From The Desk Of Ann Magnuson: Frank Holliday

At her funniest, musician/actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson skewers pop and celebrity culture like nobody else. And there’s a lot of that skewering on her new album, Dream Girl, Magnuson’s third LP following the strangely underrated The Luv Show and Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories. Magnuson will be guest editing all week. Dream on.


Magnuson: I’ve known Frank Holliday since 1978 when we first met in New York City and let our creative freak flags wave high all over town. Whether at Club 57, Mudd Club, Danceteria, the Pyramid Club or touring “on the road,” we collaborated on many wacky shows, always laughing ourselves into a kind of sublime ecstasy. Tragically, many of our cohorts and beloved friends from that time died. AIDS was our Vietnam. Frank nearly died as well. By the grace of something too mysterious to name, he (and I and a few lucky others) survived.

To try to condense all Frank Holliday has done (and continues to do) here would be impossible. He has been a dancer, a teacher, an actor, a set painter, a world traveler, a writer and always, always an artist. His art career didn’t really take off until later in life, when he got the Pollock-Krasner And Gotlieb Grant the same year. Now Frank Holliday paintings sell for six- figure sums and show all over the world. He recently had a huge success in Singapore and is now in Rome painting a show for the Carlo Biolotti Museum in the Villa Borghese. Frank’s art is some of the dreamiest I’ve ever seen. I recently emailed him in Rome and graciously took time out from finishing 40 paintings to talk about art, dreams and cheating death.

Ann: Frank, your work definitely channels a dream state. It’s like you have captured the essence of the Numinosum, in all its colorful abstract variations; channeling the divine essence of nature—weather, landscape, emotion—abstract but still specific. It’s as if your brushes are dipping in the quantum field itself! There is a divine way you use color that has a healing aspect to it. I also get vibes of Turner and William Blake. I look inside your paintings and get lost, just like slipping out of consciousness and into a dream state, into a place that makes me feel better after having been there. Carl Jung talked about the healing power of the numinous. Art has always been a way to channel that mystery. How do you feel when you are making your work? Are you in a kind of dream state? Do you ever dream about your paintings? Do your paintings dream of you? 😉

Frank: OK. I will try to be brief. Numinosum….. My life changed when I woke up in a hotel in Washington, D.C. I was painting costumes for Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (or, as we called it, Beauty And The Fucking Beast), and I was naked huddled in a corner covered in sweat as the phone kept ringing. I had been in the room for three days. I had a fever of 104, and I knew I was dying. I just knew it. Disney was on the phone screaming, “Where the fuk are you?!”  They could give a shit that I was sick and basically fired me.

I knew I had to go home to North Carolina if I were to die. I didn’t want to return home in the baggage department. Well, the doctors informed me that I had three months to live and that I should go home get my ducks in a row and basically just go die. It was amazing how calming this was, scary but calming.

So I had a bit of time where my life flashed before my face. Things started to appear as what is important: my life, paintings, friends. The black cloud that had been chasing me had swallowed me. Yet, once inside the cloud, it was calm and crystal clear. The pain was in everyone else’s face, not on mine. I don’t know what I experienced in those three days in the hotel, but it was a battle of my life. I was not in charge.

Two weeks later the medications appeared from Dr. Ho that saved me as well as the lives of so many others. That’s cutting it kind of close.

While I was dying, my mother had paintings all around, and I realized I had already made beautiful works. Before that moment, I had convinced myself that I was a failure, I wasn’t Keith Haring, I wasn’t Kenny Scharf … I was a failure. I wasn’t special. But that was their path not mine, and mine would look different even if there was no glitter. I decided to try and make my goal in the work to achieve the peak experience, my experience in my work and find out whom Frank was. Twenty years later, here I am. Alive.

Numinous hits on the sublime as well as beauty and trauma; sublime is described by Kant as a moment that creates awe but is different from beauty because it is mixed with terror. The closest thing I have ever seen to it is standing on the West Side Highway watching, in real time, the World Trade Center towers collapse. Everything slowed down, and the visual detached from the emotion for a second where you couldn’t believe what was happening. But it was awesome in the disbelief. It was a dream. Time was suspended.

In my work I have been struggling with the representation of Sublime. I don’t want to illustrate what this super state is. I don’t want it to be simulacra. It needs to feel like nature but not be a picture of nature. I need to give enough of familiar triggers so one can enter into the emotion space but it has to open the viewer up to possibilities instead of define them. If something is too abstract, it is just decorative.

How do I define that moment where the spirit detaches from the viewer and lets a suspension of disbelief of reality happen? It needs to be endless and vast in the mind. Kant always used images of nature. Volcano erupting, storms tornadoes. And how, although dangerous, they are vast and beautiful and awe-inspiring.

But I am dealing with a flat object that is basically earth, which I have to transfer into sensory language, beyond the word.

All of these natural sublime events are an accumulation of pressure, relief, and renewal necessary succession to propel us forward. Dreams are the interior version of this need. Dreams allow us to reassemble the confusion of life so a change of perception can occur.

Ann: Yes!!!! Wow! Frank, your life is a shining example of Jung’s alchemical theories of transformation, turning psychological base metals (harsh experience) into gold (art, wisdom, longevity!). Yours is the quintessential hero’s journey! (Joseph Campbell taught us all about it in that famous PBS Bill Moyers series. Jung says the fire is something we must go through to burn off the dross of the provisional self; part of that is the conditioning that we must acquire wealth and fame to feel “worthy.” Jung used to express sadness when his patients told him they had gotten a job promotion. “That’s too bad,” he’d say, because he knew it would prevent them from pushing past their egos and achieving what he called Indivuation. Conversely, Jung gleefully opened a bottle of champagne upon learning they’d been fired. Now we can really get to work, he’d say! You are the wisest man I know, Frank. You, and your art have a lot to teach us all!

Suggested reading
The Middle Passage: From Misery To Meaning In Mid-Life by James Hollis
Swamplands Of The Soul by James Hollis
The Religious Function Of The Psyche by Lionel Corbett