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.
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
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.
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 The Brooklyn 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’s “Holding Environment” is on view at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, 507 West 24th Street, through December 22
2 Charlie Schultz, “Interview with John Houck,” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2016, https://brooklynrail.org/2016/05/art/john-houck-charlie-schultz.
3 Luce Irigaray, “To Paint the Invisible,” Continental Philosophy Review, December 2004, p. 403.