Saturday, June 11, 2011

Blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought: New Paintings from Michael Hoffman

Michael Hoffman is a consistent and consistently brilliant presence on the St. Louis visual art scene. His consistency and brilliance definitely affect the way one relates to his work. In the many shows I have visited or curated that included work by Michael, I knew his pieces instantly and instantly knew what to expect: consummate artistry that is both uncanny (how does he DO that?) and totally pleasing to the senses. As a matter of fact, it would look nice next to your couch, or table, or desk, or executive corridor.

As a result, over the years, I have probably spent less time deeply absorbed in Michael's work than I do with work that is less accomplished but more demanding-of-attention. Michael's art is exactly like the prettiest person in the room: Well, there is THAT. Okay. Now, let's go contend with something more our slower speed. This situation is amped up a little by the fact that Michael himself is personally always one of the most attractive and pleasant people in any room he is in. Last night I looked closely at his one-man show at Hoffman LaChance while Sunyatta Marshall also was in the gallery, and I reflected that there wasn't a small room anywhere in the world that had the bases of male and female physical beauty covered any better.

So I wanted to look at Michael's new one-man show, New Paintings from Michael Hoffman (June 10th - July 2, 2011 at Hoffman LaChance, 2713 Sutton in Maplewood) because I wanted to encounter his paintings when I couldn't take the easy out and spend all my time on work that is less brilliant and pleasing to the senses. As I result, I spent an hour or so circling a small square room, pleased and illuminated.

I think there are 17 numbered pieces, and a few others hanging unnumbered in passage spaces (it is, after all, Michael's gallery). I started by jotting the numbers of the pieces I thought I had the most to think about, and then going back and thinking about them.

The 5th numbered piece uses a motif I have seen Michael use before. It reads like a brilliantly colorful concentric target (or shield, an icon he shares with his buddy Jon Cournoyer). Like so much of Michael's work, this piece has that amazingly composed surface that is the main thing that makes people shake their heads and wonder how he does that: how do you make a highly wrought object that looks like God just smoothed it out by hand?

This highly wrought but seamless circular figure is then engrained with another Michael Hoffman obsession, the 3-D grid of a globe. That's another gift he has: he makes paintings that take on some characteristics of sculpture without breaking the plane. He has taken that work all the way out to a logical extension in paintings that almost become ceramics sculptures without ever ceasing to be a painting.

Next to this new take on old favorites in the show are two pieces (numbered 6 and 7) in a Michael mode I have not seen. This is where I would have been spending my money, if I had any money to spend and wall space for art. They are vertical pieces that look like Jasper Johns flags reimagined as envelopes, though with patriotism to nothing but color, shape and design.

These pieces relate to the design idea that dominates the postcard Hoffman LaChance made for the show: thin, bright lines running tightly parallel with no other ornamentation. When Michael paints (or hangs) pieces in this mode vertically (13), it strikes me as an homage to a certain style of candy-striped shirt or necktie. Painted or presented vertically (11, 17), it suggests a visual pun. The pattern evokes window blinds, so it's as if you are being blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought, which takes us right back to the core phenomenon of Michael Hoffman: being blinded by brilliant colors carefully wrought.

Speaking of core Michael, the show concludes (except for the bookend of the second brilliant blinds painting) with a trology of Michael Hoffman horizons. It is really interesting to see three of these horizon paintings on a wall next to each other. It gives you a chance to pay more attention to variation and its tonal effects. He makes small variations in landscape (all drawn, Cournoyer reports, from beloved islands near Seattle) and more sweeping changes in color to tell quite different stories (a rare appearance of the narrative element suggested in his work). Big dark reds in the sky and sea that dominate the landscape (14) tell of a blood red sunset with blood in the water. More blues and greens in the sea (15) whisper of a peaceful harbor at dusk. A stronger emphasis on the landscape elements and more control on the red pedal (16) warn of smoldering island volcanoes.

I picked up the one-sheet for the show, and learned something genuinely new about Michael: he has a gift for titles. Here are the titles for the pieces that caught my eye and notebook:

5) Catalan Spring
7) Playa Cadaques
11) Spanish Candy
13) Confluences
14) Rosario Strait
15) Way Out West
16) December Islands.

That just gave me some more things to think about, so I walked back through the show, then walked out onto the city street still thinking about it.

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