Charlie Holt tends to work on series of imagery from differing themes, ranging from small scale pieces to murals that are over 40 feet long. Collage enables him to play with layers of time and information – palimpsests which may juxtapose apparently unconnected images to create a new visual narrative. This is a man whose mind works overtime and whose imagination knows no boundaries.
He was born and raised in England, and went to the Saturday classes run by the local art school in Rochdale from the age of 12. He first ‘work’ however, was before that – at seven or eight years old he produced a drawing of a worm wearing a bowler hat and smoking a pipe. Was this an early indication of an inbuilt artistic quirkiness that would develop over the years and form the personality of his work?
In the mid-sixties, Charlie embarked on a self-imposed learning curve, taking him from a two-year full-time Foundation Art course to a degree course in Fine Art and Print making in Loughborough, and then on to a First Class Honours degree. Ready to work then? No way. He did a post grad course in Education in Brighton, then a Masters Degree in Printing Making at Manchester Metropolitan University. Small surprise, then, that with all that learning behind him, Charlie became a lecturer, sharing his passion with a generation of students who aspired to make a name for themselves in the art field.
That was then; this is now
Over the past 20 years, Charlie has produced cut and paste collages and digital collages, often mixing the two. He has a studio just south of Loulé, in a small barn. And a one in the UK that is even smaller at 1.5sqm. Yet his work is prolific, his output huge.
He was commissioned by his great friend and mentor, Bota Filipe the founder of Zefa Contemporary Art in Almancil, to produce a mural, an astonishing 70m long, that tells the story of Saramago’s novel, The Stone Raft, a surreal adventure of a group of people travelling the Iberian peninsular that had separated itself from Europe.
“I took inspiration from a David Hockney painting, Mulholland Drive, for part of the landscape, and from works by Gauguin and Arnold Bocklin,” Charlie explains.
“Lisbon features in the journey, too, as the travellers follow my blue winding road. And there’s a dog with some blue wool in its mouth.” At Zefa, Charlie had a temporary studio… a dog’s kennel. ““I had a table and chair and radio – what more could I want? Bota Filipe, who sadly passed away recently, gave me total freedom.”
For another Zefa mural project, this time in the side of a huge barn in Salir, Charlie based his work on another Saramago work, a short story The Tale of an Unknown Island.
Remember this is a man who thinks big. He was commissioned to paint on a life-size fibre glass dolphin that is now in a private collection, and for Quinta dos Vales in Estombar, two life-size fibre glass bears.
Asked about his favourite works, Charlie does not hesitate. “The last one, and the next one,” he says with a smile. And best times here on the Algarve? “That’s not easy. There are many different places that conceal good memories – the end of the jetty in Quarteira fishing; working in Salir and my daily drive there for weeks; having a coffee in Café Calcinha in Loulé; calling on friends in their studios; driving round in my old Suzuki Samaria and trying to get lost…” What about most-admired artists? “Giorgio Morandi for his quiet landscapes, Giorgio de Chirico for his enigmatic townscapes, Mr Hockney,
French photographer Eugène Atget, American artist Joseph Cornell best remembered for his surrealist assemblage works.”
Charlie is currently working on a series of digital collages based on a book by Xavier Maistre – A Journey Around My Room – in which the central character travels by never leaving his room. “It’s a story that has Intrigued me for years,” he explains. “I have a room in my house that is full of objects – some tiny pieces that have fascinated me, some ex-students’ work oddities collected over my life, ephemera and music – vinyl and CDs. There is a chair that I occupy, a chair where memories and dreams, both real and Imaginary, take place. I always have music playing; I have a very catholic taste from rock ‘n’ roll to tub jug bands to cool funky jazz to punk. Often, an idea is in my mind for quite some time – I never force things – connections are made in the subconscious…
A particular project of Charlie’s – one that took two years to realise – is enthralling visitors to galleries and museums across the Algarve. Entitled The Backwards Project, it is a collection of some 250 pieces, inspired by the concept of pseudo fossils, things that would tell archaeologists of the future the story of today.
“Many many years ago, I took a photo of a small archaeological dig in Chester, a hole in the ground with red tape around it. The vision fascinated me and lurked in my memory for close to 40 years; it resurfaced when I met archaeologist Isabel Luzia in Loulé when the Islamic baths were being excavated and then, a few years ago, after listening by chance to a Radio 4 programme, I made contact with professor Jan Zalasiewiez at the University of Leicester who was ‘hiding’ everyday things likes combs and biros.
“That was what inspired me to start The Backwards Project, a mix of ecology and art as a study of the things that represent life in the early 21st century… things like concrete, plastic, dice, toy cars, fishing floats, cigarette lighters, even chicken bones. I partially submerged these everyday bits and pieces in cement plaster. My vision was to create something that would encourage people to visit museums, and to involve them – so many museums today are static in terms of their displays, nothing changes. I wanted to give the audience something to consider and to enjoy. I want to arouse curiosity, especially in children. These little sculptures of mine occupy cabinets that hold real relics. I want the visitor to be the archaeologist, finding hidden future fossils.”
Recently, Charlie has begun to experiment with sounds and music, using old technology – radios, cassette players, CDs – to orchestrate a collage that is part of a new exhibition in which visitors control what they are hearing.
Another demonstration of this artist’s immense talent, and boundless creative energy is his Random Visual Poems installation which brings together a number of related series of works representing a new reality. “Max Ernst used fragments of given or found pictures telling new stories often in bizarre dreamlike juxtaposition,” says Charlie. “This show, in Salford, re-enacts this irrational presentation of images. The walls of the gallery were covered in huge posters, some untouched others torn. I played no part in this – the gallery staff made all the decisions; it was a game of chance.”
Charlie’s mind never rests. He is always exploring new avenues, discovering new concepts, drawing new inspiration from the world around him and the influences that shape his thinking.
His body of work grows larger all the time; there are no brakes in the way he works. He has a random collage series that has been going on for years and continues. Every piece is on canvas and the size of a 45rpm-record. “I have no idea when I start each piece. I have masses of printed ephemera in both my studios – posters that have removed from walls in Manchester, Lisbon, in India. Wherever I am, I just pick something up and glue it to the canvas, often working on 20 pieces simultaneously moving from one to another. They all have a story. And I often buy postcards of a place that I visit and crumple them so that they look old and worn or discarded or lost. Venice, Loule and Lisbon are an ongoing series.”
Today, with a wealth of work behind him, collections housed in the USA, the UK, across Europe and India, and a curiosity that will never be satisified, Charlie Holt is one rare individual who is able to change the perception of others through his exhibitions, installations and pop up shows. Gosto, in Boliquieme, will be showing some of his pieces in the near future. It is an opportunity to dive into the unknown and enrich your thinking.
Words: Susi Rogol-Goodkind