Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Say hello to Christopher Martin Hoff

The Pulpit, oil on linen, 24" x 22"

If you've lived in Seattle for a while, there's a good chance you've seen painter Christopher Martin Hoff set up on sidewalks capturing moments of urban life. He has a new show opening up next month at Linda Hodges Gallery called At The Wall In His Wake (a reference to Melville's Moby Dick).

The Chase In His Wake, oil on linen, 30" x 22"

So why Moby Dick?

It was one of those books that I had never read. It seemed intimidating. It also happened to be the favorite book of a friend of mine and needing a distraction in that friend's absence I decided to go whaling myself. What struck me right away about Melville was his incredible capacity to poetically link opposites: the historical & the modern, awfulness (in the sublime, Elizabethan sense of the word) & the aesthetically beautiful, profound meditation & passionate action, life & death, science & poetry etc. It also just so happened that I started reading the book in November, the very month Ishmael begins his tale and like him I too was experiencing a "damp, drizzly November of my soul". Though its effects were unexpected, I quickly recognized the influences of the book on my daily "urban meditations". The ruined skeletons of structures caught in limbo by the financial crisis became characters from the book, graffiti and street signs became "Belshazzar's writing on the wall (literally), telephone poles became mastheads and wires, whale lines. I felt really moved by the whole thing so I went with it. Looking back on things objectively, though I think the work is strong, I am also aware of their inability to approach what is truly horrible and ultimately most beautiful in the book. I find this "failure" interesting, and though I've made attempts in the work to visually undermine each of the paintings in subtle formal ways: spaces that lead into walls, the removal of structural supports so that if real, the building couldn't support it's own weight, and other apparitions/aberrations, each painting inherently falls short. Hopefully they at least fail in intriguing ways and are compelling enough to trigger further "digging" when considered with the chapter in Moby Dick to which each is linked. "Antiques buried beneath antiquities" as it may.

Ahab, oil on linen, 28" x 36"

Once you notice the absence of people and animals, your paintings can take on an ominous feel. I'm just curious as to why you choose to not include them?

The simplest answer is that they are temporary and therefore not part of the composition that led me to paint the site in the first place. I suppose you could say I have a certain "structural bias", which, when one considers that any given painting could require anywhere from a forty hours to twenty months to complete on site, makes it unlikely that these things would do anything but upset the quietness of the overall formal arrangement. Many painters have tried to incorporate both elements and most of the time these are studio painters rather than pleinair painters. Bruegel did this well for example, but his figures, like in most Flemish painting of his time, were there to support some moral narrative. Adding people creates this need for a narrative, which isn't really what I'm looking for.

The Symphony: For Ed and Mary, 24" x 22", oil on linen

Being a plein air comes with its own set of unique challenges. Mind sharing some of your craziest stories?

One of the strangest interactions occurred while working on Pine one day. It was sunny and foot traffic on the sidewalk where I was working was above average. I had been painting for about three hours, and my feet were starting to hurt, so I thought I'd take a break by sitting down against the wall of a building only a few feet from my easel. I had been sitting for about ten minutes, listening to something relaxing on my headphones like Erik Satie so all seemed ordered and well with the world. Now, often while I'm resting on days like this, folks will stop at the easel, and emboldened by not having to peer over my shoulder, go in for a closer look. So when a young man, probably about eighteen, came up to my easel and began to scrutinize the tools of my trade it seemed perfectly normal. However, this quickly came to an end, when he picked up a brush and started mixing some colors as if he were simply filling in for me while I rested. As he was lifting the paint-loaded brush to the canvas I recovered from my bewilderment enough to lunge across the sidewalk ready to tackle him if necessary. For a moment he truly looked shocked by my sudden action. When I said "WTF are you doing?", he simply put down the brush, indifferently replied "Sssssorrry", and walked off as if nothing had happened.

The Lee Shore, oil on linen tryptych, 62" x 20"

Walking around with a Nineteenth Century designed, French, easel bungee-corded to your back can cause panic in some folks. In fact, airlines won't let me carry-on my easel (empty of course) because it has "too many moving parts" (wood and brass). The panic isn't limited to the TSAeither. Twice I've ended up being interviewed by the police after being reported by fellow citizens while working on site. The first occurred last March while I was painting the power transfer station down on Fourth Avenue near Costco here in Seattle. I had been working for an hour or so that day when I had the feeling I was being watched. Turning around, I noticed a police cruiser about thirty yards away. Satisfied that my "radar" was working, I continued with my work. About twenty minutes later I was interrupted by the unique "Good afternoon!" of a police officer. Suspicious but polite, he proceeded to ask me what I was doing while he looked over my license. He scribbled some things in his notebook and after several minutes of questions he said that someone had reported that I might be planning some kind of attack on the power station. Hopefully there is a file started on me somewhere.

The Whale's Skeleton: Homage to S.B.C., 22" x 22", oil on linen

The other "brush with the law" had somewhat higher stakes. It occurred last June, in New York City, while I was working on the second painting of the World Trade Center Project. I had set up on a quiet sidewalk at Washington and Vessey, next to the now completed Tower 7 and overlooking Tower 1. It was day three, and I only had one more ten hour session to work on the painting the following day so time was precious. Once again I had that feeling of being watched AND once again I was greeted with that familiar "Good afternoon!". Officer Charles introduced himself and after claiming to be not much of an art critic, asked me if I had "permission" to be on this sidewalk. Answering this question any where else in the country probably wouldn't take much thought, but this site is different, so I proceeded cautiously. I told him that I had indeed spoken with the appropriate people at the Port Authority (the owners of the WTC property) about working in Tower 7 but that they were still working out the details with the building manager. Since I only had forty hours to work on the site before I headed back to Seattle, I had gone ahead and started this painting a few days earlier. He responded, "Yes - we know, building security has been watching you on camera and they don't want you here." He could see that this had caused me some worry and continued, "but you seemed to have tried to go through the proper channels so I'll see what I can do". He wrote down my license info, scribbled some notes about my contacts at the Port Authority, and headed back into the building saying, "If you see me again, it hasn't gone well for you". Fortunately he did not reappear that day, or the following, and I completed paintings #2 and #3 of the series in a mad spree of eighty hours in eight days. If only I could have gotten the surveillance footage of me working - that would have been amazing!

Painting on site for The Blanket


Strath said...

I've never seen his work but those are AMAZING, I'm dying to see them in person.

Kristianne said...

Thank you for this.

HEATHKIT said...

Christopher, you sir are truly amazing! See you at the opening!

Jaquil said...

I'm lucky enough to own a Christopher Hoff painting. He is an amazing artist! I love the painting and I love that the artist is a life-long full-time artist dedicated to his craft.

Unknown said...

Excellent work as always sir. Jen has aready picked out her favorites. Nice tie-in to Melville as well. Difficult, but well played.

Trish said...

This is the first time I've read this. Thank you for sharing. His passing has hit our family very hard it was both delightful and very, very painful to hear his voice again.