I’ve been thinking about Howard Hodgkin.
He’s been on my mind because he roots his work in memory. They are very particular memories of people places and experiences which he captures in paintings that look very abstract. They could in fact be abstract, but we’re told by Hodgkin that they’re not. He says that he’s a representational painter who’s just not interested in appearances. And I believe him. I believe that he is laser focused on the memories and that they provide gravity to his essays in colour and material and action that might otherwise float off into a world of infinite sensual play where they’d get lost in nothingness. The memories are the grit in his oyster. Without them he would be making, and we would be looking at, mush.
Not that we, the audience have any chance of inhabiting those moments in any normal sense, but it’s easy enough to accept the premise that his swathes of colour and blobs and marks reconstruct some particular, lived experience in a synesthetic manner and, once accepted, the paintings gain the intriguing specificity of an ancient language or alphabet. We know they mean something even if we don’t know what.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about him because of a set of drawings I began before Christmas. They couldn’t be more different from Hodgkin’s work but they do share one thing: they draw from particular memories that anchor them in lived experience: In the case of my drawings, a pub I worked in for 18 months in the early nineties.
The difference is that, while Hodgkin is not interested in appearance, I am and mucking about with appearance complicates things in ways that can frustrate the aim, if the aim is to represent things honestly (that’s another thing Hodgkin and I share). Why? Because, while the rules and routines that govern appearance and its depiction are not narrow, they are learnt and to that extent can, if you’re not careful, re-enforce the general at the expense of the particular. Or to put it more plainly, they can make interesting things dull.
This is why I sympathise with Hodgkin’s words. They make sense, as did the cubists and a host of other twentieth century artists who thought of appearance as nothing more than a masquerade that obscured the truth of things. The logic is irresistible. Appearance is a trick that pollutes, not just the intention but the action AND the experience.
It’s a problem, like washing in a pool of dirty water made muddy by countless others. What chance is there of getting clean? None.
But then again, what are the chances that I will submit to the logic, empty the pool of dirty water and, like many artists such as Hodgkin, replace it with the clean stuff ?
An old tutor of mine was very dismissive of Hodgkin. He regarded him as quintessentially elitist, giving altogether too much weight to the artist’s private moments which, despite all protestations to the contrary, would remain forever closed to us. I would nod in energetic agreement. I didn’t like the sound of elitists at all! What a ponce he must be! I thought.
I am no longer so dismissive of him and while I’m more interested in what he’s said than what he’s done, I am also much less convinced that any art can dismantle boundaries between producer and public without erecting new ones.
I had some fun the other day playing around with Hodgkin’s quote to see what some substitutions could throw up. They’re mostly stupid but some are vaguely plausible. Here are a few alternatives:
I’m an abstract artist who’s interested in appearance
I’m an abstract artist who’s not interested in colour, materials, marks or making.
I’m a digital artist who’s not interested in the computer
I’m an abstract artist who’s not interested in freedom
I’m a romantic artist who’s not interested in feelings
I’m a conceptual artist who’s not interested in ideas
I’m beginning to feel like Jack Nicholson in the Shinning