A poet friend of mine once remarked that artists are drawn to poetry because it suggests the idea of a free form. The problem with this theory isn’t necessarily that poetry isn’t free; rather, it has to do with the misunderstanding that poetry is a form. Poetry can better be understood as a kind of process or ethic – the arduous work of taking apart and rebuilding the linguistic bonds that are shared among a community of speakers, readers and writers. In this sense, poetic freedom can be thought to consist in its formlessness, that is to say, in the way that it transcends versification or historical inheritance and becomes a way of questioning.
Something similar can be said of the work of writer, publisher and co-founder of Primary Information and No Input Books, James Hoff and his approach to painting. By this, I don’t mean that I sense in Hoff’s works the naïve attraction that a writer may feel towards working with ostensibly fewer restrictions (although there is a certain amount of enthusiasm at play, the work is actually fairly restrained). Instead, it’s something of painting’s formlessness that comes through – what Yve-Alain Bois described in his introduction to Formless: A User’s Guide (1997) as an operation that, ‘like obscene words, the violence of which derives less from semantics than from the very act of their delivery’, serves to challenge a received order.
For his first solo exhibition, ‘I’m Already a Has-Been’, Hoff presented three different bodies of work in which painting is used as a way of questioning abstraction. Using the visual language of abstract painting, Hoff broadens his vocabulary to account for the ways that abstraction might be woven into social practice. According to the press release, the works in the show find a common basis in the notion of abstraction as ‘a culture-bound illness’. Indeed, one group of paintings explicitly addressed this idea by rendering various psychological syndromes as fields of shape and colour while underneath, horizontal lines and letters are painted, effectively acting like captions. In the case of the diptych Stockholm Syndrome (2012), in which a field of vigorous black brushstrokes rests opposite a swath of pistachio-green impasto, it was as though the paintings were illustrating what identifying with your captor actually feels like. More than an ironic comment on the practice of painting, these works gained an extra emotional charge against the rough interior of VI, VII’s basement space.
In this environment, another series of large untitled paintings based on the scratch-pads commonly found in stationery stores began to register like symptoms of another sort of affliction. These paintings have the appearance of a kind of automatic writing – a quasi-graphological survey revealing something about the collective unconscious. At first glance, they’re a bit too cute. But when viewed according to Hoff’s diagnosis of abstraction as cultural malady, the various OMGs, squiggles, smiley faces and words like ‘Hi’ , ‘No’ and ‘Not’, start to emerge as signs for alienated social relations – or, as Louis Althusser might have put it, the abstract relations of capital.
Marking another visual shift in the exhibition was Hoff’s series ‘Still Life: Unwrapping’ (2012). Made by partially ripping open the shrink-wrap on shop-bought canvases and then applying red enamel and flocking to the exposed areas, these paintings evoke the excess associated with traditional still-life painting. But instead of celebrating wealth, they seem to comment on the act of consumption. Far less precious than the press release suggested (which described them as ‘soft to the touch’, documenting ‘the innate and everyday activity of unwrapping a package’), they are abject yet confrontational. In a word, they’re trashy. Issues of bad taste notwithstanding, their irreverence rests less on their throwaway appearance than on what they perform: an eruption, like a cold sore covered in lipstick.