Thursday, June 20, 2013

Making Plans: Stephen Hobbs

The Standard
 The work at Stephen Hobbs’s new show doesn’t come as a surprise. It bears all the markers of his practice, both visual and ideological, that he has been driving for some time – perhaps since the Low Voltage/High Voltage installation at the Substation at Wits in 2009, where he quite firmly established his idiosyncratic urban assemblage sculpture that is characterised by his fixation with scaffolding, which he alludes to with the use of dowel sticks. The scaffolding motif has served as a shorthand for progress and flux, articulating Hobbs’s fascination for the mechanics of Joburg’s regeneration, which he has played a role in through his work at the Trinity Session, managing public art projects.

In Be Careful in the Working Radius, the title of the show, this recognisable aesthetic, motif, remains ever present; while some prints are supported by dowel stick frames, others are prints of representations of scaffolding structures layered over each other. This creates the impression that Hobbs has, simply, distilled or reduced his aesthetic, his motifs, to suit the printmaking medium, arriving at more conventional and consumable art products for a commercial show.

Ordinarily this observation would imply that a compromise had been reached or perhaps even that Hobbs’s practice hasn’t evolved much, yet something interesting is developing through his engagement with printmaking at David Krut. This medium and process it entails seems to have cultivated a more sensitive awareness of form that has engendered a body of work that is the most aesthetically pleasing Hobbs has produced. He seems less preoccupied with making smart, conceptual statements and has allowed himself to be seduced by this medium. It has forced him to become more invested in the art object.

This is somewhat of a turn for an artist who has inherently been drawn to making makeshift installations or film projections that only last for the duration of a show or intervention. In this context the aesthetic, the form, was always of a secondary concern, if one at all. Though perhaps his recent fixation with the Dazzle pattern, a black and white optical pattern conceived to camouflage ships during WWI, which he has painted on buildings, turned him onto the clean, reduced modernist aesthetic that now also has become a signature of his work, in particular a series of prints of monochromatic urban grids that present highly stylised reductions of city plans.

Hobbs is more interested in the plans for cities and buildings, the utopian dreams, the imagined visions for cities than the real-life specifics. It has to do with his fixation with the “unrealised” – the thing that can never be fully attained, though it exists in our collective consciousness as a concrete form, shaping even national identity. This is perhaps why he has had less of an interest in the art object or its form; his primary preoccupation is with the fleeting ephemera that relate to imagined or real urban projects – like the title of this show, a phrase from a signboard at a construction site.

Most of the works on this show read as plans, or plans being constantly revised. Black and white grids of the highly politicised area around the Johannesburg Art Gallery are the basis for works The Standard and Forced Order. In both, the plans appear to have been crumpled and disturbed; the ideal model altered in the moment that it is discarded, articulating the invisible alterations that have occurred in this area as people have disrupted the clean model.

Information Infrastructure
The works that really excite on this show are a series of prints with painting and reflective tape that appear like rough sketches of a construction or scaffolding arrangement that has been adapted.
Lines, in red and yellow or black are added to a central frame in Information Infrastructure – Décor. The contrast of materials, colours and the rough appearance are part of this distinctive aesthetic of urban flux we associate with Hobbs.

This work refers to a billboard, a structure created to display messages. Presumably billboards interest Hobbs for the simple fact that they are a constant structure being reinvented all the time.
Typically, Hobbs isn’t interested in the thing (the billboard or its messages) but the overlooked structures that support it. The print reads like a rough architectural plan, though it consists of a disordered configuration of discarded urban ephemera.

The lines of the structures in this work and many of the other prints on this show cross over each other, appearing like a palimpsest of urban aspirations. Everything is being revised in an effort to arrive at the utopian urban dream, but also it speaks of competing ambitions; each new architect overwriting what has come before.

In this way the works, barring the ordered black and white grids, tend to communicate chaos, which is in conflict with their appearance as “plans” – plans are designed to make things comprehensible, to order the environment.

The constant revision that these plans or structures are subjected to is what complicates the appearance.
As many of the prints appear to be duplications with alterations, this sense of revision is reinforced. Hobbs is remaking his own work, over and over, changing various elements, adding or removing them. This is part of his working response to the print medium, being forced to commit to a design, before returning and reinventing it. In the catalogue, Hobbs observes an overlap between architectural construction and printmaking, where the studio and construction site become analogous.

He identifies them as areas of potential and hazards that require a level of “commitment and energy”.
Hobbs is evincing commitment to the print medium but on his own terms; the dowel sticks that support, frame some of the prints ensure that this state of flux and fragility defining this precarious moment of “becoming” that’s linked to urban regeneration remains ever present.

While he is committing ideas and forms to paper, he works at ensuring that they appear temporary. This is achieved through this state of revision, for there is always the sense that another image can be generated that will alter and replace what has come before. In this way he is not only revising plans and structures but his practice too. - published in The Sunday Independent, June 16, 2013

Be Careful in the Working Radius is showing at David Krut, Parkview until July 13

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