Mapping the Flow: Wopo Holup's River Drawings by Nicholas Robbins

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Wopo Holup on view at CUE Art Foundation October 20 - December 1, 2012. 

I had often stood on the banks of the Concord watching the lapse of the current, an emblem of all progress, following the same law with the system, with time, and all that is made.
— Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849

Rivers are the ostensible subjects of Wopo Holup's drawings, but not in any conventional sense. As they were for Thoreau, rivers are Holup's point of departure for the investigation of an expansive range of questions and concerns-aesthetic, scientific, historical, and ecological. Derived from satellite imaging systems, Holup's drawings present themselves as a kind of hand-crafted, subjectivized mapping, a personalized rendering of landscapes originally captured by a data-driven, all-seeing eye. From these technological images, the artist regains a sense of human, even spiritual, presence and a felt connection to natural form, while subtly drawing our attention to the (often troubled) relationship we have as a species to the vast and complex natural systems that organize our world.

The aerial view that the works in this exhibition engage has figured prominently in much recent art dealing with landscape-think of Robert Smithson's documentation of Spiral Jetty, Richard Long's cartographic perambulations, or Andrea Zittel's hypnotic, tessellated images of suburban sprawl. Holup's drawings also recall Christo and Jeanne-Claude's pencil and collage studies for their monumental interventions in natural environments, art works that are in effect a grandiose type of drawing that can only be fully grasped from above. (Interestingly, it was an invitation from Christo and Jeanne-Claude that brought Holup to New York City, where she now works for much of the year. She met the artistic duo in Sonoma County in the early 1970s, where she was then living, during their preparations for Running Fence.) The drawings' heavenly perspective allows us to apprehend the rivers' meandering forms as totalities, and in their grand sweep they make apparent the ways in which rivers define landscapes, articulate cosmologies, and structure ways of life. Yet, on closer scrutiny, Holup's drawings partake in a caressive transcription of the particularities and vagaries of her subjects, reframing the rivers' paths as intricate networks of hand-wrought line and color, detailing taut curves and infinite branchings, both elegant in appearance and efficient in description. Shifting back and forth between these disparate registers, the works balance big-picture symbolic and cultural potency with the immanent beauty of naturally occurring form.

Over the last two decades, Holup has produced a large body of outdoor sculptural projects sited in predominantly urban environments around the United States. Often drawing on the histories and geographic characteristics specific to these sites, her public practice inflects newly built spaces with an evocation of previous lives and habitats. Case in point is her monumental bas-relief sculpture Common Ground, 2005, installed on the walls beneath an overpass of the Bronx-Queens Expressway. Incorporating friezes of native foliage and wild grasses, the sculpture offers up the diversity of local flora as an analogue of the international, polyglot population of Queens. Holup's initial involvement in these projects was largely a matter of serendipity, the result of a public art project committee member seeing a group of her sculptures in a show at the SoHo gallery Harm Bouckaert in 1982. But through her public works, she came to value collaborating with the many different stakeholders associated with these projects-residents, architects, planners, politicians, and historians-weaving together in the process multiple narratives, both natural and cultural, intrinsic to, but not always visible in, the sites and landscapes her projects survey.

Holup's specific interest in rivers developed out of one of her most prominent public works, River That Flows Two Ways, a series of cast iron sculptural panels that she completed in 2000 for the Promenade at Battery Park in New York. The panels, set into the walkway's seawall railing, layer images of the social and ecological history of the Hudson, envisioning a space shared by American Indians, Dutch traders, and mercantile shipyard workers, along with the Hudson River's fish and birds. Through her work on this project, Holup became interested in the ways in which the Hudson, like many rivers, has over time functioned as a nexus for complex historical and socio-cultural forces. This interest is elaborated upon in an ongoing public project that the artist is developing for the Parks and Conservation Trust in Lowell, Massachusetts. Holup was commissioned to contribute to the redevelopment of the Concord River Greenway in Lowell, an archetypal nineteenth-century American mill town whose prosperity depended upon the river flowing through it-a prosperity that led directly to the waterway's acute pollution. The artist plans to integrate passages from Thoreau's 1849 literary travelogue A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, along with texts and statements by Lowell residents past and present, into built elements of the park along the river, threading local history through this new civic space. It was during her work on this project that the artist began to make the earliest piece in this exhibition, The Concord River Drawing, 2008. This sixteen-panel, mural-sized drawing traces the river's path, just as Thoreau had done on his weeks-long journey, from the river's source, through its confluence with the Merrimack at Lowell, to the wide bay at Newburyport where it meets the Atlantic.

Though clearly related to her public, research-based projects, the drawings on view in this exhibition stem from a more personal, subjective meditation motivated by Holup's attraction to the beauty of the rivers' contours, which are treated as found shapes deployed in lyrical, fragmented compositions. Holup has long made use of elements extracted from the natural world, forms that are selected for their aesthetic properties but nevertheless retain a referential connection to their original context. For instance, as a graduate student in California at Mills College in the early 1970s, Holup presented, as her thesis work in printmaking, a group of plaster sculptures cast from the footprints of cows that grazed on the farm where she was living. Each footprint is similar but not identical, just as the shapes of the rivers and deltas she depicts resemble one another yet are resolutely distinct. Bespeaking a concrete connection to place, this serial elaboration also invites a close examination of the formal properties of "natural" composition.

Holup's artworks are also marked by the subtle abstraction of her subject matter-in many of her river drawings, for example, she has segmented the river's path onto adjoining panels, adhering to the river's curvaceous profile, but not to its overall composition, defamiliarizing the referent in a way that invites subjective elaboration. Holup's use of evocative materials further opens her work to visual association, such as her application of ebony pencil in striated patterns that obliquely evoke the lapping, fluid surface of the water. And many of the works feature metallic leaf, which is applied over selected passages of the drawings. In some works, the foil's reflectiveness suggests the shimmering light bouncing off a river's surface, as is the case with The Concord River Drawing. In The Nile, 2010, one of several works that focus on particularly iconic rivers, gold leaf demarcates the river's floodplains with an allusive richness that suggests that region's fertile but fragile ecology. The metallic surfaces also directly reference the use of "precious" materials in religious art to impart a sense of metaphysical power and solemnity. In Holup's own words, rivers and the landscapes they help shape are "deserving of veneration," and these materials suggest an aura of spiritual reverence.

Although they are relatively faithful renderings of the rivers' paths, Holup's drawings intentionally evoke other forms as well. The delta region depicted in the leftmost panels of The Nile, for instance, resembles a flower's bloom, compositionally balanced on its right by the black bulb-like shape of Lake Victoria, one of the river's sources; in The Concord River Drawing, the riverbeds resemble screens of hanging vines or a series of tree branches; Texas Rivers, 2011, could be a delicately depicted diagram of nervous system tissue. Far from random, these associations point to what Holup calls "the obvious order of nature"-the way in which configurations and patterns in nature repeat and recur at every level. These linkages have held an enduring appeal for artists and art historians: John Ruskin's assertion, for example, that the unity and "common law" of design is exemplified by trees, from their whole form down to the shape and array of their leaves; or Karl Blossfeldt's lifelong project photographing fragments of plant matter in order to capture what he considered to be the essential laws of beauty and proportion found in nature.

Holup cites the recent book Design in Nature by Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane, a mechanical engineer and a journalist, respectively, as a text that is particularly representative of her concerns. The book analyzes structures both natural and social in order to show how they develop according to universal laws of design that maximize flows, whether of water, energy, or ideas. Despite its aesthetic elegance and languorous quality of line, a river's course is, in fact, determined by the most efficient path of its water to sea level. For Holup, an understanding of the physical laws and properties that underpin natural beauty does not diminish our wonder or that beauty's intimations of a mysterious order. Rather, this knowledge points to the pervasive interconnectedness of things-and a link between scientific knowledge and aesthetic experience-that subtly binds together all the elements, living and inanimate, of a landscape.

At the same time as Holup's work addresses universal questions of form and structure, it is also motivated by a desire to focus attention on the relationship between civilization and the natural world. Some of her drawings deal quite directly with land use-such as The Mississippi, 2010, in which the French "long lot" farm plots that radiate off the spine of the river are delineated in foils of alternating hues. Rather than expressing concern for the loss of "wild" environments, this work points instead to the inextricably linked natural and cultural forces that shape this landscape. Similarly, Mississippi Delta II, 2011, developed out of Holup's fascination with the intermingling water and land forms that spread out into the Gulf, while also documenting the topography of the region as it undergoes rapid erosion due to the depletion of the river's silt by upriver dams and levees. The natural formations depicted by these works may seem eternal or autonomous from human life, but they bear the effects of our presence. Tracing these rivers from their beginnings to their ends, Holup's drawings remind us not only of the recurring patterns that bind together the elements of the natural world, but also of the way in which our own past, present, and future are caught up in those rivers' currents.