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Jim Holyoak, “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”


 In the age of mechanical reproduction and almost total craftsmanship capitulation to concept, or, speaking the words of T.S. Eliot, “Shape without form / gesture without motion”, any example of  time-consuming, skill and patience-demanding work of art should be regarded as a rare gem and thus carefully looked upon.


This is the case with “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”- 500 pages long mixture of drawing and text that took seventeen years to complete, a project that so far can be regarded as the magnum opus of Jim Holyoak, American-Canadian artist and writer. 


The figure of the author is worth studying, since the roots of the book’s essence lie in its author’s  continuous travels between Canada, India, China, the United States and most of the Northern and Western Europe, where he studied and attended artist residences. 

One of the most notable episodes of Holyoak’s biography is his apprenticeship to Shen Ling Xiang, master of Southern China painting school. The fact that the Canadian artist learned from the representative of the Guilin painting school born out of collaboration between French impressionist André Claudot and Chinese artist Li Ke-Ran almost a hundred years ago. Such interlacement of continents, lives and painterly styles is found its expression in the book’s peculiar style and content- mysterious, dreamy and personal, yet deeply rooted in the world’s artistic tradition.


Frankly, the word “Tradition” comes up often when thinking about “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”. Starting with its title, in which it is possible to find reminiscences of  Lao Tzu’s “Book of the Way and Virtue” and “Seven Nights” of Borges, musical genre of nocturnes and James Whistler’s paintings of the same name. Contentwise, mixture of reality and dreams, uncanny atmosphere of wandering in the darkness full of monsters and apparitions, feeling of being lost, recall the memories of Goya’s “Los caprichos” and the first lines of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”


I found myself within a shadowed forest,

for I had lost the path that does not stray.


There is a certain uncanny repetition in the fate of this project. The book about wandering was created during its author’s travels through North America, Europe and Asia, and currently Jim Holyoak is yet again on tour with his work. Venturing into numerological symbolism, number Nineteen itself is a representation of endless travel, since the moon reappears in the same position among the stars every nineteen years, performing the full circle around the sky.


Considering Holyoak’s rich experience of installation drawing projects, one who seeks to fully understand the concept of this book should also consider how it is shown to the public. So far the book exist in the single hand-made copy, hence to exhibit nineteen 30x40 cm chapters, the requirements for the space are demanding. This September, when “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes” was featured in the Survival Kit 9 contemporary art festival, it occupied a whole lecture auditorium in the abandoned Biology Faculty building of the Latvian University. The readers were required to use white soft cloth gloves when touching the book, and the auditorium wall was covered with one of Jim Holyoak’s large-scale drawings.


 In such set up the authors hand is clearly visible, recalling his principle of “exploring the border realms between perception and fantasy”. Indeed, when a potential viewer who was wandering through empty stairs of Biology Faculty reached the auditorium with “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”, the impression experienced would be of an unsettling, suddenly deserted lecture hall 

where people were studying this strange book, with its chapters carefully laid out on the desks and  drawings from them appearing on the walls, erasing this “border between perception and fantasy”.  Mixing of reality and fantasy.


What sets Holyoak’s work apart from many other contemporary artist books are the diligence with which it is created - hundred pages entirely handmade, drawn and written with exceptional attention to details and dedication, and its content that uses traditional combination of visual art and prose to organise a coherent narrative throughout the whole project. Such approach makes “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes” closer to William Blake and Modernist experiment’s in the genre of artist book, rather than the works of Ed Ruscha or almost all “Printed Matter” assortment. 


When describing the content of “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”, it is more justified to talk about the atmosphere rather then the narrative, because perhaps the saddest thing about this book is that it was planned out and created with a full understanding that only a small percent of those who see it will have time and patience to read the whole text from the beginning to the end. However, this exact problem forced Holyoak to make every picture and every phrase memorable and able to fully transmit the spirit of the whole work. The artist created a dream-like world were it is easy to get lost, which is tempting to explore, even though the imagery and text engage with chthonic, strange entities. Naturally, it is a story of searching ones place in the world. And as we know from never-to-be-forgotten Jorge Luis Borges, search is one of four universal themes of literature, together with a sacrifice of a god, story of a city sieged and defended and return. Out of all of them, search seems to correspond the best to the very nature of artistic craft, its wonderings and discoveries in process of which an artists often find their hidden, suppressed, long time lost identity. In case of Holyoak, this identity seems to be astonishingly romantic, with love for supernatural, un-human life. When he  tells the story of Book, this strange heroine in search for herself, the artist’s love and affection towards every character is obvious, shining through the dark, gothic imagery and somewhat distanced author’s voice. This love is in small details, in the way he accepts and carefully depicts even the strangest life forms. After all, this is a dark fairytale, and only empathic people tell these kinds of stories which require rich fantasy, openness to the unknown and ability to make give a tale scary and macabre spirit without falling into violence and misanthropy.


Among contemporaries with whom it is possible to compare Jim Holyoak is Pavel Pepperstein, Russian artist and writer who often illustrates his own books of psychedelic, dark and ironic stories, as well as creates large series of drawings united by some type of conceptual narrative. Both artists are heavily influenced by Chinese graphical tradition and find source of inspiration in traditional book format and illustration resembling ones of classical children books. Another such artist would be Tim Burton, with whom they both share some obvious traces of being influenced by Edgar Poe. Burton’s macabre imagery, distinctive dark colour palette and obvious interest in presenting his art in book format allows to draw parallel to “Book of Nineteen Nocturnes”. However, “Nineteen Nocturnes” lacks the same borderline playful tone and tenderness that, mixed with gothic and horror, create Burton’s distinctive style. Nevertheless, Holyoak is an artist with stronger practical knowledge, his book’s pages are full of intricate details and have complex composition, demonstrate lively interest in drawing technique and experimentation with various mediums- in other words, at least from the formal perspective Holyoak’s book is much richer.


Nowadays, when zines and small format, easy to print artist books are the main constituents of the independent book market, it will be a challenge for Holyoak to publish his huge book. He does not experiment with the way readers interact with book or tries to deconstruct it, nor he attempts to alter 

the format of the book. He is obviously traditional in his approach and by this successfully goes counter currents, returning relevance to old-style, big folio artist books which, it seemed, are completely lost to contemporary art discourse by being turned into expensive coffee table accessories. 

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