Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Like a splinter in your mind – driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?Neo: The Matrix?Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Ever since I was interested in art, I have always seen Howard Hodgkin as one of my artists whose work resonates strongly with me. In this review of Howard Hodgkin’s Absent Friends exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I want to explore, understand and put into words (if that is possible) what it is about Hodgkin’s paintings that have managed to turn mere paintings into objects of contemplation and hold my curiosity for so many years. At the same time say goodbye to another great artist; Howard Hodgkin died on 9th March 2017, two weeks before this show opened.
Howard Hodgkin was born in 1932. He studied at Camberwell School of Art between 1949-50 and Bath Academy of Art between 1950-1954. In 1985 Hodgkin won the Turner Prize and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. Since then he has gone on to exhibit across the world and has his work is in many private and public collections.
The art I expect to see at the portrait gallery normally refers to an anatomical likeness of a person in the traditions of pictorial realism. However, in this show, the paintings are titled as portraits that capture a memory of a person and a moment as a dematerialised idea imprinted on the mind. They are described by Hodgkin as ‘representational pictures of emotional situations’. The paintings capture realism as a complete expression of individuality, of both the artist and what he sees. Paint and colour refashion the world as he sees it. Hodgkin sees more than an individual likeness; he sees how the light falls to create abstract forms of intense emotion. He paints his thoughts from memory with swirls and splashes as a response to the flux of the world. The paintings are like a recording that captures a feeling, that took place between him and the person in the title.
Hodgkin once said, “Painting is like putting a message into a bottle and flinging it into the sea,” Observer article, 2001. Howard Hodgkin believed his paintings talk for themselves and often was reluctant to discuss the meaning behind his work. He was always happy for the viewer to see and interpret what they like from his deeply cherished moments.
The paintings are more like artefacts or an object rather than just paintings. Hodgkin worked slowly producing a maximum of 10 paintings a year. He laboured and agonised over them in an intense process, which is evident from the dates of the work and from listening to him discuss the torture he injured when painting. His artistry clearly lies in making something that took years to look like it was made in a couple of hours.
“It’s very hard to keep all the things going on in a painting, the feeling, the emotion, the memory; they have to turn into something else. The problem really is making the painting stand up by itself. The memory has to turn into a thing, into an object. And that is a very slow process for me.” Howard Hodgkin, BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Discs.
It was always clear to Hodgkin when a painting was finished and complete, as it captured his original idea that triggered the picture. He painted on used blackboards, kitchen worktop and old picture frames rather than canvas. He liked pieces of wood that already had an identity and a life. When walking through the chronological hung exhibition, it is evident to see how Hodgkin developed a confidence with colour through his career. Each painting has a strong, unique, distinctive character of swirls, curves, dots and lines in vibrant pigment, a collision of pattern and forms.
The painting that sums up Hodgkin’s painting practice for me is ‘Mrs K’, 1966-7. It is a portrait of Jane Kasmin. It reminds me of being in a dark room as someone enters from the far end through a closed door. The sun floods into the dark room, and a bold form of a figure interrupts the light, as you adjust your eyes. The painting opens up heartfelt sentiments of solitude and vulnerability. The painting challenges your visual psychological space, it encourages you to learn something new about the world about what realism could be or should be. In my eyes, the painting is a more accurate and truthful interpretation of human perception than traditional pictorial realism.
The impressive show with many well-lit rooms of high-quality work was a pleasure to visit. The exhibition delves deep into Hodgkin’s practice of painting, asking questions about our human construction of reality in this seemly meaningless world. Every single one of the paintings in this show feels like a battleground between the artist, materiality and reality. They are an expression of individuality of the artist and its subject; they are self-portraits of the artist and subject portraits wrapped up in one. Hodgkin created paintings that outlast the subject and the artist himself. A makeover of the world in paint, with the paint being the carrier of vibrant and radiant feelings. It is a joyful farewell to an outstanding artist.
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Allowing freedom in the studio for creative exploration is essential. When I work on a plain sheet of paper or in my sketchbook, I seek to have an openness in my drawings that allows and embraces a large number of directions and options that can be pursued. A chain of evolution takes place in my pictures over an extended period of time and patience is essential. Working on and towards a finished piece too early can make the outcome contrived and often can leave me frustrated.
This explorative phase is more like a problem-creation stage than a problem-solving stage. I am looking to generate new ideas to stimulate my visual imagination and leaving space for creativity and ambiguity. I have often found that without this freeness, the development and exploratory of my thoughts are restricted, and the work comes to a dead end.
With creative freedom in my drawings, my insight and intuition give me an inkling of what to do next allowing me to focus on specific issues and open questions. I can then remove certain details and concentrate on the whole by copying and repeating to expand conceptual ideas and structures by following a hunch.
Inspiration is an essential ingredient and can come from chaotic and imprecise work made with an open mind or by viewing another artist’s work or for me, by being inspired by the city. Accidents and chance can lead to seeing embedded ideas in a different way. The freeness leaves space to suggest moods and emotions and enhancing abstract concepts. I often feel the need to revisit unresolved ideas and expanding on them. Sometimes this leads to radical changes and often, exciting new artwork.
It is always important to remember that overworking can remove the essence, spirit, the actual original thoughts, and potential. The outcome is successful when the liberty and pleasure are still visible. After all seemingly effortless art signifies greatness and shows the way forward for an artist who can then capture what is immaterial into the material.
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Beginning an artwork
“In musical compositions, so long as we hear merely single tones, we do not hear the music. Hearing music depends on the recognition of the in-between of the tones, of their placing and their spacing.”
“visual equivalent of a tenor reaching a high note.”
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The Helsinki Bus Station theory:
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.
Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.
Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.
You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.