Robert Hodgins at Joáo Ferreira
by Paul Edmunds
Incorrigible (in the best possible way of course) best describes him. Robert Hodgins has stuck it out for so long, producing countless paintings which always appear fresh, but never completely unexpected. Incorrigible also in the way he takes so many formal and conceptual risks and gets you to believe in them, to trust him, despite the fact that he's usually one step ahead. His subject matter is not always light and breezy, but he draws you in with such great aplomb and you always find yourself such a willing participant. His canvasses (and oil on paper monotypes) fill Jo�o Ferreira's airy new upstairs space and adjacent passage with images that delight, confound, confuse and amaze.
The first thing people often say, and I hesitate to mention this, is that Hodgins reminds them of Francis Bacon (I'm no fan). The simple, central poses of both artist's figures, the sparsely described spaces in which they are found and the peculiar painterly distortion of features employed by both is what, I think, evokes this comparison. But, while Bacon chooses a visceral, circuitous route to the heart of the viewer, Hodgins goes straight for the cerebral cortex. His colour is acidic and corrosive, his wit acerbic and his eye can be as accurate as it is jaundiced. It often twinkles too.
The modest size of What's your case, heh? (2003) does not detract from the brutality of its subject, nor the horror of hearing such words spoken to you by such a bully. In contrast to the thin blue and red washes from which he is composed, and because he spills over the painting's format (barely restrained by the dull khaki background), this is one undesirable character. Hodgins, however, delighting in the slope-shouldered meatiness of his subject, dilutes the threat and almost affectionately ridicules this East Rand joller. Ek sal jou 'n klap gee (2001) is a larger, more physical work which sees a ham-fisted brute shoving away his cowering spouse, whose barely described features contain so much. But the formal devices and wiry domestic scene once again remove the power of the central antagonist.
When Hodgins pulls back his lens and opts for the panoramic view of the cinema, he reveals more of his propensity for acute observation. The West: The Old Cowboy (2002/3) sees this mythic hero still looming large but just a little withered. Rendered in a broad, easy brushstroke of red and orange, the kink in the crown of the old timer's hat is mirrored by a fortuitously placed valley. The distant canyons and buttes in the background are home to some diminutive horses and riders who are as insubstantial as scraggy desert plants. As irreverent as this portrait is, and however much the cowboy calls to mind the clich�d steer skull in the desert, there is a measure of pathos for the sitter.
I'm the Boss (2002) and The Man behind the Desk (2001) are less sympathetic renderings of men at the top of their game. In the former, the CEO's precisely masked pinstripes spill off his suit and fill the cold blue format like prison bars. These are only penetrated by his leery grin and the faint, sickly glow of the fluorescent tube behind him. Hodgins is also capable of affection and we see this in the monotypes My Mad Aunts (2003) and Waiting for Mr. Right (2003). He renders these two, possibly twins, (I assume they are real people) with great warmth and good humour. The Governess (2003) too is not as fearsome as she might hope. The pastel pink matte background deflates her stern posture and the smudged paint which describes her face suggest a small baby as much as a cranky old spinster.
It would be impossible, if not negligent, to ignore the great delight Hodgins takes in his various media. The flat, uniform fields of colour made possible by his monotype technique are obviously attractive to Hodgins. So too are the possibilities suggested by the smudging of this colour and the potential for masking areas. Were it not for the considered composition and extraordinary shapes of Lady in the Dark (2003), one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a CMYK printing experiment. In the bottom right of the vertical format a figure described by unusually sharp outlines seems to shift in and out of register, revealing overlapping swathes of primary colours and the secondaries and tertiaries produced by their combination. The dark, uncertain background is obviously produced by the complete overlapping of the primaries and is a somewhat threatening presence for paper-thin protagonist in the corner.
Opening 6pm, Monday February 10
Closes: March 1
João Ferreira Gallery, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
Tel: 021 423 5403 or 082 490 2977
Fax: 021 423 2136
Hours: Tue - Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm