Close Enough: John Houck’s “Holding Environment”

by Kaitlyn A. Kramer

December 14, 2018

John Houck, Unstable Figure, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © John Houck. Photo credit: Object Studies.

The places in which we have experienced day-dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.

—Gaston Bachelard 1

The theory of the “holding environment,” developed by the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, relates to the formation of a supportive space for children from infancy, beginning with the close nurturing of being physically held, which affects the relationships that children will go on to foster in adulthood. The idea is that as a child continues to grow, he will gradually require more space, and will be able to provide these same spaces for his own child, ad infinitum.

John Houck is a photographer whose work plays with repetitive representations of distances. He photographs compositions of sheets of paper layered atop one another, prints the results, stages the resulting photograph with additional layers and lighting, re-photographs the set up, and continues the process again. Sometimes he folds the paper, as in his Accumulator series (2013–), which adds both real and implied depth. These diptychs comprise compositions of three sheets of distinctly colored paper, which receive diagonal folds that are photographed and printed, before they are folded and photographed again. The final prints receive additional folds—sly interventions nearly indistinguishable from the photograph’s illustrated creases. This results in a dizzying illusion of space, where the appropriate viewing distance seems to be as close as possible. With minimal space between your body and one of Houck’s images, the photograph will nearly hold you.

John Houck, Accumulator #20, 3 Colors #B2DAE5, #B4867B, #B46E5C, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © John Houck. Photo credit: Object Studies.

The optical play of depth, texture, and duration in Houck’s photographs further entices through the implied tactility of his paintings, which he makes and then stages within the prints alongside colored sheets of paper, shadows, and pieces of artist’s tape. Layers accumulate within each photo, as the surface becomes yet another layer, and the viewer another layer still. This composition holds a tension that is subtle yet fascinating—a tension that permeates his recent works in the exhibition “Holding Environment,” on view at Marianne Boesky. In Unstable Figure(2018), Houck re-photographs crisp leaves of paper in complementary hues to form the surface for a painting—of two pairs of intersecting hands gripping two floating bicycle handlebars—which is then photographed again. Even the painted composition isn’t fixed to one plane, where mauve and grey smudges obscure intersections of layered paper that read as visible edits of a process both deliberate and intuitive. As with his methods, the composition grows all the more puzzling over time. Each pair of arms grasps its handlebar from a different direction, yet the handlebars are painted uniformly. A hand dissolves into one bar’s curve. These details might trick a viewer into counting fingers, into gripping the air in front of her to confirm the anatomy of her own wrist.

Such hesitant observations and questions are the basis of a language shared between Houck and his viewers, which has deepened over the years through the growing presence of painting in his work. The layers and shadows of Houck’s photographs have always evoked the urge to touch, a sensation only exaggerated by the additional illusion of painted marks now contained within many of his images. In a 2016 interview with TheBrooklyn Rail, Houck interprets his inclusion of paint through the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s sentiment that the tactile is intertwined in the visual, and vice versa, which encourages a connection with his work that bridges the senses. 2 The philosopher Luce Irigaray, in her own engagement with Merleau-Ponty through the essay “To Paint the Invisible,” understands painting as a “crossing of looks, notably in their tactile dimension. A crossing not only of looks, but also of lives, of breaths, of energies. In this sense, a painting becomes a transmission of truth, a message of love, a work that is always already common, a creation of world, a manner of saying that which words and musical notes would have been unable to express.” 3

Houck often cites his involvement with relational psychoanalysis as the basis for much of his work, where he represents the images and objects from his past to understand how they have informed his current relationships, particularly with his family. By communicating this psychological work through the language of his photographs, he offers the vulnerability of an internalized mess of memory for others to see—that is to say, to be touched through seeing. Yet the memories are his alone, so a distance will always be present for the viewer. Houck leaves her to choose to enter closer and take the memories as her own. His images provide the tools. How visceral to remember being taught how to ride a bike.

John Houck, Continuous and Discrete, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen. © John Houck. Photo credit: Object Studies.

While painting continues to command significant space in Houck’s photographs, another intervention quietly presents itself in the complicated layers of two particular photographs included in “Holding Environment.” In these instances, instead of building on the composition, he has cut small figures out of his wide expanses of paper, creating silhouettes that hover between dense planes. In Continuous and Discrete(2018), a parasail floats toward the blue gradient of a strip of paper and its supporting scrap of tape. Even among the vast layers, the image feels somewhat weightless, like the mind contemplating the sky in a state of daydreaming. More perplexingly, however, is Notes on a Briefcase (2018) where a plump and lonely pear is cut from the center of the predominant sheet of brown paper. Weighted shadows and geometric fields of paint frame the pear at the photograph’s edges, but it is mostly left in solitude. I imagine it is a Bosc pear. These cut-out voids are a delightful addition to Houck’s language, renewing the sensation of feeling touched at the sight of an unexpected yet relatable space. His photographs serve, in effect, as a “holding environment” in reverse. They are images that will draw you in toward memory, images that will nurture.

John Houck’s “Holding Environment” is on view at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, 507 West 24th Street, through December 22

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 6
2 Charlie Schultz, “Interview with John Houck,” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2016,
3 Luce Irigaray, “To Paint the Invisible,” Continental Philosophy Review, December 2004, p. 403.

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