Charlotte Hodes
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Catalogue Introduction 'Figurines'

Catalogue Introduction Figurines Worcester City Museum & Art Gallery 1993

Deborah Dean

Charlotte Hodes’ paintings have an immediate impact, exploding on the eye with a rich diversity of pattern and bright ‘jangling’ colours. They then draw the viewer in and closer looking reveals many hidden layers. The variety of thickness and texture of paint across the canvas and the scale of patterns and figures, which jump around so that we are never quite sure what should hold our attention, combine to ensure that these are not paintings to be taken in at a glance. Colour too, is used to create a sense of tension, with often surprising contrasts and combinations.

When Charlotte Hodes decided that she wanted to make new work for this exhibition, it was suggested by the gallery that as her work had such a strong sense of pattern, she might like to use some of Worcester’s collection of Decorative Arts as source material. On a visit to the stores she immediately noticed a group of 18th and 19th century porcelain figures, which had for some years lived on a shelf in a dusty storeroom. Little is currently known about the figures but their flamboyance and their jumble of patterns, gilded detail, rich colours and florid drapery captured Charlotte’s imagination. She selected five pieces: a somewhat over-dressed shepherd and shepherdess, a Cupid in the process of having his wings clipped, a crowned and robed woman reaching out to a goddess figure and a nude Venus, sitting on top of porcelain ‘icing sugar’ waves and surrounded by naked nymphs and shells. All the pieces were photographed so that Charlotte could use them for reference back in her studies.

I visited her there in March to see how work was progressing and we discussed what had attracted her to the porcelain and which elements were finding their way into her work.

I have already hinted at the stylistic inconsistency of the pieces: they are an eclectic mixture of austere classical shapes, baroque draperies and cornucopias, delicate, intricately crafter flowers, and pattern which seems to have been applied regardless of the form underneath. Charlotte believes this mixture of motifs suggests that “in a painting you can have different styles…things done in different ways and they create a sort of tension – a jarring effect.” The way that pattern is used in the porcelain brings to mind medieval altarpieces, in which gold leaf decoratum is applied flatly on top of draperies, counteracting any sense of fabric folding or falling over a three-dimensional form. Both here and in the porcelain, pattern exists separately from form and assumes a life of its own. Charlotte has drawn on this idea in her paintings and on the fact that in the porcelain “pattern is used purely for the pleasure of pattern” She also likes them because “they’re very artificial…completely self-contained in their world and they don’t refer to the real, outside world.”

This artificiality, which plays around with scale and presents a very stylised version of nature, allows Charlotte to make up her own rules in the paintings too: she is freed from the need to imitate the real world: she can manipulate scale so that flowers might sometimes be larger than people and pattern can have equal, or greater emphasis than the figure.

The porcelain pieces have very clearly defined outlines which help give them the sense of being in their own world. Charlotte likes this quality and, although they are obviously three-dimensional objects, she finds them “very unsculptural”. They are intended to be viewed from the front, like a tableau or painting and therefore present strong shapes and edges which she can use in her paintings to define the areas of pattern. Sometimes the pattern threatens to break free from the confines of these outlines, which again creates a kind of tension across the canvas.

Charlotte also wanted to capture the atmosphere of the porcelain in the work: “…the women are languishing and swanning around and I wanted the paintings to get this sense of being relaxed…”

Indeed the female figures in her earlier work are clearly at ease, enjoying their physical environment and apparently floating in seas of pattern. Women are traditionally expected to have an interest in an sensitivity to pattern and colour, whether this is the choosing of clothes and interior decorations, or in actually being ‘decorative objects’ themselves for a male gaze. Charlotte’s interest in the relationship of pattern to the female form is altogether more dynamic; she challenges the idealised image of women that is presented in the porcelain, saying: “…they’re very frivolous, very trivial…they have a completely inconsequential relationship to the world – they have no worries, no minds. One could be repelled by that but one of the things that I’ve tried to do is to reverse these ideas or turn them inside-out and suggest that a person’s experience of the world is a very active one, very dynamic, very physical.”

She equates this with the physical experience of painting and the pleasurable sensation which she derives from making marks and from moving the brush through “delicious” swathes of paint. This ties in with her desire to make her paintings very tactile and to vary the texture and thickness of their surfaces.

The paintings and collage which Charlotte Hodes has made for this exhibition have absorbed much of the feel and atmosphere of the porcelain form Worcester’s collection but they are by no means nostalgic re-presentations; instead they extract certain elements – shapes, quirky combinations of patterns and style, an idea of scale in which anything goes – and they use them with a tension and vibrancy that places the work very firmly in the present.