Pete Hoida, New Paintings is at the APT Gallery, Harold Wharf, Creekside, London SE8 4SA, 11 – 21 July 2019
In the 1950s, painter and critic Patrick Heron wrote about the artist Ivon Hitchens. There he noted a tendency in England to understand painting ‘primarily in terms of literature’, to respond first to ‘atmosphere’ rather than ‘pictorial qualities’, and to prefer realism or the theoretical nature of constructivism over the ‘sensuous’ tradition of Fauvism and Cubism. Hitchens, for Heron, was a rare instance of a British painter able to look the French sensualists in the eye. In addition, his painting was the most ‘distinguished’ British example of what Heron described as the ‘necessary fusion’ of the two main sources for any artist: ‘art and nature’, international and local.1 With pleasing alliteration, much of what Heron wrote of Hitchens can be applied to Hoida.
For forty-five years, Pete Hoida has been buried in rural south Gloucestershire producing bold, robust abstract paintings that seem, primarily, to be concerned with the ‘visual reality’, to use Heron’s term, of the work of art itself: its colour, its form and their combined potential to evoke sensuously some kind of sensation or emotional reaction from the viewer. Frequently Hoida’s paintings are made up of blocks of paint arrayed, sometimes, in inter-locking rows like a psychedelic dry-stone wall. Like much of Heron’s painting, and indeed of others like the German-American Hans Hofmann, Hoida is clearly concerned with the inherent tension between figure and ground, the painter’s battle to hold these diverse forms and varied colours in conjunction without allowing them to create an illusion of depth. He makes this contest all the more challenging by preferring a long- horizontal format for his support as did Hitchens. Hitchens was, however, explicitly concerned with landscape and his wide compositions lent themselves to that subject and to his willingness to allow some pictorial depth, a sense of spatial recession.
Others have made connections between Hoida’s painting and his location in the rolling countryside of the west of England. I am not so certain that these paintings could not, just as easily, have emerged from a studio block in Dalston had the painter chosen to work there. That is not to say, however, that nature is not at their heart. But they are equally about painting, about the painter’s basic tools of colour, surface, stroke, form. Hoida’s immersion in the pleasures and perils of paint is demonstrated by the extraordinary range of affects that he brings into each work. Unlike, say, his former-tutor Sean Scully, Hoida’s blocks of paint are not even in their type of application or their tonal values. Apart from starkly contrasting, sometimes almost clashing colours, he also employs a range of techniques to further complicate the issue of depth and recession. The paint may be thinned to allow it to dribble and run over the block beneath; one colour may be drawn boldly across another, like the red across the yellow in the middle of Stykkishólmur; paint is smeared or sponged across another so that the two hues intermingle; or it may be thinned and drawn off the canvas, lightening the intensity of the colour. As a consequence, some blocks seem solid, others modulated by the evident texture of the brushstroke and the impasto of the paint, and yet more mottled and varied by the sundry ways different paints have been applied over or removed from one another.
Hoida has remained consistent in his focused engagement with the basic tools of pictorial composition but that is not to stay there is no development in his work. His distinctive use of varied blocks of colour has grown out of a more conventional, broader, expressive application of paint as seen in Favourite Dish 1984. In a number of his most recent works, he seems to have raised the stakes by combining a similarly loosely applied ground against which his blocks of colour are applied risking the creation of an illusionary depth. For instance, in Dance of the Cuttlefish 2019 rectilinear squares and oblongs of paint sit on a softer, mottled ground made up of brushier strokes of paint and the subtle diffusion of tonally even colours one into the next. Some of the blocks are constituted of plain, single colours but others are mottled and varied, one paint having been drawn across another. As a consequence, there are a range of differing tensions in each painting: between the blocks and the ground; amongst the blocks themselves arrayed across the field of modulated paint; within some of the blocks as one colour is glimpsed through another; and through the juxtapositions where one block abuts, contrastingly, the next.
Pete Hoida started out as a poet. A formative, youthful friendship was with the great Scottish poet W.S. Graham much of whose work concerned itself with the craftsmanship of the medium, of the battle to assemble constructions of words that convey precise meaning without creating specific narratives. In his exploration of the inherent tension between the abstract qualities and evocative potential of his practice, Graham found a natural affinity with painters whose marks carried less inherent meaning than the poet’s words. One might see Hoida’s paintings in comparable ways to that constructed verse, his creation of blocks from a varied set of painting techniques like the construction of phrases, clauses or sentences and their assembly into a whole that is rich in its suggestive power but entirely non-representational. Returning to Heron’s insistence that art draws on the two sources of other art and nature, in Hoida we see a painter exploring the expressive potential of the basic tools of his craft, inevitably drawing on the legacy of other artists, while creating images which evoke a sense of light, time and space, of, that is, the pleasures of being in nature. As Graham said:
The poet or painter steers his life to maim
Himself somehow for the job. His job is Love
Imagined into words or paint to make
An object that will stand and will not move.
1 Patrick Heron, ‘Hills and Faces: Ivon Hitchens’ in The Changing Forms of Art, London 1955, pp.28-9.