Text by Luke Healey
There’s a vulnerability implicit in the very idea of the artist’s residency. On the one hand, the residency circuit directly reflects the identification of the vast majority of artists working in 2013 with what current parlance terms the precariat, a social grouping always ready to move on from a settled state of affairs in the name of new opportunities. On the other hand, residencies can offer their participants a less intimidating and more beguiling kind of vulnerability, that of being able to think afresh, to work from scratch, away from the comfort zones of the private studio.
This, in any case, is how Holly Rowan Hesson views her residency at The Penthouse, an artists’ space in Manchester’s Northern Quarter opened at the back end of 2012. In essence, Hesson was invited to spend a period of six weeks working in one of four studios rented by Penthouse founders Rosanne Robertson and Debbie Sharp, a complex up on the fifth floor of a subtly quirky 1960s building designed by architect Richard Seifert, whose Natwest Tower was at one point the tallest building in the UK. Hesson moved into the space at the beginning of September without any preconceived ideas: ‘I only ever start with an empty room and my camera, and then see what happens from there.’ The heightened attention that being dropped into an unfamiliar setting brings is the motor for Hesson’s practice.
What did happen was that Hesson began to latch on to certain details, messy little patches of intrigue in a structure that from the outside appears demurely rectilinear: ‘This space appears to be a white cube, but it isn’t really, it’s full of intriguing bits.’ A photograph of a light switch, intentionally outoffocus, is one of the images that hangs in her workspace when I visit: it is a snapshot of the light switch just inches away on the same wall, encrusted with various layers of whitenotwhite paint, which Hesson refers to as ‘an abstract painting’. She is also drawn to the casement windows both in her own studio and in the project space outside, which she sees as ‘picture frames’. A photograph featuring the top of a building set against a grey Manchester sky testifies to the strange, anomic pictures these frames seem to usher into being, though this is consistent with Hesson’s approach: ‘I’m always looking for something, but then I often obscure what I find.’
Eventually, Hesson will use these impressions to produce an installation for this project space, although her process of exploration will continue until the last possible moment: ‘I’ll only know it’s right at the very end, which is a bit stressful, but that’s how it works for me.’ Photographs taken in the space, blurred from the outset, will be further estranged from their referents by means of the projector set up in the corner of the studio: photograph, project, rephotograph. Painting will add a further layer of process to the mix. The spectral objects eventually produced both paintings and photographs will ultimately be displayed in a way which emphasises their threedimensionality are then to be reinserted into the space that inspired them, in a kind of feedback loop. ‘I have a layered process which develops over time, which is why the length of this residency is perfect for me’, notes Hesson. Hers is work which enigmatically reflects back upon the resources which made it possible in the first place, a residency about the experience of residencies.