by Michael Smith (February 2009)
Painting is at once a very refined and primitive pursuit. The apparently unassailable authority of painting as fine art practice enables it to operate in circles of power, influence and status. Yet its mechanics are often a set of simple, anti-technological menial tasks, downright mucky, imprecise and visceral. Few South African artists create works that embody this dichotomy quite like Robert Hodgins. His images, quietly deconstructing the poses and posturing of the elite while hanging on their walls, play a deceptive visual game of jolly coloration and faux naïveté.
The cornerstone of Hodgins' approach is, of course, a sophisticated understanding of paint and the act of making pictures, not indulged for its own sake, but one that is constantly pushed into fresh avenues of possibility. His complex pictorial understanding and peerless coloration belie superficially brutal, often deliberately messy brushwork. Sometimes venturing as far as self-deprecation in scale and simplicity, Hodgins' paintings nonetheless always have a nasty sting, the aftertaste of sharp social observation.
Hodgins tempers this pessimism with a visual humour, and a broader handle on people: an empathy with human folly seems to inform his representation of both victims and his aggressors. Often likened to Bacon, Hodgins in fact has a greater affinity with Guston, recasting the latter's American banality and abject baseness as a passing parade of South African tragicomedy. Like another arch-satirist and source of inspiration playwright Alfred Jarry, Hodgins' truths lie amongst the ruins of power eviscerated by its own absurdity.
Hodgins' utterances on painting are as much a part of his audience's understanding of his work as the works themselves. Statements like describing painting as being 'a bit like surfing', or as either 'one-night stands or lifetime love-affairs' are classic Hodgins.
'There are paintings that stem from memory and from a sombre look at the human condition. Paintings about the construction and confusion of contemporary urban life, but also paintings about the pleasures of being alive, pleasures that crowd in upon the pessimism everywhere - that crowd in and refuse to be ignored.' (Goodman Gallery 2000)
'Being an artist is about putting something into your subject matter that isn't inherently there. You are not at the mercy of your subject matter, it's the content, and what you put into it, what you do with it, what you extract from it, and what you put it with, that is so exciting. If you are aware of this, then you begin to build on the content of your whole life. Before you know where you are, you're already thinking about the next work, and you could live to be 300. Paintings can be one-night stands or lifetime love-affairs - you never know until you get cracking.'
'As far as I have a purpose in art, I would want to make paintings which, although they refer to life, have a life of their own, beyond what they depict from the world.'
'I've become aware of a certain schizophrenia in my life: I love good looking people, buildings etc. but never paint them.'
'I always put the titles onto my works at the end. I love putting on the titles: I see it as my perk. I believe that after all the work I put into painting, I'm entitled to that.'
Early in 2009, Hodgins has just finished another stint working with Mark Attwood of the Artist's Press Studio in White River, producing a new body of prints. He also held yet another highly successful solo show at the Goodman Gallery Cape in November 2008. As with previous bodies of work, the paintings and monoprints on this show saw Hodgins move adeptly between social satire and a more serious mode of comment on militarism and aggression, through works like The Smug Cadet and Despot.
The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg presented Hodgins' work in March and April of 2007, which was met by overwhelming critical acclaim and commercial success. As the gallery stated about this show, the body of work 'move[d] away from his typical humorous depiction of the human condition, to an exploration of the darker side of humanity, drawing inspiration from a combination of ancient history such as the "The Battle of Cascina" and stories of giants, to contemporary wars, torture, and soldiers.'
Hodgins participated in 'Absolutely/Perhaps', a group exhibition with countrymen William Kentridge, Johannes Phokela, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa at Simon Mee Fine Art in London, in 2003.
During 2001 and 2002, Hodgins was the subject of a retrospective '50 Years a Painter', which opened at University of Potchefstroom Art Gallery, and travelled to the Sasol Art Gallery at the University of Stellenbosch, the Gertrude Posel Gallery at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and the Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg.
In 2000, Kayhryn Smith noted Hodgins' early-to-mid-1980s collaborations with 'fellow heavyweights' William Kentridge and Deborah Bell. As Smith states, 'Hodgins first exhibited with Bell and Kentridge as early as 1983. Their association began with "Hogarth in Johannesburg", followed by the "Little Morals Series", "Easing the Passing (of the Hours)" and "Ubu 101", culminating in an exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery marking their 10-year working relationship.' During this period Hodgins was also notable as a performer in a rare live-action/stop-frame animation by Kentridge, called Memo, in which Hodgins seems to take on the role of one of his own parade of suited businessmen, overcome by the anthropomorphic transformations of his office supplies and possessions.
As a young child in London, Hodgins used to hide out in the Tate Gallery, where it was 'warm and open'. Despite having exhibited since the early 1950s, it was 1981 before he was taken really seriously, but the impact was such that a major retrospective was hosted by the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in 1986. An early career highlight was a two-man show with Jan Neethling called 'Pretty Boy Floyd', where he presented some 60 experimental silkscreens of the gangster and hanging them on washing lines in the gallery. Hodgins cites this as a true 'corroboration' of minds.
After a busy 2007 and 2008, with sell-out shows in both years, Hodgins' gallery states he is taking 2009 relatively easy. This undoubtedly means his production will still be prolific, but that he won't have a solo exhibition in 2009. Nonetheless, Hodgins will contribute a print for ArtThrob's new Editions portfolio.
Robert Hodgins was born in Dulwich, England, on June 27, 1920. In 1938 he emigrated to South Africa, joined the Union Defence Forces in 1940, and served in Kenya until 1941, then in Egypt until 1944.
He returned to England in 1944, was discharged from the service, and underwent an Emergency Teacher's Training Course at Goldsmith's College, London University. He was recommended to study art full time there. He obtained an Arts and Crafts Certificate and then in 1953 the NDD (National Diploma of Design), painting major also from Goldsmith's College, London University. He then returned to South Africa.
In 1954 Robert Hodgins became a Lecturer at the School of Art, Pretoria Technical College, where he remained until 1962. Then he took up a position as Journalist and Critic for Newscheck magazine.
Between 1966 and 1983 he was a Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand Fine Art Department. At the end of 1983 he retired to take up painting full-time.
2004 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
2003 Simon Mee Fine Art, London, UK
2002 '50 Years a Painter', Retrospective exhibition, Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, and at Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg
2001 João Ferreira Gallery, Cape Town
'50 Years a Painter', retrospective exhibition at University of Potchefstroom, and Sasol Art Museum, University of Stellenbosch
2000 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1998 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1995 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1992 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1990 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1987 Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1986 Retrospective, Standard Bank Natioanl Festival of the Arts, Grahamstown
1960 Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg
1959 South African Association of the Arts, Pretoria
1958 Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg
1956 Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg
2003 'Absolutely/Perhaps' with William Kentridge, Johannes Phokela, Zwelethu Mthethwa and Sam Nhlengethwa at Simon Mee Fine Art, London
1999 '< FAST FORWARD'�, Van Reekum Museum of Modern Art, Appeldoorn, The Netherlands
1997 'Collaborations', joint exhibition with William Kentridge and Deborah Bell at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
1997 'Cram', an exhibition of South African Artists, SA Association of the Arts, Cape Town
1995 'Mayibue iAfrica', Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, as part of the Africa '95 Festival
'Seven Stories of Africa', South African participation curated by David Koloane, coordinated by Felicity Lunn and Catherine Lampert, Whitechapel Gallery, London as part of the Africa '95 Festival
'Panoramas of Passage', curated by Clive van den Berg, Meridian International Centre, Washington DC in association with University of the Witwatersrand Art Galleries Recipient, Helgaard Steyn, Award for painting
1994 'Displacements' curated by David Bunn and Jane Taylor, an exhibition of works on paper, invited to lecture and exhibit with a group of South African artists at the Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
1993 'Portraits in the Round', ceramic exhibition in collaboration with Deborah Bell and Retief van Wyk
1992 IGI Life Vita Now Awards, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1st quarter Award Winner
'Le Bal des Tables Artistiques', Mayoral Ball, Johannesburg Art Gallery
1992 'Easing the Passing (of the Hours)', computer animation and graphics in collaboration with William Kentridge and Deborah Bell
1991 'Little Morals Series' with Deborah Bell and William Kentridge, Cassirer Gallery, Johannesburg
1990 Life Vita Now Awards, Johannesburg Art Gallery, 3rd quarter winner
1989 'Hogarth in Johannesburg' book launch, Gertrude Posel Gallery,University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1987 AA Life Vita Art Now Awards Exhibition, Overall Award Winner, Johannesburg
'Hogarth in Johannesburg', a series of etchings in collaboration with Deborah Bell and William Kentridge, Cassirer Gallery, Johannesburg and national tour
1986 AA Mutual Life Vita Arts Now Awards Exhibition, 3rd quarter Award Winner, Johannesburg Art Gallery
1985 Cape Town Triennial, SA National Gallery and major museums around South Africa
1984 'Four Johannesburg Artists' with Ricky Burnett, Jo Smail and Ilona Anderson, opened at the SANG and toured various galleries countrywide, including the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
1983 Exhibited with Deborah Bell, Ann Sassoon and Frank van Schaik, Carriage House Gallery
1980 'Wits University Lecturers', Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand
1980 'Pretty Boy Floyd', series of graphics, monotypes and one off silk-screens with Jan Neetling, Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1978 Paintings with sculptures by Jan Neetling, Market Gallery, Johannesburg
1975 Goodman Gallery with Jan Neetling
1971 Two man show of 'Cliches Verres', with Jan Neetling, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg and SA Association of the Arts, Cape Town
1970 Two man show with Jan Neetling, Lidchi Gallery, Johannesburg
1961 Two man show with Ernest de Jong, Gallery 101, Johannesburg
1954 Transvaal Art of Today (Best Young Artist Award) Pretoria Centenary Exhibition