Christopher Hodges: Drawing in Space an essay by Chloe Watson
Installation view, artistâ€™s studio, 2006
Christopher Hodges: drawing in space an essay by Chloe Watson
Christopher Hodges’ studio/workshop is a magical, if somewhat chaotic place: it is a labyrinth of noble relics and works in progress; the occasional power tool lies poised and waiting; a handful of Hodges’ drawings and paintings are pinned to the plywood walls above a very impressive collection of screwdrivers, hammers, chisels, grinders, varnishes, paints and other toys of the trade. There are sculptures that peer from dark corners – only an arcing edge or a sharp peak catching the light with a glistening wink. Some gather in clusters, larger than life – totems and offerings in steel, bronze, wood or zinc – almost breathing. Others are still in their protean phases – carved lines in sheets of wax. Hodges has been making sculpture in various forms throughout his career, at the same time working as a painter, printmaker and drawer.I His sculptures do not preclude these other elements of his practice. In fact their forms are also enacted in countless renditions in pencil and paint, which span from sketches in notebooks to finished products in their own right. In such a way, his sculptures contemplate that interchange between surface and space, the flat and the three-dimensional, line and edge: Painting is a two dimensional surface presenting an illusion, and the illusion is created on the surface by the painterly techniques applied to it… There are all these things going on in the picture plane to create a scene for a drama to unfold… Whereas a sculpture is typically a hard thing that you can bump into and trip over, and it occupies space wherever you put it… but it also has its illusory capabilities, and that’s to do with its shape and its form, it’s not to do with its painterly dimensionality.II I In the late 70’s and early 80’s Hodges primarily exhibited and produced prints and works on paper. Nevertheless, his first exhibition at Coventry Gallery, Sydney in 1979 was mainly works on paper, but it also featured a sculptural work at the centre of the room – four painted tree trunks bolted to the floor. His first exhibition to significantly feature a body of sculptural works was ‘Trophy Room’ in 1984 at Coventry Gallery. II This quote and all subsequent Hodges quotes are taken from a conversation with the author in August 2012.
Hodges’ sculptures resonate with an evolving painterly vocabulary, yet they inhabit space in an entirely different way – they are in space rather than of space. That said, Hodges regards both his sculptures and his two-dimensional works as things, or objects – the latter simply objects that are hung on a wall (and some of his ‘sculptures’ are also hung on walls). Whilst Hodges is intensely aware of the differences – whether imposed or real – between painting and sculpture, the two- and three-dimensional, he also disregards and complicates these distinctions in much of his work. In the late 1980s, Hodges was making figurative works that investigated the human form in space. In paintings such as The Magician (below), a silhouetted figure (is it the artist?) emerges within the field of the canvas: an expressive, deep space built up out of layer upon layer of gestural washes. At the same time, Hodges was producing cut-out figures in wood or steel, which inhabited an expanding three-dimensional space, just as the painted figure inhabited the spatial field of the canvas. These sculptural works were flat, yet they rested against walls, perched in windows and stood in the middle of rooms (things we couldn’t so easily say of the paintings). In both the ‘flat’ sculpture and the ‘deep’ paintings, this silhouetted figure was an enigmatic subject, presenting a spatial conundrum for the viewer: The figure could be moving forward or backward and it would still look exactly the same from both sides – the figure could be waving its hand at you, or it could be waving good-bye. That duality is something that I really quite like. In those early figures you have no idea if they are looking at you. As in much of Hodges work, an enigmatic encounter is manufactured between audience and object; the first of many questions being, how might we read this form within the space it inhabits?
The Magician, 1987, synthetic polymer paint on cavnas, 210 x 153cm
Hodges’ works have continued to flirt with figuration as they have reduced and refined – figure becoming torso becoming bust becoming loop becoming curve – although, as always, it is problematic to impose a teleology upon an oeuvre that is far from linear. Whilst his sculpture could well be compared
Installation view, artistâ€™s studio, 1988
to that of prophets of American minimalism such as Donald Judd and David Smith,I many might also see more than a hint of Matisse in Hodges’ forms: the feminine curve of a body in dance or the organic geometry of a leaf. Certainly, we could borrow the term ‘three dimensional works’ from Judd as a means of describing Hodges’ sculpture. Judd wrote: Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors - which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art.II However, Hodges’ works move away from the ideological purism associated with this school of thought. In his work we find connotation and anthropomorphism, expressive surfaces, and a production technique rooted in the mark making of the artist’s hand. The handcrafted, the tarnished, and the painterly elements of Hodges’ sculptures are part of what make them so enticing – the artist isn’t denied but rather invoked as a shaping force. For instance, Hodges has often drawn with a grinder onto the stainless steel surfaces of works, (for example, Curve 1 and Curve 2 of 2009), creating nuanced planes that shimmer and shift with changing light. David Smith also marked the surfaces of his sculptures with a grinder, however he claimed that these marks were random. In contrast, ‘I actually control the mark-making with the grinder quite specifically most of the time, so that I am animating the surface as I would like it to be animated.’ At another level, many of his sculptural works have been literal translations of drawn and painted lines onto flat pieces of steel or wood. The artist explains that these sculptures, ‘were actually a direct translation of paintings into space, the line into space…. I can do a freehand drawing of a line and the laser will make that same line in hard steel for me.’III Thus, in a work such as Big Column of 1998 (opposite), the looping lines in stainless steel – stretching I Hodges acknowledges: “I’ve always known who Judd was, but I didn’t really follow him or have an in depth investigation into Judd until 2010 when I travelled to America to see as much sculpture by Judd and David Smith as I could. I went to see as much of their work in the flesh as I could, and to go to Marfa Texas which was the home of Judd and which he made his own.” In 2010 Hodges published an article on his visit to Marfa: ‘Donald Judd: The great arranger’, Art & Australia, vol 48 no 2, Summer 2010. II Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects’ in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965. III Natasha Blain described this quite beautifully in a 2003 essay: To disregard the form and follow the outline of each work is to take the journey with Hodges… The way Hodges’ body worked to create the line as he followed it, the limitations of an elbow’s radius or an arm’s length, are all bound into one endless loop. Natasha Blain, ‘The Path to Mira Mira’ in Christopher Hodges: On Reflection, exhibition catalogue, Utopia Art Sydney, 25 October – 15 November, 2003
skyward, larger than life â€“ register the organic irregularities of hand-drawn loops on a sheet of paper. Existing in space, for instance, before the raging surf at Tamarama beach, these lines are now traced against sea and sky. In flat sculptures such as this, a spatial conundrum is enacted as we follow the steel lines with our eyes, expecting to find depth at their points of intersection; this is the paradox of the three-dimensional plane. A counterpoint to this dogmatic flatness lies in works such as the Totem maquettes of 1999, in which wire does twist behind itself in a series of looping lines (this is also happening in bronze works such as Entwined of 1997). These were exhibited beside paintings and drawings in Hodgesâ€™ 1999 exhibition New Lines, encouraging a direct comparison. If a sculptural form in space can be understood in terms of a figure-ground relationship, then which is figure and which is ground is often complicated by Hodges. Relationships between positive and negative spaces create unique tensions within compositions. Looping forms are as much of the metal as they are of the spaces within and between. In works such as Big Tower and the bronze version of Four Piece, both from 2001, the looping form is explicitly a product of the vacant spaces left as irregular ovals have been cut out from the plane. These sculptures are as much of presence as of absence. The void is a shaping force.
Big Column, 1998, stainless steel, h. 300cm. Installation view, Sculpture by the Sea.
Installation view, artistâ€™s studio, 1999 (Totem macquettes in foreground)
In a similar way, little flower has a partner piece made out of its remaining steel sheet (below). The two works exist as the positive and negative of an identical form. Hodges describes the latter piece: Depending on how you look at it in space, you have the geometry forming a shape, as a solid almost, but then the geometry houses another shape, which is a curved shape, so you have these two levels. The lines on the outside are ruled straight lines, and the curves were handdrawn, they are complex curves, you can’t make those curves with a protractor, you have to use your arm to do them. So you have that tension between the organic and the geometric, and then you’ve got the tension between the geometric and the organic against Little Flower Space, 2010/11, mild steel, 76.5 x 84.5 x 33cm the background. Again, the viewer is encouraged to make choices, or, to look in multiple ways. The sculpture at once frames the view and is the view; ‘sculpture is as much about the space beyond or within as it is about, in my sculpture, the thing itself.’ There is a circular flow as the space shapes the work, which in turn extends out into its environment, activating it. Many of Hodges’ works have been produced specifically (and in general) for outdoor locations – gardens and balconies, coastlines and paddocks. The forms respond to their environments. Stainless steel reflects moving clouds and passersby; mild steel grows hot, emanating the heat of a midday sun. A series of works from 2006, which includes the 3m tall painted steel sculpture Geisha (opposite), takes this to a new level with the addition of a kinetic element, revealing ‘natural and elemental forces through the movement of component parts… simple shapes, in constantly changing relationships, reflect their surroundings and capture the atmosphere in transit.’I Mechanical but organic, Geisha has the curve of a woman’s hips and the face of a flower or a sun; solid but shifting, the vertical thrust of its base is counterbalanced by the circular, twisting motion of its top; flat component parts move through space.
Christopher Hodges, artist statement, 2006
Geisha (grey), 2006, painted steel, h. 300cm. Installation view, University of Western Sydney Sculpture Award, 2006.
Installation view, Curve, 2010
Light is another intangible force that Hodges has implicitly and explicitly courted throughout his oeuvre. As it bounces off surfaces, burnished or reflective, it too draws in space, stroking Hodges’ lines. The shadows cast by objects as light moves are as much of the works as their material forms. His exhibited sculptures are doubled, lengthened, as their forms are reflected in the shiny surface of wooden floors. For Hodges, the addition of artificial light to his sculpture in 2009 was like a return to painting, ‘but I was painting with light not with paint brushes:’ The light is colouring, and its also floating the form, depending on how I place it, off the wall or, when the sculpture just touches the wall, the light picks up and amplifies the shape of the sculpture. As this controlled light emanates outwards, amplifying or reducing, depending on its placement, the form of the sculpture, the object is also extended beyond its physical confines and into the space of the viewer. This light is a literal aura in the age of mechanical reproduction – ironic, because it is the aura of an art object whose edge cannot be identified. With his solo show Curve in 2010, Hodges exhibited alupanel and light, stainless and mild steel sculptures, orchestrated to produce subtle interactions between forms (including the planes and corners of the gallery’s white walls): The placement of the sculpture, sometimes in the corner, sometimes on the corner, sometimes bouncing light from behind, sometimes standing in the room in relation to other sculptures, that occupation of space by a thing helps to define and destroy the space that its in. The light sculptures have a particular ability to transform their surrounding space, flattening corners and turning walls into canvases – a sculpture emitting light casts no shadow, thus becoming disconnected from its space as it permeates it. In a similar way, each material has a different affect, which plays off that of the others – solid or shifting, luminous or silhouetted, exothermic or endothermic. All of the works in this show ‘used basically simple, geometric curves to define forms.’ The initial curve was inspired by a glimpse Hodges’ had of the body of a red belly black snake, wiggling as it scurried down a hill near his property in the Hunter Valley. ‘Red Belly Black for LK’, in black alupanel with red light, was exhibited in early 2009. It is strongly reminiscent of the silhouetted figures of the late 1980s, only now the silhouette emits light. In this, and the ensuing body of work, a single, mathematically derived curve is repeated in varying orientations – to each sculpture its own curve. Perhaps we could attribute this method to Hodges the printmaker, ever fascinated with the edition and the multiple. Now a segment of line, an arc, is the motif multiplied. For instance, in each of the three ‘Graces’, a curve is turned upon itself to compose forms that appear organic, producing an illusory asymmetrical tension. These forms explicitly function in relation to one another as curves bounce off
each other – ‘the space in between two sculptures quite often forms interesting little curves… the two curves sing to each other.’ At the same time, their shadows are cast on the wall behind them, and their forms are reflected in the shiny gallery floor. Within the prism of the exhibition space, any number of images could eventuate depending on the position of the viewer. With a flat sculpture such as Snake, ‘if you looked at it from one side or the other, you had from one side a curve, from the other side a curve, and from side on you had a line with no articulation in it.’ It is a plane anchored in space. In contrast, Snake Angle repeats the form of Snake in three-dimensions.I There is a fantastic dynamic here between curve and line, plane and volume, which emanates from the vertical edge, marking the point where two planes meet at a ninety-degree angle – an edge that is more or less apparent according to line of sight and light. This year, Hodges reinvented the form of Snake Angle in Echo for the Unviersity of Western Sydney Sculpture Award, this time creating it in stainless steel with yellow LED light. Exhibited outdoors, against a red brick wall in a university courtyard, the sculpture has a unique interaction with its environment.II During the day, shadows would define the form in different ways as the sun moved across the sky and light bounced off its burnished surface, at the same time causing its shadow to shift. At night, the light behind the sculpture floated it off the wall, reducing the angle and turning the snake’s form itself into silhouette: This was a trick of occupying space, where the sculpture itself at the night time more or less disappeared and in the day time you saw the silvery form really quite clearly and the element of the angle at the front of it, was a way of structurally creating a shape that was at once a right angle and at the same time a literally curvy thing. The ninety-degree angle is a device that has appeared throughout Hodges’s oeuvre. All of Hodges’ light sculptures employ the perpendicular – a structural necessity to hide the electrical tubing that is the source of the light. In works as distant as his Mask series of 1984 and Black Kite of 2012, flat forms meet against the constant plane of the wall behind them. In both of these instances, the three-dimensional work is hung like a painting. In the latter piece, which marks a new direction in Hodges’ formal language, the vertical central fold of the structure interacts dynamically with its slanting parallel edges. The curve has been replaced by permutations of the parallelogram. The surface of the wood is painted in a homogenous black, however from I ‘You have two sides to a sculpture that you don’t throw away, when you put those sides back together again you actually make another replica, I mean another version of the sculpture you just had.’ II Other than ‘Morning Star’ of 2008/9, this is the only sculpture Hodges has made thus far using stainless and light.
certain angles the whirls of the wood are picked out in light, animating the plane and rendering it painterly. This monochrome not-quite-field, reminiscent of Malevich’s Black Square and the monolith of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, embodies some other-worldy power beyond the grasp of human speech. Finally, the glow of blue neon light at once accentuates the edge and renders it intangible, for where does the blue light end and the rest of the world begin? Th black kite floats amidst this blue. Hodges’ sculptures will continue to evolve as he explores constantly expanding structural possibilities and innovates from pre-existing forms. Intensely aware of the different ways objects function in space, Hodges makes sculptures that challenge us to look again, to continue looking as untold possibilities emerge.
Black Kite, 2012, wood, paint & light, 260 x 80 x 10cm
Text and deisgn by Chloe Watson Images courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney ÂŠ Chloe Watson and Christopher Hodges