On the Levity and Gravity of Colour
An introduction to the Painting of Henriëtte van 't Hoog
Viewing the recent work of Henriëtte van 't Hoog necessitates an open mind, a mindset free of preconception. There is no narrative, no readily accessible intellectual system, no overt association with any artist or movement. A first reading of her current work both requires and generates that perceptivity associated with childhood, namely the shear delight in the existence of colour: colour before it is reduced through education to sign,symbol or description. It is the intensity of experience when one is absorbed by the 'isness' of things, when things exist with no other symbolic meaning than their own compelling properties. If one approaches the work with a capacity to be absorbed in the phenomenon of its colour, one is rewarded with an emergent sense of the playful imagination that organises Van 't Hoog's composition.
As with viewing the work of any mature painter, it is necessary to understand something of the journey that the work has undertaken. The transparency of purpose of the earlier work is slowly subsumed into an increasing complexity; there is a discarding of influence and a refinement of personalised language. Van 't Hoog has consistently sought to extend and integrate new approaches in her work. She has allowed each phase of her development to take her into unknown territory. Following the imperative of risk, the work is marked by inventive turns and changes. It reflects her taste for adventure, there is always surprise, the surprise born of risking an unfamiliar juxtaposition. A first instinct of 'that's not right' is replaced by the pleasure of 'that works but it shouldn't'. Her work both surprises and delights, because it bends the familiar and raises the potentially banal and dissonant into a poetic exchange.
Van 't Hoog's dominant theme has been still-life, but not still-life in any conventional sense. Her early works firmly rooted in Dutch tradition are attentive to the nuances of light and bespeak a desire to achieve an intimacy with the subject through a concentrated control of a close palette of tones. The colourist who comes to an intense use of fully saturated colour arrives by way of learning how to generate sensations of light through the control of a severely reduced palette.He discovers the beauty of colour influence: how it is possible to make a dull and lifeless colour take on a harmonic resonance through a careful juxtaposition with a similar desaturated colour of like tone but complementary hue. Weak colours are susceptible to influence and it is the ability to simultaneously create subtle contrasts within a unifying harmonic key which makes a colourist an alchemist who can lift the base material of pigment into the realms of light. It is this sophistication of feeling for colour which underpins the apparent simplicity of shape and colour which denotes Van 't Hoog's current work.
Describing her working process reveals something of the invention and originality of her vision. I was astonished to discover that earlier large two meter tableaus of still-lives were painted without brushes and that all the nuances of precise modeling in the painting had been achieved solely by using her fingers to mix and apply the colour. These large works were concerned with the potential for still-life objects to act together like players on a stage. They allude to a narrative and symbolism redolent of the Dutch tradition, but the colour is utterly other than Dutch. This work remind me of Edward Hopper's interiors illuminated by a raw light and edgy colour. Transposing still-life objects to a monumental scale Van 't Hoog amplified their power of associative meaning, a similar strategy to that employed by Georgia O'Keeffe in her treatment of flowers, raising the object to the scale and association of body or landscape. Van 't Hoog evolved compositions with fewer objects until finally there was just one object reduced to its essential shape, symmetrically centred in the composition. These paintings are compelling and mark the shift from painting as a form of narrative to a form of colour field painting, to a preoccupation with the power of colour to work on our senses and imagination as shape and as an optical energy.
At this point there was another radical shift in her relationship to painting. Paradoxically at the point of reducing the three-dimensional form of the still-life object in her painting to a flat shape which allowed the painting to fully become a concrete phenomenological experience of colour, i.e. the object rather than the signifier of objects she became interested in making sculpture. The relation to object was further pushed through commissioning the casting in resin of small molded plastic forms such as an egg cup and a soap dish, exploded in scale to the size of arm chairs. This work marked the departure away from the conventions of easel painting to installation. However, the continuum of Van 't Hoog's practice resides in the persistent and essential need to heighten and transform the relationship to object. This is a complex relationship, where the constructed form still carries the association of its utilitarian purpose, but now it becomes an independent phenomenon of form, which the imagination of the viewer is freed to interpret and project onto, to engage in associative play. The shift in scale commands attention, reduces the distance between us and the object.
As objects/sculptures have to be installed in a space, it reflected also on Van 't Hoog's practice in painting, which took the form of composing paintings in precise relation to each other on a wall. The paintings became a wall installation arranged with the same precision that earlier composed the forms within her painting. She became acutely attentive to the potential of arranging and counter balancing colour across a wall surface and eventually this preoccupation with composition led to the inevitable creation of a number of painted rooms, which should not be regarded as murals, but as the construction of a colour installation. In addition, Van 't Hoog became interested in using logos, being designed to function as text but also to function as signs implying the purpose and quality of the brand. Logos carry powerful association and fiercely resist displacement of meaning. In a remarkable installation Van 't Hoog integrated a series of painted logos from clothing companies with a series of paintings based on the contours of objects. This proposition presented an integration of the banal object of utility and the commercial signifier of brand in a concrete colour arrangement. The installation was a peculiarly compelling fusion of two apparently irreconcilable traditions, that of a colour field painting alluding to a minimalist severity of reduction and a pop art preoccupation with commercial imagery.
Her obsession with shape has led Van 't Hoog to collect a multitude of plastic containers, material that is rarely considered as worthy of a painter's attention, brightly coloured plastic bottles and dishes, lurid trays, any object with colour, grouped in boxes; a box of greens, a box of reds, yellows. In a recent visit to her studio in Amsterdam I watched her using these objects to compose a painting. Containers of every nuance and shade of green had been arranged in an apparently random manner, edge to edge filling a canvas laid on the floor. Van 't Hoog had carefully traced around their contours removing the objects one by one. This strategy for arrangement allowed her to explore the interplay of positive and negative space but also indicates a conceptual relation to the use of objects in painting. The shapes are not the image of the object but the trace of a contact with the surface, redolent of a cast these shapes hold the same resonance of the presence and detachment of a mechanical cast, becoming a play on the absence of the object, the shape is present without any interference of subjective distortion, but the object is absent.
On the relationship between light and pigment Van 't Hoog's paintings affirm an understanding of colour which extends and refutes the banal model of colour relationships articulated in the colour wheel. So habitually referred to in the presentation of colour relationships the colour wheel in many ways is a crude instrument whose literal translation is the cause of a great deal of insensible colour mixing on the part of less reflective painters. The colour wheel explains the nature of subtractive mixing of physical colour, that is that a colour when mixed with its complimentary will produce a neutral grey. However, the true complementaries that are held in the eye, as an afterimage in simultaneous contrast, subtly differ from this mixing of material colour. It is to be seen in Matisse particularly in his use of yellow and violet ultramarine. Matisse worked with his senses and mixed colour out of intuitive and intimate feeling for the optical harmonics of colour. Likewise, Van 't Hoog's colour, which operates spatially, never just sits on the surface; there is a persistent tensile property to the colour relations. A superficial viewing of the work will see sumptuous colour, but it would be wrong to misconstrue the aim of the work as decorative.
It is this optical life of colour which Van 't Hoog's paintings reside in, every colour has its own particular energy and weight, which must be felt and there is a reciprocal energy to be found in the colours she composes. For this reason she will use unlikely combinations which defy simplistic colour theory. Her decisions are rooted in an attentiveness to the otherness of the colour, she allows the colour to have its own life free of the constraints of theory and the dead hand of overt symbolism. For this reason the work is both utterly concrete and intensely abstract. This dualism has its roots in the very dualism of paint itself. Paint is both mineral matter and light sensation which is the absence of matter. Her work is a play on this suspension between colour as surface texture, as concrete matter and as optical sensation.
Looking at the recent paintings of Henriëtte van 't Hoog, the shapes she uses are compellingly beautiful but it is a beauty that contains a rawness which stems from a level of play beyond an easy aesthetic of colour harmonics. There is whimsy as well as gravity, it is Van 't Hoog's delight to tease significance from the banal; using prosaic objects as the vehicle for her imagination and sense of empathy, which is expressed in the complexity of correspondences in her compositions.