Charlotte Hodes
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Surfing History Eagle Gallery 1999

Surfing History Eagle Gallery 1999by Deborah Dean

Sitting in her studio in front of three new paintings, Charlotte Hodes talks of how she always considered herself a conventional person but that as time passes she realise the opposite is true. The paintings speak of this contradiction and of a tension born of the desire to break the rules, whilst also acknowledging the canon of art history.

To some extent this eye to the past has always been present, in her paintings, prints and collages but in this new work it is more overt; the historical quotations are more specific. Hodes has taken as her subject various women from history; Elizabeth I from a painting attributed to William Segar, Gainsborough’s Madame Baccelli portrait from the Tate Gallery, the figure of Eve from an Albrecht Durer painting in the Prado and a photograph of a woman dressed in fabric designed by Sonia Delauney-Terk. These women are counterpoised by the outline of a contemporary female nude, loosely emulating the same pose. Hodes wanted to lock the two together, identifying a historical figure but connecting it to a contemporary mood. The historical figures are grounded and their inclusion is specific, not arbitrary. However, they are always disrupted, dissected by the pattern that threatens to overwhelm them. Conversely, the nude figure floats free over a fractured ground of patterning and yet shares the same assurance, the same confidence.

Pattern has always loomed large in Hodes’ work. She is a hoarder of references, from scraps of wallpaper to magazine clippings, fabric, postcards, wrapping paper. For some years she has been fascinated by the applied arts, by museum collections both great and idiosyncratic. In 1991 she made a series of collages of vessels, inspired by neo-classical pottery; a series of paintings in 1992 took some quirky 19th century porcelain figurines as their starting point and in 1998 she embarked on a brief but immensely fruitful residency at the Spode ceramics factory, Stoke-on-Trent. Here, she was able to trawl through their pattern books, transfers and catalogues, adding to her own vocabulary of forms and images. All these patterns are filed, sorted, deconstructed, reassembled, until they appear on the canvas. Layer upon layer, one interrupting another to create a kaleidoscope of splintered narratives. Hodes talks of the “historical process of layering” which indicates “time passing and our own position in history”. One is reminded of the peeling wallpaper in a derelict house and a sense of picking a way through the different histories, lives and memories revealed by each successive layer.

Whilst the nude is still a feature of Hodes’ work, she feels that the tradition seems “absurd”, an artifice (after all, we spend most of our day-to-day lives fully clothed), yet she sees it as a way of allying art history with her own work. She uses life drawing as a source but also imitates the poses herself, has photographs taken and then works from these. The real is therefore combined with the historical and the remembered.

She recalls how she felt “humbled” when standing in front of Dürer’s ‘Eve’ in the Prado. However, she instantly recognised the need to reject this response, to distance herself from the power of the image in order to be able to use it in a new way. This stepping back is the key to the way she approaches all her sources. She uses postcards of the historical paintings, or photocopies, as well as the photographs of herself and magazine cuttings of flowers and everyday objects. By de-personalising her use of references – she also works from photographs of her own pots and pans, rather than having them literally around her in the studio – she frees herself form obligation: she can use objects and images in whatever way she chooses, released from the constraints of their actual presence.

Her use of collage – sometimes as the end result, sometimes as a preparatory drawing – is also significant. For her, collage involves the act of cutting up images and materials, in a way which she says can be quite brutal and aggressive. The meaning of an image is thus destroyed and then, by piecing together these disparate elements, a new meaning can be imposed. In the same way, Hodes has recently begun to use the computer, so that images can be scanned in, pulled apart and then reassembled in new configurations.

Hodes’ re-presentations of borrowed and found images thus appear to deny any traditional hierarchy: saucepans, wallpaper, a Gainsborough, some fruit – all things appear equal. Dürer’s ‘Eve’ is overlaid with the chequered patterning taken from a swatch of fabric; a vegetable rack from a Sunday supplement jostles alongside references to Dutch 17th century still life. On one hand this ‘levelling’ is playful, even audacious, but on another, our expectations are up-ended.

Whilst at Spode, Hodes revelled in the rich veins of pattern that run through the factory’s history. The famous ‘blue and white’ designs for example (which she is quick to point out were taken from the Chinese and so she is in fact appropriating an appropriation) fascinated her. Rather than feel restricted by its history however, she subverted it by chopping it up, mixing it with other patterns, placing it where it shouldn’t be. Designs and transfers which were intended simply to go around the edge of a place are applied in the middle, centre stage, whilst figures slip over edges, out of kilter, refusing to be contained by the shape or form of the ceramic body.

Hodes talks about her pleasure in doing the opposite of what is expected of her; disrupting convention, making something famous into another thing altogether. This also summarises her approach to colour. She delights in the richness of certain colours and in the tactile physicality of paint; mosaic-like touches of impasted pigment abut swathes of jewel-bright colour. However, there is something prickly about all this: an evident unease. Certain colours jar and jump about, patterns break up and collide, and the surface switches from a thick buttery texture here to a thin wash or passage of raw canvas there. As soon as an area of painting is becoming too lush, too ‘comfortable’, the colour too sweet, she says that she wants to attack it.

Perhaps this explains the constant breaking up of form, the fact that the eye flickers all over the surface of a painting unable to settle on any one element. She wants her work to convey a sense of tension and contradiction, to ask questions but not offer solutions (are the historical references after all any more or less important than the saucepans, the wallpaper, the patter?).

Her work has a quality of transience: there is a sense that nothing is definitive, that everything might change or fragment at any moment. Hodes captures the essence of this when she says that “the most exciting paintings are the ones which feel as if they only just hold together.