Thursday 20 December 2018

Clive Hodgson: Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours

(Please note: the following text contains a small plot detail from the film Being John Malkovich- while avoiding this paragraph will not affect one’s understanding of the text, it may spoil enjoyment of the film on first viewing.)

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

                                                         - Marianne Moore Poetry ('67 version) 

In 1967 Marianne Moore whittled her poem Poetry down to just four lines in a purposefully awkward enjambement (the earlier ‘complete’ version can be found at bottom). In it, she jettisons the twisty-turny epigrams and metaphors of the original to leave a practically perfect verse, which seems to generate its own form and content entirely from its own content and form. 

It’s not a poem about poetry, but an embodiment of poetry, a manifestation of it. Or rather, it is not so much a poem about what poetry is, as it’s a poem about what poetry doesn’t have to, isn’t always, but might, possibly, be. One discovers, in ones’ perfect contempt for it (Moore’s poem, that is), a place for the genuine. It says practically nothing about poetry, except that from a position of supreme doubt and scepticism, a small culture of ‘the genuine’ might be grown or encountered- whatever ‘the genuine’ might be... 

Crucially it is a ‘perfect’ contempt: an active ruthlessness is necessary for the possibility of the genuine. Ordinary contempt won’t do- as there’s just nowhere to go from ordinary contempt.

Clive Hodgson might justifiably be said to work from such a perfect contempt. Perfect disregard, disobedience, perfect disparagement. Not ironic or parodic contempt, but a perfect doubt and mistrust, Moore and Hodgson suggest, can clear a space for the genuine. 

Only when one accepts that one’s work is potentially without genuine value can the potential for value be genuinely cultivated. 

Startlingly, for a painter who focuses entirely on declaring his own name, Hodgson makes paintings from a place of total sceptical humility. Such a disarming ‘sceptical humility’ might equally be the best way to approach them as viewers.


Hodgson (b.1953), disillusioned by the figurative painting he’d been working with since the 1980’s, has in recent years abandoned all content bar the continuity of date and signature as a central motif. 

The name and date are the first things a viewer might notice in many of the paintings (already an inversion of convention) and are perhaps the first thing we are invited to consider.

For obvious reasons a signature has historically been something ancillary to the work of art- across time chased from the lower corners to the back of the canvas, and away altogether. In some cases, emphatic or declamatory- notably Courbet’s autographic signatures in large red lettering- but always implicitly something one should ‘ignore’. 

The signature disrupts illusion on the one hand, and pollutes abstraction with admin on the other. If it’s there at all it’s something we really shouldn’t notice. Yet it’s something which absolutely has to be contributing to the overall aesthetic effect in any painting where it’s present- usually also, effectively, dating the picture to some specific range of decades or centuries, depending on the ‘handwriting’, its placement etc. It also stresses the condition of the picture as a ‘made’ thing (in Courbet’s landscapes particularly the signature tempers the romanticism with this kind of conscious ‘picturing’).

The feeling it often gives is of a certain period of easel painting, the signature more like a cabinet maker or a silversmith’s mark of approval and carrying notions of production-line manufacture abhorrent to later modernism, as well as antiquarian connotations of ‘name’ collecting and bookish filing. 

Yet the signature contributes to the picture in other ways. It’s also a kind of affirmation- I’ll stand behind this thing (as a ‘place for the genuine’). A signed thing says, ‘ready to go’, ‘I endorse the above’, I’ll stand by what I’ve said, I’ve considered the terms and details carefully and accept them. It’s a form of contract binding artist and work, but also meaning the work is a package ready for delivery to a viewer. 

It also begs the question of where the ‘signature’ stops and the art begins- as the work itself is also, surely, some kind of cumulative signature (in an existential and material sense).  
Certainly, all the above aspects of the signature are much more slippery in Hodgson’s paintings, wherein the signature or date is pushed to the front. Even the notion that the naming and dating marks some kind of completion is misleading- often it’s clear that the signing and dating took place at some indeterminate earlier point, were perhaps the first marks made.

In starting and ending with the signature the paintings cancel out the content in between, in the same way as Moore’s super-condensed verse. Hodgson starts at the very end, a very good place to start...

But he doesn’t just start at the end- he stops there as well. They are paintings in which the content rambles around in short circles – while the wider, primary things like marks, colour and composition go off on elaborate, gymnastic triathlons. 

Hodgson estranges what seem, on the face of it, very simple implications of signing. We are left to wonder what, exactly, is the relationship between these marks, this object, and the year 2017, 2008, the person identified as C. Hodgson? Do they express something about him, existing, at that particular point in his and our lives? Or do they simply register the activity of their own making? Are the decorative elements ‘signed’ by the names and dates, or are the swirls and marks purely there to decorate the signatures? Do the swirls and decoration (comically) aggrandize the signatures, or do the signatures aggrandize the decoration? Is it a picture of the date signed by the artist, or a picture of a signature, dated? Where should our attention go (round in circles)? 

In Being John Malkovich, the actor (playing himself and through a series of unlikely events) enters a parallel world where every person, image and word is replaced with his name and likeness- he speaks ‘Malkovich Malkovich’, and is answered, ‘Malkovich Malkovich’. 

It is a more extreme version of the feeling Hodgson must have in the studio (perhaps many painters do, at some level), or the feeling a viewer might feel when surrounded by his paintings in a gallery. Which might be absurd, but it also speaks of the way our own inescapable selves cannot help but be inscribed on everything we experience. It also speaks of the way in which our own names, likenesses, biographies (the furniture of one’s existence), can appear strangely alien from our ‘selves’ (whatever they might be). There is a feeling that Hodgson is trying to establish some kind of connection to the abstract symbology with which we navigate our time on the planet- our names, the year, the days of the week. Or the lack of recognition when we hear our own names called, or see them printed, or the way they sound strange when we have to introduce ourselves. Or even just the chasm of meaninglessness that opens up when a word is repeated often enough (the abstract language of a person’s name particularly).  

I don’t think Hodgson makes paintings about alienation though. I think, rather, that they can be letters of invitation, to join him in a small corner of the ‘place for the genuine’.
Hodgson’s work is generous, and his works are almost like extremely terse but cheering correspondence from an existentialist pen pal. The paintings are more like letters or parcels- and not formal letters but utilitarian notes, requests, claims of ownership, identification– things signed so that they might be properly addressed, in the hope that they might find the correct recipient or be returned to sender. 

 They are like empty envelopes, parcels filled only with polystyrene beans. Blank messages marked only by their posting. Sometimes the marks swirl and fizzle out like confetti and streamers- as if from a doleful party popper. It's the thought that counts.


It’s very much something specific to painting that Hodgson can go on repeating this motif without repeating himself (a set of songs, each containing the singer’s name sung in a variety of melodies, might get tiresome more quickly, or a film consisting only of a well-designed set of titles/credits).  

This is partly to do with the ‘signature’ being standard issue painting kit- it’s part of the furniture of painting, it's 'allowed' (even to people who might not think about painting a great deal, a signature in one of the bottom corners- along with a picture frame- must seem part of the basic paraphernalia of a painting, a surprisingly strong part of what an 'imagined' painting is, to the extent that it's almost caricature). But it’s also to do with how painting displays and deals with information and attention, how we can ignore (to some degree) the signature, how parts can be subsumed into the whole, the verbal and non-verbal. For the overriding theme of Hodgson’s painting is not the narrowness of his ‘limited’ signature and date motif, but conversely the sheer diversity that can be achieved within such limits.

It should also be made clear that as much as we might ponder the significance of the name and date, they are also present as a neutral, generative element- one that staves off certain ‘looks’ associated with abstraction (a field as loaded with symbolism, ideology and inherited ‘meaning’ as any in painting) while giving something to hang the works’ improvisations on. And of course, part of the excitement of Hodgson’s ongoing work is seeing how he can keep going and going with the same basic motif, how he can keep pulling hankies out of the hat. 

Besides the signatures there are consistent visual motifs, a consistent approach to colour and composition across the paintings, which can in turn be sub-divided into looser or tighter groups. Similarly, each ‘year’ seems to produce a set of paintings more closely related to each other than to paintings from across the years (though certain forms and strategies are also re-deployed and re-cycled within and across these groups). Which is all to say that, taken purely as a maker of abstract paintings, Hodgson has a compellingly ‘alive’ oeuvre. 

The paintings from around 2008-2011 are often slightly barer and in a more subdued palette; by 2012 they’ve taken on more of a mixed language of cornicing, acanthus, arrow, dart, spades and diamonds, rosettes, etc. (many of which are no longer to be found as things have become more gestural); there are recurrent ‘spot’ paintings and paintings of Catherine wheel-like circles or sprinkled doughnut targets; from 2015 onwards there have been more paintings which are explicitly marks on a blank ‘white’ background, as well as things that look more airbrushed or sprayed, accompanied by a leaning towards primaries rather than sherbety, pastel-greyed tertiaries. 

Often the biggest canvases are the ones with the least amount going on (his variety and consciousness of scale is always compelling). 

They can look like a combination of decorative details from Roman, Pompeian and Renaissance painting (which Hodgson has acknowledged an interest in) but also a host of other things; the swirly/geometric whorls and diagonals of 1950’s neckties; the pencilled notes and diagrams on plastered walls pre-paper or painting; school jotters, doodles on exam papers, mock-ups and maquettes; or more accurately, the exploratory range of marks made when trying out a new tool, material or surface; ruled lines, pen squiggles, paint splodges, a new set of stencils overlapping (it’s always advisable to look for the literal ‘spade’s a spade’ associations within Hodgson’s place for the genuine). There’s a hint of pulpy print culture, a certain kind of strip cartoon- the economy and humour have a Charlie Brown, Peanuts tone- the spacing between the letters like a filled-in crossword puzzle or a looped word-search.  

Often he defies easy balances within a composition- the ‘wonky’ is welcomed. Non-art methods of mark making are also shamelessly undisguised- sponge stamp and patterning, stencilling, spattering and stippling. Sometimes he does surprisingly little, and often it’s the signature that lifts it, that reconfigures and reorganizes the marks as something worthy of the fine art signature/seal of approval- and something worthy of his and our attention. It’s something of a playful challenge- how would it be if it was the kind of world in which this kind of painting existed, and I appreciated it?- playful but still to an extent confrontational (perhaps it’s our tastes we have to confront?). Hodgson and Moore both seem to see ‘poetry’ or the ‘genuine’ as something we have to imagine ourselves into recognizing (...imaginary gardens with real toads in them). We have to acquire a taste for the genuine.

The signature also protects them from seeming to come from a tradition of floating, earnest abstraction, or from the gestures being demonstrably about a certain type of gesture- it makes the marks come across as pictures of marks, in a way, paintings of abstract paintings. Model abstracts.

As much as Hodgson has said he wants to avoid the connotations of specialised hobbyist interests such as model railways and so on, there is a sense within the work that he is aware of the paintings as part of an obsessive interest in a potentially pointless and rarefied enterprise, a kind of hopelessly arcane pastime for sad cases; though it’s also kind of clear that he knows they are not. They transcend such notions, partly through their humour and partly through the kind of crazy strength in his commitment to this enterprise, and to his sustained and specific interest in painting as an activity in itself, broken down and built up from the simplest or most wayward means.

They are a kind of anarchic ‘alternative’ abstraction, alt-aesthetics.

The paintings refuse to play standardized games of layering, ‘seriousness’ or expressivity- and emerge as deeply (sometimes comically) moving, faulty material translations of the baffling patterns of life, feeling and thought.

They explore the potential for different kinds of decorative motifs or setups to have different ‘moods’, different speeds of thought, different cerebral-emotional registers. They have a child-like, filling-in space kind of quality- but with the added melancholy of filling up time. They seem first and foremost something to do.  

Decoration is a very human language. Anyone can basically decorate or embellish with little flourishes in the corner, round the edges, join the dots, connect the lines, put boxes around words or letters. Anyone can drop shadows. Draw around an outline. Make a pattern. We are organisms that like to fill space (and time) even just for the sake of it (and we don’t tend to let things pass without ‘personalizing’ them- adapting existing structures to our own particular temperaments, or adding what we can to an existing practice).

But art also takes great pains to counter this impulse, to temper addition with subtraction, heaviness with lightness, slowness with quickness (and one feels Hodgson is a natural contrarian, even, perhaps especially, unto himself).  

Hodgson’s wish to ‘make something with very little reference to mass...something very light and dispersed’ recalls Italo Calvino’s appeal to ‘Lightness’ as one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino talked of wanting to launch himself like an arrow, of subtracting weight from the world, about lightness, quickness etc. as literary values going back to Ovid’s Metamorphosis- images of sudden transformations or bounding leaps, Baron Munchausen pulling himself and his horse up by the tail and pigtails, Mercury’s winged sandals-

Hermes-mercury, god of communication and mediation...inventor of writing...mercury with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects...

Hodgson’s buoyant ‘memos’ are of a piece with this dispersed, airy, logic defying literature -if there is a logic it’s the protean logic of meandering, objectless daydreaming, or of boredom evading flights of fancy. Hodgson leaps over standardized pictorial organizations, contents, compositions, clears space (he also recalls the- sometimes arbitrary- generative systems of the 'Oulipo' group to which Calvino belonged, restricting himself to using the date and signature the painting equivalent of refraining from using the letter ‘e’, for example). 

What’s startling is that Hodgson manages to make such leaps through ‘meaningless’ marks and flourishes alone- through pure ‘composition’. In this he particularly brings to mind Flaubert’s famous (proto-modernist) 1852 letter to Louise Colet-

What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.

As with Hodgson, it’s an appeal to the work forming its own content. 

Various modernist schools would junk the idea of having wider constructed ‘meanings’ within a work, in favour of using blank generic subjects on which to hang demonstrations of their latest formal innovation or novelty. Yet the resulting works would still be tied to appearances and associations in some degree, while later abstraction would conversely come loaded with a rediscovered notion of meaning and significance (often quasi-spiritual). 

To be truly blank and vacant while remaining compelling is quite a feat. As James Elkins writes in his study of ‘meaningless/meaningful marks’, the attempt for language to self-cancel, to be eloquently and fluently senseless, is a difficult task- 

It is, perhaps unexpectedly, not easy to make a disorderly picture and supremely difficult to create a powerfully and profoundly disordered picture. The process of drawing near to meaninglessness is like the physicist’s problem of reaching absolute zero: at first it seems that you can just turn down the temperature, but then it becomes clear that there is tremendous resistance, inherent in the medium itself, to any close approach to the perfect absence of meaning...

Is decoration, for Hodgson, a kind of ‘strongly imagined disorder’? Strong and somehow almost inevitable, but also almost totally resistant to ‘meaning’? His approach to expunging content seems to be about embracing the idea of the decorative rather than pure ‘style’ as such (the strongly imagined disorder in Pollock, for example, carries far too many connotations for comparison with Hodgson’s spatters and stipples). They are physically, materially, intellectually what they are (purposefully blank and vacant?). Similarly, the naming and dating is a kind of negation of language’s meaning generating and expanding properties- they are dead end, self-cancelling language, anti-metaphorical and purely 'labelling' signifiers. And despite or because of all this, Hodgson still manages to smuggle in so much melancholy, elation, puzzlement, curiosity...

Perhaps the project is one in search of eloquence? Or a different kind of eloquence? An anti-eloquence? 

In a way it’s the rambling articulation of inarticulateness that goes on in the work of Samuel Beckett, wherein the impossibility of ‘saying’ anything is measured against the absurd impossibility of not saying something.

Beckett spent his career reducing language till barely intelligible. The implications of this reduction are twofold: that on the one hand ‘meaning’ cannot be killed by reduction, and that meaning is therefore meaningless, is all in our heads, is a projection, a spook. We cannot help but say and mean, reality cannot help it, cannot help but be within and outwith language, and therein lies the trap.

Meaning and depth are for Beckett a projection, an illusion. Yet also an inescapable one, literally a haunting one, and his whittled, sharpened works consistently attempt to exorcize this ghost, to puncture an aperture in themselves, for language and meaning to be sucked out into the open and forced to cancel each other out. In a similar way, Hodgson’s paintings play with and frustrate the fact that we are meaning attachers, projectors, hunters. As he writes himself -

At some point painting becomes more articulate in its own right because it becomes isolated from carrying messages, so the ornament thing is familiar but it carries no message. Things easily seem to get too symbolic or have very strong geometric connotations, for example in a Euclidian way or a Platonic way, and then it begins to seem like symbolism again. I was looking for where the painting seemed real to me in the way that decorative painting seemed real. Something begins to happen because there aren’t any points of reference for meanings.

It’s therefore in the decorative that Hodgson finds his ‘place for the genuine’ (as Nick Lowe- almost- said, it’s ‘Pure Painting for Now People’). He’s someone for whom depiction (like language), as it stands just now historically and for him personally, seem a bit too deceitful, or a bit too much like admitting failure. And if paintings generally fail, Hodgson’s ‘fail again, fail better’.


Some final bits.

I hesitate to use the word ‘jazzy’, but there’s something rather like hearing a pared-down piano improvisation to Hodgson (perhaps even unexpectedly, as if hearing something exciting from someone who’s just sat down at an out of tune pub upright). It recalls the kind of double negative inversion in many statements attributed to Thelonious Monk: There are no wrong notes- some are just more right than others; there are no wrong notes on the piano- just better choices; I played the wrong wrong notes etc.

Indeed Hodgson has spoken about a restlessness with whatever his work has started to look like at a given time, each addition or subtraction leading to an inverse subtraction or addition (I can work on a certain number of paintings till something rises up within me that says, if this has got such and such quality, what would happen if it did not have that quality?)

I’ll leave Geoff Dyer, in an extract from But Beautiful- his great book on Jazz- to talk about Monk, and about Hodgson, and Moore, and their sparsely decorated places for the genuine-  

If monk had built a bridge he’d have taken away the bits that are considered essential until all that was left were the decorative parts- but somehow he would have made the ornamentation absorb the strength of the supporting spars so it was like everything was built around what wasn’t there. It shouldn’t have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment just as Monk’s music always sounded like it might get wrapped up in itself...


Marianne Moore

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers that there is in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful; when they become so derivative as to become
      unintelligible, the
   same thing may be said for all of us—that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand. The bat,
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician—case after case
      could be cited did
      one wish it; nor is it valid
         to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
      make a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
      the result is not poetry,
   nor till the autocrats among us can be
     “literalists of
      the imagination”—above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness, and
      that which is on the other hand,
         genuine, then you are interested in poetry.