking for things that haven’t been done,” he says. “But there is nothing that hasn’t been done. Even your wildest imaginings have been tried and tested by now — defecating on the floor? Herman Niche did that in the ’60s. Eventually, you realize that there is nothing under the sun that is new or original. There is nothing new or original about my work either, though. All we Intergalactic Cupcake, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland can agree on is that painting is important, and we can’t reject it.”Still, Holland, an art-school dropout, shrugs off any label, even Stuckist, to describe his art.“I don’t mind if people want to call it Stuckist, art brute, folk art, outsider art, naïve,” he says. “All those things are side points and tangents from the real point of my painting — fine art.”Any means necessaryHolland’s assertive and clever promotion of his work seems at odds with the Stuckist criticism of performance artists for hogging the spotlight, as described in these principles:• “The ego-artist’s constant striving for public recognition results in a constant fear of failure. The Stuckist risks failure willfully and mindfully by daring to transmute his/her ideas through the realms of painting. Whereas the ego-artist’s fear of failure inevitably brings about an underlying self-loathing, the failures that the Stuckist encounters engage him/her in a deepening process which leads to the understanding of the futility of all striving. The Stuckist doesn’t strive — which is to avoid who and where you are — the Stuckist engages with the moment.”• The Stuckist gives up the laborious task of playing games of novelty, shock and gimmick. The Stuckist neither looks backwards nor forwards but is engaged with the study of the human condition. The Stuckists champion process over cleverness, realism over abstraction, content over void, humor over wittiness and painting over smugness.”Nevertheless, Holland is unapologetic about his self-described “ruthless” marketing efforts, and comfortable with the apparent contradiction. He invokes Malcolm X’s famous “any means necessary” line when discussing that aspect of his work.Midnight in Pope Lick, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland“I know a lot of people think it’s ‘not cool’ and not very punk rock to do such things Midnight in Pope Lick, a painting by Jeffrey Scott Holland,” he says, “but it’s not me I’m promoting, it’s the paintings. It doesn’t have anything to do with my ego — these paintings exist and I created them. So I owe it to myself to get as many people to see them as possible, and by any means necessary.” Those means have included selling his paintings on eBay under a pseudonym and keeping his identity a secret until a piece was purchased. More recently, he reacted swiftly and vehemently when Boston law enforcement officials overreacted to a promotional campaign by the Cartoon Network in which contractors hid devices with magnetic lights throughout the city to advertise a new animated show.Authorities in Boston, who may be extra skittish because of the city’s link to the 9/11 attacks, treated them as possible bombs. They closed streets, bridges and a section of the Charles River, and evacuated a hospital before arresting two men. Holland hastily issued a press release, calling the response “paranoid” and saying officials “played the terrorism card.” He called for a resignation of Boston’s political leaders and cut Massachusetts from the Project Egg list.Artists have long used free speech issues as a soapbox to talk about their art. That sort of publicity may create the conundrum of choosing celebrity over integrity, but Holland doesn’t see it as an either-or choice.“Honestly, I just don’t understand what’s impure about selling your art and trying to make sure people see it,” he says.John Berger, the famed British writer, historian and art critic who noted the differing aims of art and marketing in his 1972 collection of essays, “Ways of Seeing,” might disagree. He wrote that “publicity … is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. … It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.” As such, Berger suggests that fine art exists apart from the consumerist ideology, which depends on publicity. When it comes to art, our role is to not to buy, it is to look.Holland says the promotion of his art is not meant to encourage people to acquire more things, nor is it for the mere sake of celebrity. He believes simply that his obligation as creator extends to promoter. Prostitute with Ice Cream Cone, a painting by Jeffrey Scott HollandWhen it comes to his larger paintings, Holland believes they eschew pretension and reside on the street corner of fine and folk art. As for Project Egg, he asserts it’s a simple project with clear-cut goals: proffering miniature fine art nationwide.His approach to art does raise the question: In the contemporary world, are elaborate marketing ploys, multi-city press releases and hired attorneys and press agents now accepted tools of the painter’s trade?But don’t expect such philosophical ruminations to keep Holland awake at night. He has a better reason to stay up. He has eggs to fill. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com