Robert Hodgins

Goodman Gallery | Johannesburg

Robert Hodgins, Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, 2005,oil on canvas, 60 x 60cm Sensuality, humour and the sinister blend seamlessly in Robert Hodgins’ current exhibition. The show, which astonishingly comprises close to 60 new works, in mediums from oil paint to spray paint, monoprints to etchings, demonstrates how precious Hodgins is to the local art world. Hodgins doesn’t skirt issues, and at age 87 continues, unabated, to reinvent himself and make brazen, even bodacious gestures in colour, line and composition. The tone of this exhibition, simply titled Hodgins at Goodman, is thematically more sinister than the artist’s previous . Hinged on the 1368 legend of the Battle of Cascina, in which the Florentines defeated a Pisan force, taking the men by surprise while they bathed in the Arno River, some of the works play with the realities set by the idea of men reduced to a state of vulnerability by their mortal enemies. A metaphor in this is the battle against time. Consequently, one could argue, this exhibition can be read as a collective portrait of the artist as a very old man, engaging with the realities of physical age from an informed vantage point, coloured, of course, by his usual levity and wryness. The figures are worn and torn and bent by the vagaries of living. These men and women, some naked, some clothed, some alone, some accompanied, offer a brave pretence at dignity, but are globular and lumpy in truth. Some, as in Most men lead lives of quiet desperation (2007) are blown to pieces by the stress, while others, like Nude in a Green Chair (2007), look like clumps of raw and sagging meat.Crime has never been far from Hodgins’ critical paintbrush, and he has over the years engaged with it obliquely and brutally, often using playwright Alfred Jarry’s Père Ubu character as a vehicle. Hold-ups in sleazy hotels and street crime, as well as debauchery and other social miseries are described by silent shouting mouths, contorted gesture and undiluted colour. Hodgins also looks at white-collar crime and office intrigue. Over the years, the suit (generally pin-striped) has come to represent not simply values of repression but also shifty wheeler-dealing. In his etched triptych Office (2007), businessmen are clumped together like illicit gossipers, individual body features not easily distinguishable; it is just the mass of suit elements that embrace their politicking. Comprising aquatint and sugarlift, the artist’s lines are sure, economical and unequivocal; there is no compositional fussiness about these works.Hodgins will always be most loved as a colourist, some of the works shown here palpably violent in this respect. Figures in a room (2007) offers a case in point. On the surface, the subject matter is demure and straightforward. But the terrifying red and black background is like a penetrating scream; it charges the atmosphere electrically.The exhibition meshes well in its sensuality, an observation that is not singly limited to the fleshiness of Hodgins’ nude bodies: there is sheer delight and madness, generally, in his use of colour, bold compositional sense, and economy of gesture, particularly when it comes to abbreviating a complex emotional human form into a couple of spontaneous shorthand squiggles.Hodgins’ application is also deft. In several works, the paint is very thinly applied, but he never shilly-shallies around colour, composition or subject matter, and the works are bold as they are entertaining and wise, his titles further evoking a cryptic sense of narrative. With his use of spray paint and stencils, there is an echo of Hockney (even though he cites Banksy here), but coupled with the social debauchery, crude gestures and thematic return to love and crime in Johannesburg, Hodgins’ latest work also reminds of Bacon, Dix and Grosz too.Hodgins’ criticism of the world with all its idiosyncrasies and foolishness is patent in this show, although his censure is not without empathy; consequently, the works gathered here are more delightful and irreverent than ever.
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