Handpainted etching with Aquatint and Carborundum. Edition 55.
30 x 34 cm, published by Alan Cristea, London T&H109
Photo: courtesy Meyer Fine Art, Inc.
In two small but exceptionally beautiful displays in San Diego, British painter Sir Howard Hodgkin provides a meditation on the functions and implications of a painting’s frame. A frame is usually thought of as the thing that goes around a picture in order to distinguish, isolate, or elevate it from its surroundings. We also know they have a second use, a conceptual one, so that we frame debates, establish frameworks, and so on. In both cases, frames circumscribe, freeze, organize, and control things to an extent unachievable in the real (unframed) world. However, when we examine something in a frame, we aren’t examining it anymore, but rather its image, which has a fundamentally different nature. This distinction is a commanding dialectic of any art form, and it is one that Hodgkin vigorously illuminates in his two San Diego shows.
The two concurrent displays are the only American stops for these new works, none of which date from before 2001, and some completed as recently as 2010. The San Diego Museum of Art, under the new stewardship of director Roxana Velasquez, is the last venue to exhibit “Time and Place,” which was shown previously at Modern Art Oxford in the U.K. and the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg in the Netherlands. (The exhibition remains on view through May 1.) Meyer Fine Art features a scaled back but nevertheless well-stated show of eleven of Hodgkin’s hand-colored etchings, aquatints and carborundum on paper. All of the pieces in the SDMA exhibition are oil on wood panel, and surely they represent the artist at his best.
Hodgkin’s paintings are abstract or semi-abstract. Some are large with highly active concentric fields of painterly color that generate contained representations of frames from the inside. These paintings are laced with allusions to other twentieth-century masters, whether to Mark Rothko in form, Susan Rothenberg or Philip Guston in application, or to Ellsworth Kelly in name (Hodgkin in fact dedicates one piece to Kelly). The brushstrokes come in two basic variations: first, the dab, often with many of them-as in Saturday-clumped together in varying densities to form lively rhythms that play across the work’s surface. The other mark, best displayed in the smaller pieces, is an energetic, often continuous stroke of wet paint that typically spans a good deal of the painting’s surface. The beginnings and ends of these marks are often crisp, giving them that simultaneous sense of confidence and spontaneity that is characteristic of a master painter.
The mid- and smaller-sized pictures, all framed, do as much as the large paintings, and with much less, showing–as in Snow Cloud–a great deal of movement with only a few strokes. In a complicated (and signature) move, Hodgkin on a number of occasions pulls the paint unbroken from the surface’s interior onto the painting’s physical frame. Like many painters, Hodgkin is adept at conveying movement on a motionless surface, an optical deceit that in an important way is facilitated by the frame. However, when Hodgkin collages the frame into his painting’s overall visual regime, he challenges its function, its position as a barrier between the work and the world. At times, the swiftness of his stroke even appears like a violent attack on the frame, as if he wanted to assert himself against its constraints. However, in undermining the integrity of the physical frame, Hodgkin oddly reinforces the supremacy of the conceptual one. That is, all the paint is still contained within the outermost edges of the picture’s surface, around which an implied frame holds fast, distinguishing it, for example, from the wall on which it’s hung. We can assume this is intentional: the marks’ continuity from painting to frame implies that Hodgkin framed the paintings before completing them. As if to shore up this complicated move, all of the paintings in the SDMA show are on wood, the traditional material of frames, rather than canvas. In these ways and others, Hodgkin sheds light on a complex polemic in art between the risks of any complacent study of dead (framed) moments, on the one hand, and the power of the frame to provide that detached and immovable space of reverie that his paintings so handsomely supply.