How Nancy Holt Anticipated the Influencer Age

LOS ANGELES — Though she’s most known for land art and earthworks, Nancy Holt also studied space and time through photography, installation, and performance. Sprüth Magers spotlights these lesser-known artworks in Nancy Holt: Locating Perception, the late artist’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles since 1985.

Before moving into sculpture, Holt was fascinated by the then-burgeoning medium of photography. She used a camera to assemble visual poems, looking for patterns in the built environment, like repeating words, building materials, or color palettes. 

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One such visual poem in Locating Perception is found in the tiled photographs of the series California Sun Signs (1972). Traveling throughout the state, Holt found the word “sun” calling to her in many forms. It would often jump from Googie-style motel signs or hide within another word, such as “sundial,” that sought to evoke California’s signature trait. Holt fittingly captures the texts in broad daylight, white-hot sunshine bouncing off the signs or rays bleeding into the frame, washed out by their namesake.

Another photographic series, Western Graveyards (1968), studies the homogenous aesthetic of rural grave sites across Lone Pine, California, and Virginia City, Nevada. They spread across browned dusty fields, crooked crucifixes marking their territory, a pile of stone weighing down the soul buried underneath. The resting places Holt discovered in these gold rush towns appear almost like caricatures of the Wild West. One hand-carved wooden tombstone pays tribute to a Baby Baxter, with no recorded date of birth or death, as if a Halloween prop. But the sandy, ad hoc cemeteries were indeed living memorials, with fresh flowers laid at their markers.

Though these photos come from the mid-20th century, California Sun Signs and Western Graveyards anticipate 21st-century aesthetics. Framed in squares, the pictures collate like Instagram’s grid. The setting, too, is prescient: Holt’s sun signs could substitute for any derelict backdrop in an influencer’s desert pilgrimage.

The relationship between old architecture and modern vibes also plays into her stunning installation “Electrical System” (1982). The maze of metal conduits and filament bulbs fills most of Sprüth Magers’s second floor. Viewers are invited to carefully step through the sculpture, where the steel tubes converge into mountainous peaks reaching almost to the ceiling, topped by a lightbulb. 

Holt used her system sculptures to expose hidden aspects of the built environment, but recreating the work in the present day has to accommodate the technological innovations that have emerged since the ’80s. Though the metal conduits remain the standard in modern electrical design, the wires flowing through those tubes are now encased with PVC instead of rubber, and the stylish incandescent light bulbs, which would be right at home at a craft cocktail lounge, now have energy-efficient LED filaments.

Just across the street from Sprüth Magers is the skeleton of the half-built expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The construction site, its bones mirroring “Electrical System,” can be seen through a window when standing next to Holt’s installation. Once again, Holt draws the current landscape through her anachronistic materials.

Nancy Holt, from the series California Sun Signs (1972)
Nancy Holt, “Electrical System” (1982)
Nancy Holt, from the series Western Graveyards (1968)
NancyHolt, “Tour of the John Weber Gallery” (1972)
Nancy Holt, “Locator,” detail view
Nancy Holt, from the series Western Graveyards (1968)

Nancy Holt: Locating Perception continues at Sprüth Magers (5900 Wilshire Boulevard, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles, California) through January 14. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.


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