Holder’s layered perspectives of pain

Mar. 06, 2014 @ 10:09 AM

“Robin Holder:  A Layered Perspective,” The North Carolina Central University
Art Museum, through April 18. For information, call 919-530-6100
or visit www.nccu.edu/artmuseum

Printmaking has never been considered one of art’s major techniques:
After architecture, sculpture and painting, printmaking has traditionally been a second cousin. Robin Holder (b.1952), the subject of the current show at N.C. Central University’s Art Museum, is not only a master printmaker but proves over and over printmaking can hold its own against all the so-called classical techniques.
Holder’s background, the daughter of an African-American Christian father and a white Russian-American Jewish mother, has been the leitmotif of her life. In the 1990s she produced a series of prints about her adolescent years which addressed many of the issues related to her multiple identifications.
Using a technique of layering images and adding text to each print, she developed a series titled “What’s Black and White and Red All Over” recalling deeply remembered pain from the distance of several decades. In one she retells a memory of being invited home by a friend and at the door, the friend said her dad doesn’t allow “niggers”  in the house, but since she is “half and half” it should be all right. 
In another from the same series she describes a hair-straightening session at the home of an aunt; she lived there for a year after her parents divorced and before she joined her mother in New York, where she had moved to find a new life. When the others had been through the process and it was her turn the aunt told her she did not need it because she already had “good hair.” 
According to an article about Holder by Lisa Farrington, chair of the Department of Art and Music at John Jay College, City University of New York, that year was one of the worst in her life because her cousins terrorized her and she failed a class when she dared contradict a Christian teacher. 
As we continue to move through the gallery it is obvious Holder confronted her anger, couched it in artistic terms and offered it to any visitor who recognized her or his story and might find comfort knowing someone else had been through the same agonies.
The artist and her brothers grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a neighborhood of ethnically mixed working and middle-class liberals and intellectuals.  Her mother was a radical liberal thinker who exposed her children regularly to all manner of human injustices, such as labor abuses, religious dogmas, slavery and women’s rights.  She taught them to deal with their own mixed identity and with the societal biases of anti-Semitism and racism. Human rights became the core of Holder’s art.
By the time she was 7, she understood society through her mother’s eyes; the prints about the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are perfect examples.
The “good” were Paul Robeson, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and the “bad” were the Klan, Nazis, slave traders and the CIA. An image about a fourth-grade art teacher tells us a lot about Holder. The text that encircles a picture of dandelions tells us the teacher disdained the dandelions as weeds and Holder’s reaction was there should not be a caste system in nature.
The exhibition includes 41 prints from four series and represents a wide range of print techniques including collage monoprints, photo silkscreen, Xerox transfers, photo lithographs and digital text. Besides the themes around her childhood, there are the series “Warrior Women Wizards: Mystical Magical Mysteries,” a celebration of women and their strengths; “Behind Each Window, A Voice,” oral histories of neighbors told under window flaps in drawn facades of their houses; and her latest series “Time Yet to Come,” where she has fused monumental features into cut-outs of dilapidated houses.
Museum Director Kenneth Rodgers calls this group of prints a surreal rekindling of African-American vernacular architecture, history and the All-seeing eye.
Holder lives and works in West Milford, N.J. She attended New York’s premier High School of Music and Art, learned printmaking first at New York’s Art Students League, then honed her skills in printmaking workshops in Mexico City and Amsterdam. In 1977 she entered Robert Blackburn’s Printmakers Workshop and was his assistant director and coordinator for nine years. She has also received a number of public art commissions including the New Jersey Transit system, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Connecticut State Arts Commission. For more than 30 years, she has worked as a teaching artist and mentor in New York City’s public schools.
In taking a long view of this show, it is clear from her art and her biographical material Holder had a painful childhood, but she was protected by a mother who taught all her children to stand up to their personal hurts and fight for others in a pursuit for what was right. Her art continues to give her the means to fight for human rights and a way to reach others who may have experienced similar anguish.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.