Writing Art History Since 2002

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Simon Mee Fine Art at The Gallery London

“The Earth is blue like an orange,” wrote surrealist poet Paul Eluard, “The wasps are flowering green.” There is a similarly paradoxical truth to Robert Hodgins’s pictorial logic in the way paint is pushed from formless beginnings into representation, colour counter-intuitively dictating form. Fat Man in an Armchair is a fauvist shock of red and yellow paint as liquid as blistered skin. Located at the back of the Cork Street gallery, its heat is palpable from the door.Hodgins’s practice continues to be rooted around the figure. The artist refers to people as “visual facts” whose behaviour and presence once observed becomes inflected by the artist’s combination of aleatory mark-making and empirical observation.The brooding menace of Man in a Green Suit emanates as much from the neckless dead weight of the figure pushing down to the bottom edge of the picture as from the clash of primary colours, red intimidating its complementary green into submission. Since the figure’s shirt is scarcely a shade deeper blue than the monochromatic background, the corpulence of the figure hollows out and flattens, the heavy red outlines of the features drip down onto the parameters of the striped green cloth, the tie a cadmium red lizard clinging to a fleshy chin. In a subtle operation of visual analogy and paraphrase, the “visual fact” of the man becomes psychologically ‘felt’. Often Hodgins’s backgrounds feel more physical than the beings framed against them. A Figure With No Past is scarcely more corporeal than the cursory touches of paint that describe it. Hodgins seems driven by the challenge of exteriorising the intrinsic that may be specific to a particular person or to a wider national character.And politics does occasionally rear its head. Hodgins has said that for him “Africa is colour, strangeness, alienness”. Question Time depicts two stunted George Grosz spivs in suits casting long shadows in an oppressive Mondrian interior, whilst in Interrogation Room a bloody-faced inmate – perhaps even torturer – cranes his neck towards us with a maniacal grin bound in a yellow straightjacket that shouts Guantanamo. But in the main these recent paintings by Hodgins, exhibited in April under the title From a Far South, continue the themes and subjects of his 2003 series, when the artist installed himself in a studio on London’s Brick Lane to reconnect with childhood memories of the East End’s interwar topography. Nearly 70 years after emigrating he brought to bear on its grimy mnemonic vistas the expansive effects of colour garnered from a lifetime in South Africa.The sky in Stormy Weather is a vorticist shock of puce. At the still centre of Hodgins’s painting two striding male figures clash where a bright yellow streetscape abuts pink sky, just as stylised rain begins to fall between them. The figure on the left extends a fist in a straight-arm frozen punch connecting with his counterpart and opening up clear white canvas between them. An act of aggression or bonhomie? Characteristically, the uncertainty and tension Hodgins evokes in his subjects is counteracted by a bathetic humour where colour operates with a kind of jaunty foreboding to underscore the emotional complexity of the picture. One painting in the hang stands out, not only for its more traditional subject but also for its slightly earlier date. Painted in 1999, the artist’s 80th year, Hodgins combines the art historical vanitas motif with his own Elizabethan literary leanings (elsewhere a title quotes Marlowe love poetry). Titled A John Webster painting: A Grinning Skull Wrapped in a Shroud, the work hovers between abstraction and figuration, where livid purpureal brushmarks applied wet on wet form a skull to suggest dermis still attached to bone, a paint-as-flesh carapace atop blank rectangles edged in red and green containing strange hieroglyphs. The muscularity of Hodgins’s thinking in pictorial form is made all the more telling for the subject being the frailty of flesh. Instinct becomes pure expression shaped by compositional reason, and yet for all the basis of the work in empirical perception, a Hodgins painting maintains a disarming ingenuousness. At the end of John Webster’s The White Devil, the author (in epilogue) evaluates the play’s action as being “for the true evaluation of life, without striving to make nature a monster”. The maxim serves Hodgins’s artistic output well.

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