Artist Camille Holvoet is talking about Coca-Cola. "All the caffeine in the Coke," she says, "it makes me break things. I want Coke to be improved, like put no caffeine and put in a lemon slice. And Dr. Pepper -- I wish they would put more tartness into those dark drinks."
Holvoet, now 63 years old, is an artist at San Francisco-based studio Creativity Explored, a space for artists with developmental disabilities to cultivate and show their work. Those who've worked with Holvoet describe her as voracious, seductive, curious and a "particularly picky, perfect goddess" -- the latter being title of her last solo show.
"What are the soda ingredients? What do they look like?" Holvoet then asks. She pauses for a moment, seemingly mulling over the barely pronounceable insides of the syrupy beverages. "You don’t see it, but you taste it. What are ingredients anyway? The story of the life of drinks?"
Holvoet has a tendency to turn mundane yet peculiar observations into baffling questions and profound resolutions. Similarly, her artworks, often made of oil pastel and watercolor, transform everyday treats into loaded ideograms, packed not only with calories but memories, fears and cravings.
Sugar, frosting, cherries, pills, bodies, ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, cheese -- these are the ingredients that make up Holvoet's body of work. Like the strange lovechild of Wayne Thiebaud and Dorothy Iannone, Holvoet generously offers her viewers an all-you-can-see buffet of edible indulgence, bulging at the seams.
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Desserts are, for many, reserved for special occasions -- birthdays or weddings or that special day at the fair. As such, biting into a richly stuffed layer cake, slurping up the cherry on top, can be an alternative form of time travel, triggering memories and urges and smells with every scrumptious bite. For Holvoet, such associations are visceral, yet bittersweet.
"I like to draw desserts because they taste good," she explains, "but they didn’t let me have too much dessert before. They were always taking the cake away from me for what I did wrong."
Holvoet, born in San Francisco, was sent by her family at a young age to live in a hospital due to behavioral issues. They eventually stopped visiting. Holvoet's drawings revisit memories from their time together -- some happy, others less so. "It was some kind of weight loss thing and some kind of punishment but I want to get dessert. They didn’t let me get dessert."
Back in the 1950s, while still living at home, Holvoet's sister taught her how to draw using a blackboard. "I used to draw tic-tac-toe, like stick drawings, with a round head. You know what I mean?" she asks. "Then I got older and now I know how to draw better. I know how to draw a Christmas branch and tree lights and ornaments and little packages. When I was little I couldn’t draw like that. When I was like five or six years old."
Now, after 14 years at Creativity Explored, Holvoet is one of the studio veterans. For ten years, she worked with visual arts instructor Gilles Combet, who in an interview with Jayinee Basu, described the artist as "an earth goddess sitting on a throne with attendants fulfilling her many desires while she exercises her generosity upon us, mere mortals. Camille is voracious and generous, very crazy and very grounded. You can easily fall for her even while she is driving you crazy!"
Earth goddess. Voracious and generous. Holvoet wants everything all at once, one extreme and its opposite, dinner and two desserts. She is ravenous, and not just for food. Some of her most compelling works yearn for wellness, love, temperance and sex.
In "The Picky Perfect Goddess, Camille," Holvoet depicts herself, in watercolor and pen, naked and cross-eyed. Behind her, against a white backdrop, words are scrawled and squished together in one continuous, all-caps breath.
"I AM GOD PEOPLE WILL COME TO ME AND LOVE ME AND PRAY... I WANT HEAD CHEESE ICE CREAM CAKE CUP CAKE... SEX SEXY SEXUAL DEZIER... TRAUMA ARTICULATE MUMBLE FIDDLE SHY." Basu calls the text a "transcript of the orgasming mind," with various urges spilling out at maximum force and speed. Holvoet possesses the type of hunger that can eat you right back, inciting hallucinations and elation before revealing the emptiness in your belly where food should be.
Holvoet's erotic urges are every bit as intense and immediate as her sweet tooth. In Colin Rhodes' introductory essay to Raw Erotica, he defines the term "rawerotics" as "a singular theory or science of love constructed without recourse to cultural convention," a word which feels applicable to Holvoet's work. As with many artists living and working outside the societal mainstream, including Johann Korec and Ody Saban, creation can become an outlet for sexual energy, one that often eclipses the physical act of sex.
Holvoet's self-portrait also lays bare her anxieties, nightmares and frustrations. Some more blatantly self-deprecating works depict prescription bottles, reading "FORGETTING CRUSHES AND CRAZYNESS" or "FOR OBSESSION FOR BREAKING THINGS FOR FOCKUSING MAKE IS HAPPYNESS." Others feature words surgically combined in Holvoet's imagination, terms like "accepment," "youngry," and "outspiration." The word medleys feel pumped with desire themselves, as if reaching for a jucier meaning that doesn't quite exist yet. It's one word eating another whole, with its tail dangling out of the mouth.
For Holvoet, sugar, it seems, is both a cure and a poison. "I’m a destroyer I think," she said. "I destroy things when I have too many treats." And yet, cupcake by cupcake, Holvoet is, slowly, devouring the world, tasting its sugary insides and introducing them to her own. The stories they symbolize, the memories they recall, the desires they trigger, all are part of her ever-bulging food pyramid.
Holvoet's status as an Earth goddess of sorts is obvious. In our short conversation, I craved more of her stories, was stumped by her questions, floored by her poetic observations, strangely beguiled the way the she capped most sentences by repeating my name. Holvoet gives as much as she gets, stimulates as much as she desires. She eats her cake and shares it too.
Despite her unusual story and singular artwork, Holvoet's greatest challenges as an artist are relatively universal. "Unfocus," she says. "Distracted. Getting frustrated. I get emotionally thirsty sometimes. Mostly thirsty." On the other end of our phone call, I hear the muffled sound of a gulp of water.
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