The Limits of Viability: Clive Hodgson’s ostensibly failed paintings
Clive Hodgson at Arcade Gallery, London
November 16, 2017 to March 10, 2018
87 Lever Street, London EC1V, thisisarcade.art
Clive Hodgson possesses a comedian’s flair for transposing what is expected for what is not. Under the terms of either minimalist rigor or lyrical invention, towards both of which his work nods, his ostensibly failed paintings would appear to be reprehensible, if not cynical. Of course, the idea of intentionally bad or incomplete painting is not new, but making such work also does not appear to be his overriding aim.
A key work in his show at Arcade, resembling a partially printed silkscreen composed of blue, orange and red rectangles, makes one think of Color Field painting redone by Ikea. It is a strong example of an unusual and consistent aspect of his work which is the creation of a shallow and ambiguous space in which forms lie neither flat nor have much autonomy. Unlike Raoul De Keyser, to whom he is sometimes compared, Hodgson is not interested in deep illusionistic space. And similarly, unlike Robert Ryman, who has also been invoked, he does not restrict himself to the actuality of material accretions. Rather Hodgson’s forms sit unevenly, partially submerged like the flotsam they resemble.
For Hodgson, the familiarity of rectangles as elements of abstract painting is a carapace to be subverted, compelling him to launch a rescue mission into this initial conceit. The rectangles are transparent, overlapping and partially filled in. Arbitrarily punctuating the painting are green and pink bobbles, one of which is hatched perversely with thin brushstrokes. This conflation of ornament and abstraction is a disorientating and typical aspect of Hodgson’s painting, through which received notions of autonomy are substituted with superfluous or illusionistic flourishes. Flourishes, furthermore, that find themselves relieved of any former charges to elaborate or convince.
Resulting from this aggressive abnegation is an enervated world haunted by the potential for symbolism. Concentric rings, a perennial motif for Hodgson, are reprised as an easy hollow target whose pink periphery holds more allure than its gaping bull’s-eye (centers are often empty in his work). Another painting from 2017 contains a framed pink window in which hangs a dull, haphazard constellation of torpid discs. This window-like space borders on the illusionistic but any such possibility is undermined by the superimposition of oversized text and ethereal scrunches of printed blue paint. Often, particularly in works from 2008, the paintings resemble backgrounds to images, rather than images in their own right. Within these barren sites Hodgson’s light skating touch as well as his unlikely methods of application (bath sponges are not uncommon) suggest low-level activity that seems to teeter between fruition and dissipation. Icon painting is sometimes recalled but the constituent parts seem salvaged from scraps and trash. Stencils are frequently used to imply absence of form and flimsy price tags are used as stars. His forms are a shadow version of what might be expected from this or that type of painting. Taken together in a single work they posit an airless humdrum world lacking in convictions.
Critical literature on Hodgson often focuses on signatures and dates as painting motifs but these are always subservient to an overriding aim of subversion. Often wispy, his moniker is more speculative than Ryman’s while its use is more varied than the overtly signed paintings by many of his contemporaries. For Hodgson, it is not quite an ironic addition nor is it, as in Josh Smith’s case, a painterly motif to be emptied through repetition. Rather, it acts as a flexible foil, responsive to and altered by whichever environment it finds itself in. Some of the recent works sees it integrated within the other elements suggesting that it is another instance of intentional insipidness. Sometimes it is upended or reversed, conflating the artist’s identity with flippant gesture. In the paintings from 2008, name and date are often isolated in a ruled or masked off section, sanctioning what happens elsewhere while maintaining a wary distance.
The Arcade show was presented in two parts: in the early days of the new year, recent works were switched for paintings from 2008 in order to mark the gallery’s tenth anniversary. This changeover allowed for an examination of the artist’s development, albeit between arbitrary points. It would be interesting to see a wider range of these signed paintings and particularly so to see the seldom exhibited figurative works which have sometimes been produced alongside them. The recent paintings are in a higher color key and are more open and emphatic in gesture. Perhaps the most significant difference between the groups on show is the complete lack of revision in the recent works suggesting an editing process subsequent to the work’s completion.
Hodgson’s predecessors are painters who value economy and who speculate recklessly upon established pictorial concerns, testing the limits of their viability. Roger Hilton’s brash contrapuntal semi-figurations are one example and Francis Picabia’s transparencies which mimic but then repudiate religious imagery, are another. Like Hodgson, both these artists are uncertain of their ends and embrace painterly and imagistic contingency as a means towards their work’s determination. Hodgson’s painting method is additive and the clarity and improbability of each decision in relation to the last is where his work succeeds or truly fails.