|Georgina Gratrix, Untitled, 2008, |
monotype with Intaglio ink and oil paint
on 250g Zerkall litho paper, 77.6 x 55.5cm
For much of his mature career Hodgins occupied an unrivalled position in local contemporary art. Remaining vital in a period that saw numerous key artists failing to make the transition from being anti-apartheid rhetoricians to post-liberation artists,Hodgins remained a prodigious maker of images, his critical edge and flair for social satire remaining undimmed until the end of his life.
Key to Hodgins’s prolific output was his methodology, one of speculative daubing and focused play, loosely undertaken until something began to emerge on the canvas. He famously likened his painting practice to that of a surfer, bobbing out in the waves waiting for his ‘set’. Though disciplined in routine, working in his studio each day, Hodgins nonetheless spent much of his studio time toying with colour, waiting for something useful to emerge from this experimentation.
The results were often astounding: the triptych The Triple Gates of Hell (1985-86), owned by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, is a peerless achievement in South African contemporary painting, using colour like nothing before or since. The work deals in a politicised green, a colour more readily associated with soft-focus notions of regeneration and growth than politically edged satire. On Hodgins’s brush,the hue becomes the green of the billiard table in the mansion game’s room, or that of the manicured lawn behind a 12-foot high wall in a leafy suburb. Also, without lapsing into overwrought depictions of the body so voguish in the 1980s, this work (along with the 1986 acrylic A Beast Slouches) established Hodgins as this country’s premier painter of the human form. Like Philip Guston, whom he cited as a strong influence, Hodgins remained open to finding shorthand means of picturing the human condition, without diminishing the gravity of his content.
One senses, though, that the real value of this picture lies in Hodgins’s ability to conjure possibility from coloured stains on fabric: in his triptych Hell is as much a place of decadent promise as it is of torment. Torment itself is rendered ambiguous, operating here without any of the cues so often favoured by drawing, printmaking and poster art of the period – high chiaroscuro, repetitious primary colours and loaded imagery. Although Hodgins was to collaborate with artists like William Kentridge numerous times throughout his life, it is clear from his wondrous triptych that his take on the fears and desires that maintained apartheid was in a different league his collaborator’s. In many of Hodgins’s subsequent works, commentary was informed by a full grasp of the terrible expediencies that prop up systems of exploitation. As with the best tragicomedies, the storyteller’s depth lies in his allowing space for the audience to resonate with the agents of evil as much as it sympathizes with their fodder. In the 1990s Hodgins remained a consistent if somewhat quieter critic of society’s foibles. From the social (Off to the Charity Ball and Woman at a Goodman Gallery opening, both from 1999) to the political (The Orator, 1998), this period saw Hodgins perfecting his deployment of colour, always shot through with an acute sense of its potential to scour rather than placate. The horror of his more strident resistance works seemed mitigated in the 1990s by a humorous exploration of the banality of power gone wrong, akin to images by another great painter of his age, Leon Golub. Even Hodgins’s images of so-called “black sites” – sites in which covert and thus unaccountable military functioning is allowed to occur – which he discussed with me in 2007, dealt in a humour that precluded hair-trigger moral outrage. Throughout this period and until his recent passing in March 2010, Hodgins remained formally curious, inserting visual elements like spray paint, tape masking and collage into his process. He seemed genuinely, consistently interested in the potential of his medium to surprise both himself and his audience.
|Georgina Gratrix, People Eater, 2008, oil on Fabriano,|
People Eater (2008), by contrast, plays another art history-savvy game with a familiar notion. Assisted by its title, the picture recalls Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-23). This disturbing manifestation of unchecked patriarchy appears reversed here, the eaten progeny, all muddy pinks and slashes of cobalt blue, returning to grow somewhat inconveniently on the patriarch’s face.
|Michael Taylor, Jesus was an excellent dancer,|
2009, gouache on board,
45 x 45cm
Though the image is apparently quickly rendered, it reveals Taylor’s masterful command of colour, a vibrant confection of ice blues, murky taupes and camouflage greens. Over the top, as he so often does, Taylor has floated a visual disturbance of the base image, a flurry of brightly-coloured confetti, giving the satire a carnivalesque quality like the closing sequence of a TV dance competition show. The conflation of popular culture and religion is obvious, and the resulting satire of contemporary religion as pandering spectacle is incisive. About his developing relationship with colour, Taylor comments: “Recently I’ve started making ‘brown’ paintings; those colours that your art teacher at school warns you to not mix. I just like the idea that, like one would mask what’s being represented, you can also mask colour, and the communicative value of colours.”
|Michael Taylor, |
Ginger in the morning.
Ginger in the evening. Ginger at suppertime,
gouache on board,
60 x 60cm
In God is dashing. He’s French, you know (2009), Taylor conflates the deity with a type of super-dominant male archetype from pop culture. Reminiscent of 1970s cigarette adverts, with moustached European men dressed as pilots, ship’s captains or the like, the work is satirical in the extreme. Likening the Judeo- Christian God to an anachronistic, play-acting pilot from a commercial is as sharp a critique of modern religion as one is likely to find. And once again, it is the suggestibility of paint, with the title doubtless added after the image’s completion, that makes this a powerfully fresh exercise. Viewed against the cult of veracity that pervaded South African photography for many years (David Goldblatt’s precisely descriptive titles such as After their funeral, a child salutes the Cradock Four, Cradock, Eastern Cape 20 July 1985 prove that this faithfulness informed even the naming of works, as does Guy Tillim’s Wires to private generators, apartment block, Luanda, Angola, 2007), Taylor’s approach seems similar to Hodgins’s, attaching meaning to images once their terms and tendencies emerge from productive play.
In this paper I have tried to draw connections between the artists’ approaches to image making, in a way that highlights a certain shared openness, or at least open-endedness. This was done in an attempt to suggest a future value for colour painting in this country. There are many other young artists one could mention in this context: Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Matthew Hindley, Mustafa Maluka, Tom Cullberg – the dictates of brevity in this format prevent discussion of all of these. Yet, overall it is plain that one of the central points of the theme for this colloquium, “how in fact might we use or be using colour to express the complexity of human existence”, seems to have been asked and answered. It is clear that we do not, nor have we for the last 30 years, excised the expressive possibilities of colour from our collective practice, or relegated “bright colour to the realm of the merely decorative, the primitive, denying its complexity”. Colour, as it has through our bleakest passages of social history, continues to represent seas of possibilities for young artists, apparently undeterred by the concurrent orthodoxy of photography as dull as dishwater.
Michael Smith is an artist, educator and managing editor of artthrob.co.za