The Sensate Surface as Visceral Topology in the Paintings of Biddy Hodgkinson

Squirrel, Mixed Media47 x 59

The British painter Biddy Hodgkinson takes her inspiration from a close observation of life cycles, with particular focus on plants and molds. Her relationship with nature began during her childhood, growing up on a farm, where keeping animals, some of which the family ate, taught her early on about the law of survival of the fittest, as well as its opposite: the importance of the nurturing before the killing and the eating.  
    These memories have obviously influenced her recent paintings, along with “the lack of any culture of death in the West,” as she puts it, which has driven her to delve even more deeply into the beauty and drama that occurs when plants, in particular, die: “the colours and forms which evolve in their decomposition and the resurgence and, ultimately, renaissance of flowers specifically.”
    This “inside-out” perspective on nature appears to align Hodgkinson with the loosely allied species of contemporary “New Naturist” painters which includes Terry Winters, Gregory Amenoff, and that master of Germanic sturm und drang Anselm Keifer.  For, like those artists, Biddy Hodgkinson does not merely depict the lay of the land, as in traditional landscape painting. Rather, she seeks to extract the abstract inner essences from nature: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” in Dylan Thomas’s memorable phrase.
    Like those parts of nature itself that most other painters ignore for prettier effects, Hodgkinson’s acrylic and mixed media paintings make little effort to ingratiate themselves with the viewer. They are rugged entities, often as craggy in texture as the ragged, shard-like shapes of that cranky painterly individualist Clyfford Still. Reveling in the raw deal of the natural order, reflecting the unspeakable beauty of all living and dying things, the colors in Hodgkinson’s compositions tend toward muted ochers, siennas, deep umbers, mauves and alizarin crimsons, caked like dried blood or smeared across the canvas in bold mortal strokes. Her shapes appear as if wrested from inside her expansive canvases with great struggle, rather than applied to them externally. She treats topography much as her fellow countryman Lucian Freud treated naked human flesh, savoring in its warts, its distended veins, its mottles and wattles, in compositions that are never without form, but always adventurously “un-form-ulated.”
    Hodgkinson’s refusal to mire the forces of nature in the formal constraints of landscape enables her to venture into the metaphysical, as seen in “2nd Lifeline,” which refers not to a wrinkle dissecting a human palm but to a ragged red wound running horizontally over an earthen terrain, its browns and arid greens scorched here and there by the acids with which she often weathers and distresses her thick pigments. Even more anomalous is a flatly elongated white disc stretching across the center of the composition, simultaneously suggesting a mirage of a pool of sperm or fallen flying saucer hallucinated from some distance.
    Another large acrylic and mixed media work,“The Urbanisation of an English Country Garden,” features creampuff-colored clouds and drips set against a somber tactile brown ground, suggesting, decay, loss and absence of a once verdant and budding garden. And when the artist affixes titles such as “Cougar” or “Squirrel” to paintings in which no sign of any living creature is anywhere in evidence, one looks at them as if through the eyes of a taxidermist contemplating pelts spread out on a worktable.
     Yet overall, Hodgkinson’s m�tier is as unflinching as the finale of the Dylan Thomas poem whose opening line was quoted earlier in this review: “And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb / How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.”
–– Byron Coleman

Biddy Hodgkinson, Agora Gallery 530 West 25th St., June 28 - July 19, 2013
Reception: Thursday, July 11, 6 - 8 pm.

View press release and exhibition information

Read More Artist Reviews