Monday 1 July 2019

Message is a Bottle: Clive Hodgson's Still Life

I'm breaking through
I'm bending spoons
I'm keeping flowers in full bloom
I'm looking for answers
From the great beyond...

- REM, The Great Beyond 

For pictorial propositions which so emphatically declare their maker’s name, Clive Hodgson's paintings sail perilously close to impassive anonymity. Hodgson (b.1953), disillusioned by the figurative painting he’d been working with since the 1980’s, has for pretty much the last decade abandoned all ‘content’ or subject matter bar the continuity of date and signature [1-3.]. Almost all subject matter: on show at Arcade Gallery (London) until July are Hodgson’s still lifes, made in parallel with the abstract ‘signature’ works since 2006 but previously un-shown. 




On first glance the still lifes could seem just as blankly ‘anonymous’ as the signatures which identify them (as Hodgson’s and as ‘Hodgsons’). Their sometimes curiously neutral realism recalls that of Jean Helion’s return to illusionism in the 1950’s [5.], a certain chalky functionalism that simultaneously emphasizes and short-circuits the allegorical or symbolic nature of the objects depicted (we imagine them to be significant while/because the ‘style’ protests they are not).

 Like signatures, simple still lifes are part of painting’s furniture: pictures of apples in modelled shadow, a signature bellow, are almost a cartoon idea of painting, are perhaps what people think of when they think ‘painting’. The still life from 2010 which promotes the Arcade show (it’s absent from the gallery presentation) [4.] certainly has a kind of strip cartoon feel: with its over-sized signature, floating central image surrounded by blankness, and hatched lines for shading (breaking with still prevalent taboos, Hodgson frequently treats the stretched canvas more like a sheet of drawing paper) it’s something like what happens when a famous cartoonist translates their work into paint, or is called on to make a single-sheet museum, collector’s or demonstration piece. It reads C. Hodgson, but it could equally be C. Schulz. 



A ‘signed’ cartoon is a familiar trope of the form, perhaps an essential one. It suggests pretentions to greatness or notoriety, popularity, respect, but also satirizes itself- the cartoonist is eminent, if only in the funny papers. The cartoonist’s signature is practically an implicit part of the punchline (a visual rimshot, it effectively says ‘The End’, only more dryly), while raising (in theory) the status of the ‘joke’ to something more profound, more art-like, helps it land (literally) with more ‘authority’. It co-opts fine art demarcations of reputation and providence in an ephemeral and popular form. Cartoonists sign their work more as one would sign-off an informal letter, a conversational, fourth-wall breaking, authorial intervention; they occupy a space somewhere between disabused everyman and auteur, which is aligned with their sense of unfussy formal economy.


The equal pathos or bathos of the signature, with its layered associations of skill, craft, quality, value, identification, finish, originality, posterity, mortality and (particularly) false or genuine modesty, goes right back to the origins of western oil painting. Jan van Eyck, unique amongst 15th century painters working in the Netherlands in that many of his canvases were signed (literally sating van Eyck was here [6.]),  frequently included inscriptions which ran variants along the line of ‘As I Can’: possibly referring to the medieval literary practice of prefacing a work with an apologia, while also punning on his own name with the doubly conceited meaning of ‘as [only] I [Eyck] can’.


Hodgson’s signatures frequently prompt this kind of bathetic humour- the signature, in the abstract works at least, functioning as both setup and punchline, decorative squiggles and autograph flimsily propping one another up (we might think back to the many unstable arrangements of Chardin, the house-of-cards foundations at the heart of art and and life’s pretentions). Content, such as it is, tends to loop back on itself in a Hodgson. Indeed, signatures and simple still lifes set up simultaneous indications towards and cancellations of ‘meaning’, ‘significance’: names are perhaps the most limited of verbal propositions, and yet the signature is the key to Hodgson’s content- and to his complexity- while we are rightfully sceptical about the symbolic or metaphorical significance or potential in 2019 of apples, cups, books, tables, of whether we should take these things for what they are and for what they are only.

Hodgson’s signatures continue to play a vital role in the reception, inferred tone, even character of the paintings. Sometimes the only hang-over from the abstract works, the only identifiers that they come from the same practice, the signatures bubble away thematically in even the most poker-faced of the still lifes. 



The 2010 picture of apple, mug and pen is stylistically removed from the majority of the paintings on show at Arcade- only two other pictures [ 7 ., 8.] (both also from 2010) repeat the strip-cartoon, centralized and spare composition more comfortably related to Hodgson’s abstract pieces. Similarly, it would also be misleading to treat the still lifes as pure caricature- they play with their own terms and conditions certainly, not to say their own sense of potential fatuousness, but share little of the nihilism of a Guston or a Pettibon, despite occasional formal similarities to those artists. The still lifes are frequently more worked, less economical and almost totally removed in colour, handling, sensibility and materiality from Hodgson’s more familiar oeuvre- yet there are numerous thematic links which open up and enliven one’s reading of the artist’s parallel lines of enquiry.

The signature’s numbed ability to carry meaning for example- numbed by repetition and familiarity, but also by its own sheer limitedness as a verbal proposition- is only reinforced by the still lifes. Apples, mugs, pens- the 21st century office worker’s version of a ploughman’s lunch- speak both to an older tradition of ‘studio’ still lifes (of near-at-hand drawing implements and objects), but equally to a sense of workplace ennui in their somnambulatory, doodled aesthetic. They come across as pictures made at the end of the day, or to try and get started. There is a lolling afternoon word-search or crossword-puzzle feel, of a mind looping, roaming, drumming its fingers, while the drawing, reading and writing accoutrements again invoke something of Guston’s insomniac studio pictures [ 10.]. Both artists tellingly depict open books as slabs and squiggles, text dots and dashes of indecipherable Morse [ 9 .]. 



There is a spinning-top or impromptu sun-dial quality to the plate, apple and seemingly levitating or balanced pen which also recalls Rene Daniels- the Belgian artist’s paintings of revolving LPs [11-13.], which in turn become constellations, planetary rings and satellites.




 Perhaps its not a stretch to see this as a further elaboration on the paintings’ prominent dates, Hodgson’s recurring thematic concerns of continuity, passing time, revolution, loops, cycles, sets, increments, cut-offs and markers. Mugs, paperbacks (propped open to mark the reader’s progress) and plastic bottles suggest extended break-taking-  and further, breaking the day up into lunch, tea/coffee break etc. - while wrapped flowers [14.] carry associations with special occasions, are markers of significant events, anniversaries, or perhaps just spontaneous gestures to break the monotony, bring in some colour. A ‘romantic’ gesture, the flowers look to be cut-price supermarket, perhaps last-minute efforts, as yet to be properly placed or presented. They register with complexity, as things of urgency, spontaneity, whim, or perhaps apology; things offered when words fail; along with the bottle and the paperbacks, the curtain-like form in the top right corner, they could be hospital gifts and provisions, things to pass the time, to recuperate and rejuvenate; or perhaps they are cheap because a regular purchase, a regular decorative practice; as placed next to the water bottle they are presented in the realm of necessity. It goes without saying that all this is entirely coherent with Hodgson’s wider body of work (see even the star shaped, discount price-tag stencils in the abstracts [15.]).



 The still lifes are also a kind of ‘break’ from the main project. Apples, cups, bottles, books, - the literal paraphernalia of a ‘break’, yet equally types of objects common to the tradition of still life- are thematically linked with a sense of ‘genre’ as a place for pause, reflection, revitalization, even if in modest or humble terms, a resting place to take one’s bearings (whether for maker or viewer: Corot famously saw his portraits and figures, mostly un-shown during his lifetime, as a welcome and essential break from the landscapes, while Diderot compared the experience of pausing to look at a Chardin still life with that of a weary traveller who finds a shaded spot by a dusty road). Within Hodgson’s oeuvre, these objects and tokens speak eloquently of his own repetitions, routines, frustrations, boredoms and spur of the moment changes of pace or direction, while extending the abstracts’ concern with labelling and grouping, the counter continuities of slowly-changing date and never-changing name. Indeed, the still lifes form a hidden counter-continuity: the fact that they are all dated means that Hodgson aficionados can immediately identify which of the abstracts were made more or less within close proximity to them. Much of the time it seems the still lifes run at their own pace, evolving in their own way across spare moments across the years. As great as it is to see them collected together, it would perhaps be equally interesting to show them alongside the abstracts, so apparently disparate are paintings like figs. [16.] and [17.], both from 2017. (And yet the abstract has the look of a decorative teacup …Perhaps the artist wishes to avoid such assumed correspondences). 



The repetitive nature of Hodgson’s works, and the sense of invention within the terms of these repetitions, speaks also of orientating one’s self within the sameness and difference of each passing day, week, year. Implied is a sense of routine; eat, drink, shop, remember; write-down, sign name, what month is this...; the minor functions and mnemonics of the mind and body as they pass through the day.


 Hodgson’s pictures emphasize the shopping list quality of the objects depicted (Untitled (2017) practically has a corner shop window-label or café A-board feel [18.], yet with incongruous memento mori skull), laid out like groceries, provisions, offerings. Indeed, these pictures are close to Hélion in more ways than the neutrality/anonymity of their ‘style’. For Hélion, minor, everyday functions, rituals and provisions take on a mythic dimension, whether sacrificial, erotic, comic, tragic, etc., yet are at the same time emphatically about the life of streets and rooms, life as it’s lived, objects with a history of meanings yet present, happening Now. Similarly, for both artists, the sense of the objects as the ‘world’ brought into the ante-chamber of the studio for study and scrutiny completes a thematic loop with the condition of the easel painting itself, as a portable artefact or sample brought from studio to gallery (in their studio still lifes, its as if both Hélion and Hodgson have just returned from a shop, an errand). 

The space of the studio is ever present- as a place of activity, reflection, isolation (romantically so for Hélion, with his knowingly bohemian sky-lit lofts, lone figures playing instruments up among the rooftops [19-21.]) and of learning. 




There is a slightly schoolish quality to Hodgson’s still lifes, with their desks and scissors, potted plants and tins [26.-27.], as if he’s been set an assignment to bring some objects in to paint (Hélion makes the notion of ‘study’ explicit by including multiple treatments of the subject within the one picture [22.-23.]). Oil-pastel-y and waxen, they perhaps distantly recall the paintings of the Scottish artist (and teacher) James Cowie, who made a handful of poignant pictures of his pupils among the art-room bric-a-brac, the fields, future and real world visible just beyond the windows [24.-25.], distant trainfuls of adult comings and goings.  





With their natural surrealism Cowie’s best pictures anticipate some of the junk-shop or ‘flea-market’ qualities of Hélion’s latter work (and perhaps share an allegiance with the work of Hélion’s friend Balthus, albeit sanitized), whereby objects can become suddenly anthropomorphized and jumps in scale create theatrical, table-top worlds.



There’s certainly a tradition of elaborately staged, transparently ‘contrived’ still life to balance the tradition of still lifes as apparently quotidian, chanced upon arrangements- which are obviously just as likely to be contrivances, but which make more of a concerted effort to hide it.

One of the genre’s most sophisticated proponents, William Nicholson can range with ease between these two modes, frequently using/acknowledging the laboratory of the studio as a stage for such arrangements to occur. Utilizing the gamut of painterly options, Nicholson can wring high drama, mystery and mysticism from mushrooms [28.], books and mirrors [32.]; a spinning UFO from a glass bowl [31.], a trans-dimensional TV set from a Sheffield Plate [30.]; Hélion-esque eroticism from discarded gloves, pressed under a silver casket, all locks, latches, Duchampian spy-holes, orifices [29.]; or he can go all or nothing on knowingly over-the-top, Gilbert & Sullivan production numbers, paintings like Emilie’s Things [33.] or Studio Still Life [35.] which explicitly explore the staged construction of identity, illusion, which allude to performance, props, costume (the artist’s top hat and gloves can’t help but resemble a conjurer’s), not to mention the studio as a kind of rehearsal space and resource, a dressing-up box. 







Across the works is a sense of set-up and experimentation. How would it be, for example, if a sketched-in background became a literal sketched-in background [34.]? Even a picture of a simple inkwell [36.] can continue Nicholson’s searches into mystery. Looking more like a sounding line or plummet thrown down a watery shaft (perhaps a literal ‘well’, the table more like a seabed, the dappled wall like disturbed water), the little vessel carries with it notions of probing, testing, gauging- casting a line to the great beyond. (That pen of Hodgson’s is also a kind of aerial, the ‘dish’ a transmitter or receiver…).  





Hodgson is more tentative, more suspicious than to go in for all this hook line and sinker, so to speak. The paintings are more sceptical about themselves. There is a feeling in Nicholson that the objects are arranged as if to catch a glimpse of life’s mystery, that if the right combinations of mirrors and glasses are set up correctly then something hidden might reveal itself, in a kind of homespun divination {see previous post on Nicholson}. And sometimes there is a similar feeling in Hodgson- but tempered always by the sense that there is nothing to be revealed, that objects, like artworks, are vessels for our projected selves or states, yet impenetrable in themselves. Hodgson appears careful to avoid arrangements which could seem too emphatically communicative, significant. Certainly most of the compositions are centred, piled, spread, rather than directed, forms are either isolated or repeated as pattern, the space is shallow. As in the abstracts, meaning, interpretation and content hit a wall, or find themselves back where they started, caught in a loop, swirled around in the bottom of a mug.

The Nicholson's which are closest to Hodgson are those which qualify their own sense of import or significance, which deny or frustrate attempts toward meaning (though to complicate things, that is of course part of their meaning...). Still Life, Apples and Knives [37.], for example, throws opened and unopened letters into the balance: Apples are traditional symbols of revelation, yet the picture seems to be sceptical about the relative availability of information that might be revealed by the probing knives, lined up more like pens or palette knives or perhaps surgical scalpels, should they open up letter or fruit. Within the picture's complex interweaving of elements, so hard to put into words, is a practical exploration of both communion and communication with tactile reality, and with one's art form. Placing official looking letters and envelopes within the same visual hierarchy as the humble fruits, measuring their relative informational clarity and accessibility, measuring their relative surface and inner substance and in turn measuring those illusions against the 'skin' of the painting itself, aligning them with instruments of cutting, puncturing, exposing, putting all of this into play, Nicholson's picture embodies the ethos of still life- for the the genre is about opening up a discourse of and within silent, still and impassive things.



And while all this can sound dourly serious it can also carry a self-aware zing. Pears [36.], perhaps containing an intentionally dreadful pun, is a series of doublings, of elements 'paired' off and contrasted or complimented, elaborating on the genre's tendency to overplay the perceived correspondences between things. The double knives play a game with their singular partner across the plate, the image creating a general confusion on first glance about just how many of these knife shapes are actually knives or are in fact shadows, while the lone pear at the back casts a shadow which could easily lead one to initially register it as a pear turned away and to its side, rather than facing its round base towards us. Nicholson even adds a pseudo 'stalk' to the tip of its shadow, which is in fact a decorative leaf 'painted' (in all senses) on the plate, reiterating that it's all just painted marks anyway. And just as all these three-dimensional illusions are thrown up, the picture can suddenly flatten, the knives become the handle of a decorative fan (which could be flipped over to reveal an identical image doubled on the other side), the weight of the image suddenly subtracted. Continuing its decorative qualities, the blank background is effectively, like the plate, a decorative void on which shapes and colours are organized- while the painted 'bobs' of the fabric tablecloth in turn grant it an effective texture, make it convincingly real (utterly daring, the picture foregoes easy things like highly contrasting light or dark foregrounds or backgrounds, foregoes the safety net of a space generating table-edge). The picture manages to come across as contingent and unrehearsed, while we simultaneously register that it has been purposefully arranged and choreographed, part paint palette, part 3-dimensional speech bubble.

Hodgson's works perhaps allow us to see more clearly certain qualities of knowing, and conceptually sophisticated humour in Nicholson, particularly in his play with objects in studied disarray. Hodgson also works quietly between the hum-drum and the contrived, suddenly smuggling in skulls or improbably balanced ball-points, conspicuously ‘fanned’ or carefully toppled piles of books. He leads us to consider the merits of more obviously mannered, or twee, or grandiose, or ridiculous paintings, even if one’s tastes don’t necessarily run towards such obviously contrived or over-stuffed pictures as the more extreme Nicholson’s above, while at the same time consistently reminding us that all painting is not that far removed from such coquettish trickery anyway (Hodgson has stated before that he often finds merit in certain paintings or certain passages of paintings that might not warrant it on whole, which is helpful in understanding his own peculiar sense of painterly 'value'). As with the abstracts, Hodgson paints these still lives with the sense that it’s a patently odd thing to do, potentially pointless, yet also somehow obvious and inevitable- as if a still life, with its mix of modesty and stage managing, is a natural thing for a painting to be, a natural form for it to settle into.  'Still life' also functions as a problem for him to solve. As in the signature paintings, a series of essential elements are inexhaustibly recycled and re-processed as the set-ups are composed and re-composed- a dogged table-top experimenter, the practitioner of still life is forever involved in attempts to intervene in, or re-create, or defy systems of organization, randomness and accrual. And by the time ‘still life’ as a genre gets to Hodgson, it’s been long absorbed that this is what 'chance' arrangements of objects look like, just as the objects depicted are standard options with which to explore relative types of surface, solidity etc. (though he shakes things up with unconventional littler items, plastic bottles and wrappers, blue carrier bags, very much the produce of a city, of shops).



Hodgson is under no illusions, and neither are we. It’s a subtle thing, but the pictures tend to register as studied, highly conscious constructs, for all their apparent naivete. There's the sense of someone working their way back to something which looks purposefully off-the-cuff. They speak of a certain kind of style, of everyday pretences and deceptions, studied dishevelment. Sprezzatura. Moments of accomplished painting are allowed through, particularly the browned swipe of an old paperback-side in which we can practically feel and smell the ever so slightly dewed paper. However, the paintings as a whole generally carry themselves more like paintings of paintings, or paintings of drawings, frequently finding ways to sabotage their own authority or prettiness. Rarely interested in the details of the room in which they are situated, or even the tables on which they rest, the objects tend to float in the centre, like an idea, a thought balloon. In this they recall the ‘framing’ in certain Morandi’s, usually of flowers [39.] (which also incorporate obvious signatures). Hodgson perhaps brings in to focus some of the decorative, even cartoony, qualities in Morandi: the signatures and the wilting, embalmed flowers- part ice-cream sundae, part funerary urn- establishing a kind of comically mordant, grand limpness (like Morrissey wafting gladioli, say). They often play with their own 'off-ness', the look of things gone mouldy, shriveled or curdled, on the turn. Morandi is often seen as a serious investigator of the nature of things, matter etc., less so that he investigates the nature of pictures per se, and even less so that he courts a sense of deflated jollity, comically fudged beauty. 

Hodgson and Morandi operate between moments of authoritative and explorative representation, and a fundamental sense of decoration, of ‘unnecessary-ness’, perhaps even Roman/Pompeian ‘flatness’. Interestingly the gallery text at Arcade quotes Manet, for whom still life was the ‘touchstone of painting’- interesting in that Manet made problematically ‘flat’ works within the genre he apparently held in such high regard.


Within the limitations of still life, a painter’s weaknesses, tricks, hacks can be exposed, or their true material philosophy of painting revealed (by its nature the genre requires that one bring life to the inert, with little space in which to hide). Still lifes are often a striking feature of Manet’s celebrated multi-figure compositions, giving necessary punctuation, pinning the deliberate inconsistencies of his space, adding up to the overall illusion, yet when isolated they frequently fail to pass inspection: almost as if one has walked up too close to a painted backdrop or a paper flower, the spell is broken. Manet’s brash, virtuoso brushwork, alive to the slipperiness of the world in the larger compositions, tends to homogenize and flatten surfaces in the smaller still lifes. Objects tend to be centred, in simple artificial lighting and undifferentiated in texture or painterly description, everything made with the same wet flourish; the marks adequate, but adequate only [40-43.].




Whether this is intentional or not is by the by- it’s part of their meaning (sometimes failure) as artworks. I don’t think we can accept them as being preoccupied with decoration in any meaningful sense, or with their own pictorial nature. Nicholson provides a corrective example of a truly invested, illusionistic investigation of painted form and meaning, while Morandi more convincingly addresses the decorative nature of the painted picture, not to say the problematized relationships of equivalence between painted marks and surfaces, the nature of 'failed' illusion or equivalence, pictorial inadequacy as a philosophical position. The Manet of the still lifes, whether he can be blamed for it or not, would seem to perch forever between these two posts. (I suspect Hodgson would find plenty of things of worth within them though- one senses that Hodgson's extreme self-scpeticism is in inverse proportion to the generosity of his willingness to find merit wherever it might be hidden in others. Certainly the most problematic of the Manet's could easily be resuscitated by thinking of them in Hodgsonese, though this would require one overlook their sense of lazy complacency). 


Arguably the artist's most successful still life, Manet's little picture of an asparagus [44.]- with its repeated calligraphic notation of veg-bud, marble-vein and cursory signature, its practically monochrome palette- is successful precisely because it addresses his own predilection for formal homogeneity and flatness, the intractable connection of one thing to the other which he explores so much more fully in the complex narrative paintings. 


By contrast, Hodgson, an artist highly involved in the flatly decorative, will suddenly tease out very precisely the form of a cup handle, or the depth of its concavity, or the crinkle of cellophane. He’ll shift depth of field, relative clarity, vary the balance of mark and illusion, liveliness and ‘deadness’, or play with weight, will show books and flowers slumped next to a bottle of water, whose relative heaviness is being slowly subtracted to the point where a good breeze through the studio window might kick it away. (Hodgson reminds us of the childhood fascinations, not to say tactile researches, that continue in the genre: the joy in filling things up, pouring them out, putting things in and out of bags, counting them, grouping them, cutting them open, rolling and piling, scrunching...).   

Indeed 'weight' is another tricky proposition which still life throws up for the artist. I’ve written elsewhere of Hodgson’s affinities with Italo Calvino, who saw the ‘systematic subtraction of weight from the world’ as a fundamental literary project, as outlined in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. (The notion of ‘Memos’ is appropriate, a metonym for lightness, quickness, exactitude etc., the tenets of Calvino’s thesis, but also speaking to Hodgson’s sense of disabused necessity, readiness, pragmatism in the face of inspiration or desperation). 

‘Still Life’ is a genre traditionally preoccupied with the specific weight of things, gravity, substance. So it’s a wilfully contrarian gesture on the part an artist who frequently champions ‘lightness’ and ‘dispersal’ as painterly values; values which recall Calvino’s yes, but equally the descriptive prose poetry of Francis Ponge, a predominantly still-life poet if ever there was one (taking as his subject soap, candles, mud…). 


Ponge, a close acquaintance of Hélion, frequently came to blows with the painter; Hélion annoyed that the poet should suspend the objects of his attention in splendid isolation without giving due attention, as he saw it, to the system of relations between objects; Ponge for his part writing on the recent pictures of the artist’s return to figuration that ‘none of them have the slightest charm, the slightest trace of taste’, but also that, ‘all of them have an undeniable power’ (Ponge, 1950). Ponge, a serial re-writer and self-editor, seems to have been disparaging of the paintings’ unruly refusals of elegance, grace or simplicity (the isolated Cabbage Choreographies are a late exception [45.]) , while Hélion would naturally lose patience with anything which attempted to poetically wrench objects from their continuum, or to rob them of their proper weight and substance.

Ponge attempts daring transformations and evaporations of material objects though the sheer focus of poetic attention, matter made ‘gymnastical, acrobatical…Rhetorical?’. Which could be a very eloquent description of Hodgson’s abstracts, but what of the still lifes? Are they as light on their feet? No. But they posit lightness, they measure it against leadenness. They compare and contrast themselves with the abstracts. They are certainly not content to repeat easy strategies of flatness, nor do they subtract substance so fully as the Manets, but accept the challenges of taking on much more of the freight of the world whist keeping themselves afloat. Hodgson’s buoyant sensibilities remain intact, though pushed to different extremes. The crumpled balls of paper are a cypher for this. They suggest a notion of the pictures existing in a state just as precarious, just as easily tossed aside, re-made, re-modelled.  

For a painter to whom ‘meaning’ is antithetical, Hodgson nevertheless interrogates a distinctly literary balance of form-as-(super-condensed)-content. Perhaps he more closely recalls- in visual terms, painterly terms- the elliptical ‘flash fiction’ of Lydia Davis, in which everyday situations (often trips to the shops, or ‘store’), frequently pass by, apparently without incident, while seemingly having carried with them something of singular importance, if not something entirely easy to put one’s finger on. Often ‘about’ dysfunctional relationships, anxieties, petty jealousies and irrational behaviour, their ‘content’ practically  lies solely within their formal construction, so condensed are they, so limited in length, plot, detail etc. And part of that content is in turn about the nature of linguistic communication, what it says, what it doesn’t have to, what it cannot, the limits of expression and the worrisome point where our and others’ minds and emotions take over, and control of meaning and intent is lost. Where the sensible becomes the senseless. (I've said too much, haven't said enough...[1])

Davis marries form and content in ways which deal specifically with the conditions and pratfalls of linguistic expression. Her's is a language-particular literature, a cyclical literature-particular literature. If painting deals with the silent, physical ‘matter’ of the world in ways not quite like any other form, then still life is perhaps the most ‘painting-particular’ of genres within that form (other than pure abstraction at the other end of the representational scale). When push comes to shove, perhaps the most authoritatively reticent of still lifes speak most eloquently. The works of Adriaen Coorte, say [46., 47.], already intuiting all of the above pretty much at the origins of the genre as a distinct genre, already dealing with matter's impenetrability, with signatures, with blank backgrounds...



Hodgson has said that his paintings could equally be landscapes or portraits- as they are always in some sense paintings of paintings, paintings of the idea of painting- and so they might. Yet still life is arguably more fully of a piece thematically with the signature/abstract/decorative works. They might smuggle in portraiture- but even these are secondary ‘copies’ (literally in the Manet portrait of Morisot, cropped on a book cover [49.]), pictures of pictures (the tea/coffee packaging depicting tea/coffee cups [27.]). These are images at a remove- and yet fundamentally based on primary observation. With its particular weighing of distance, closeness, remoteness, still life is in part a detective genre, in which clues are put together to form a personality, situation or scenario, in which silent things are made to speak, give testimony, in which subjective narratives are allowed to colour the objective facts. Entirely consistent with the signed abstract works, we are left to wonder how far things are codified, how much information they might contain, or how little, how much we are projecting on their blank surfaces.

Depictions of open and closed books also continue the signature paintings’ notions of reticence and (in)availability, inscription, authorship, dedication, identification. Of locating one’s ‘self’ within things claimed. We are left to wonder how much Hodgson identifies with the name, with these decorative marks, with the objects, with these pictures. Or what they might say about existence in 2010, or 2008, 2012…




Identification is a notion at the centre of Hodgson’s work. Paintings, crudely, invite a viewer to ‘identify’ with them, while signatures can provide distancing barriers, as can dedications, titles and so on (Hélion often plays with the nature of titles as porous, gate-like moveable barriers or openings). Similarly, we intuit that the painter must implicitly ‘identify’ with the painting in all sorts of ways, even at the level of advocacy and allegiance, ‘I am for this type of painting, and will stand by it’. Hodgson also plays wittily with the placing of the signature- the prominent printed text of ‘Colette’ [48.], for example, could indicate that the volume is either by or about the author, whose works are a form of qualified auto-biography in any case, ‘Colette’ functioning effectively as both title and author credit (and as content). He also frequently underlines the signature, mirroring the edge of the table-top with amorphous details above [50.], while they mingle with other forms of assorted texts, notes and labels generally.




A proto-Hodgson work by Hélion, The Exhibition of 1934 (1979-80) [52.], further elaborates on this notion of artwork-as-signature. A reminiscence across the decades, the picture finds Hélion reflecting on the beginning of his career, then in its initial abstract phase. On the one hand the picture measures the hermetic world of aesthetics against a messier (not to say more cramped) world of human interactions, with the signature a handy, anchoring wall sign [51.], possibly a mediator between the two. This sign perhaps also by-passes the role of the woman in the chair invigilating, who is presumably primed to answer questions about the work: her official-looking cap (like an usherette or traffic warden, watchman, maybe even a nurse or midwife) is echoed and inverted in the negative space left by the hanging cord of the fame, establishing a connection between the two, while her body language is closed, perhaps silenced by the official text on the wall. But perhaps this is a very contemporary reading of the negation of conversation that can occur in the library-like exhibition space, the relative critical ‘authority’ of individuals and institutions, the impermeable, monolithic nature of certain names and reputations, not to say gendered narratives of ‘genius’. With her curiously angled ‘shadow’, she could almost be an avatar of the artist, having cast himself back down the years, an unnoticed, Scrooge-like observer at the back of his own party. Perhaps he wonders what she really thought of all the ballyhoo, Turning her back on the conversation, she seems more interested in the humble flowers. In any case she'll be there when everyone else has gone home, left with an empty room and some pictures.


An advocate of grand narrative painting with an equally grand sense of rhythm and harmony, Hélion is possibly re-staging the exhibition space as a version of The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven (in Hélion’s case, forty-six) years of my artistic and moral life [53.]. As with the Courbet, The Exhibition of 1934 is a kind of preposterous picture: showing the the progression from pious devotee of abstraction kneeling on the left, to the bustle of groups, figures and discourse, to Hélion the contemplator of humble objects. The signature sits in the wings, seems to ask ‘Hélion?’. (The picture is also a part-sequel to The Studio of 1953 [54.], a mid-career stock-taking over which the ghost of Courbet also hangs- though this time the visual 'key' in the bottom corner is a portable set of drawers, which allude to the picture's abundant nesting of images within images, illusions pulled-out or shut-away. The artist's avatar in this case is a compartmentalized box of tricks.) 


The signature framed on the wall of the Exhibition is a cartoony gesture, particularly when nailed up in such an arbitrary fashion, grandiose and yet slapdash. But it is also complex piece of a complex, recursive picture puzzle. On the one hand it suggests the signature as the extent of the painting’s information (with a witty comment on the nature of ‘name’ collecting), a Hodgsonian notion of signature-as-artwork/artwork-as-signature. Yet it also reflects the wider composition in microcosm: mirrored directly below by the vase of flowers, signature and still life are silent summations of the painting’s wider activity. The group of figures and paintings on the wall are a kind of arrangement or bouquet, a display, a concoction, while the depicted viewers are in turn imbued with Hélion's Hélion-ness (as is whomsoever happens to be the viewer of the painting itself), literally in the 'style' in which they are painted but equally within the narrative of the picture (they are depicted as people reacting to or 'affected' by or conditioned with 'Hélion-ness', while in fact directed by him, a sly slight of hand); the flowers and vase connect to the group's purple shadow, but it can equally appear as if the figures and paintings on the wall are being projected from them, are a magic-lantern show of shadow-figures cast on the walls (which they essentially are), as if everything can be contained, genie-like, within still-life's magic lamps, while the vase and flowers' visual counterpart of frame and name (a name being a kind of frame anyway) suggest that any picture can be further reduced to a boxed autograph, conceptually and existentially, a material registration of distinct being. It perhaps also muses on the object/art-object's ability to effect the room (this being very much the helpfully labelled 'Hélion room', while the shapes behind the signature broadly mirror walls and floor, the looped & grouped letters an extrapolation of the intertwined figures), while the ways in which picture frame and signature relate to flowers and vase are also micro-treatments of the painting’s themes and perennial oppositions; nature and culture, abstraction and representation, the organic and the synthetic, wildness and cultivation, speech and silence, meaning’s impossibility and inevitability; the way independent elements have equals and equivalents (even the apparently arbitrary, outré approach to colour in the rest of the picture is carried over into the signature, which is needlessly multi-colored).

 All of this suggests that Hélion is in some way acknowledging where he stands in relation to the painting, but also that he'll 'stand behind it', that he's signed a contract of avowal. A signature officiates at the hand-over of responsibility from artist to viewer, accepting that the painter has done all they can, that they've considered the terms and conditions carefully ('As I can') and that the work is ready for 'submission' (a kind of surrender as much as a presentation). For Hodgson, as for Hélion, the signature is a paradoxically self-effacing address to the viewer which affirms the fundamental sincerity of his involvement with painting as it’s been left to him, as a form of endeavor and expression which one adds one's contribution to, while abdicating any further authorial control. And while it's a form of curiously anonymous 'address', albeit one intimately and indelibly connected to the maker in every way, the picture is an address without a specific addressee, a message as much as a proposition as much as a formal inquiry cast to the great beyond.

Still lifes, like pictures, are vessels for carrying and conducting consciousness, that ride the feedback loop of object-imprintment on self/self-imprintment on object. The genre speaks of the blankness and silence shared by objects and by paintings as made-objects, which can frustrate the expectation and need for things to be easily, and probably verbally, meaningful. I've written before that Hodgson's abstracts are like 'empty envelopes, parcels filled only with polystyrene beans, blank messages marked only by their posting'. Perhaps the still lives are tossed to the world (or to himself, in a roundabout way) as one one would toss a message in a bottle, containing a slip of paper signed C. Hodgson. If only in so far as the message is the bottle.  


Life is only what you conjure.
- Ray Davies, Wonderboy 


[1] REM, Loosing My Religion