Howard Hodgkin: Acquainted with the Night, at Alan Cristea Gallery.
To mark the imminent occasion of Howard Hodgkins eightieth birthday, Alan Cristea Gallery is showing a new series of monumental prints by the artist collectively entitled Acquainted with the Night. Hodgkin was once known for his habit of creating almost perversely small pictures, but during the last two decades he has increasingly worked on a large scale, and with commanding assurance. This has been conspicuously true of his work as a printmaker, so much so that he has quietly pioneered new departures within the medium itself. In 2009 he made the two largest etchings ever created, calling the pair Time Goes By. Each was twenty feet long, evoking the panoramic scale of Monets Nympheas paintings, but their effects were so turbulent and explosive that it was as if depth-charges had been laid in that tranquil waterlily pond in the garden at Giverny. Hodgkins new aquatints are not quite as large, mostly some seven feet high by eight feet across, but nonetheless gigantic compared to most prints.
They were created using a substance known as carborundum, which was originally used by printers in its solid form to grind down lithographic stones, but in this case is itself powdered and mixed with PVA glue to form a paste which the painter can apply directly to an aluminium printing plate. The marks dry to form a granular surface which can be inked and printed in different colours. The artist has described the results as surrogate paintings ... on the edge of not being prints at all. Working with the basic unit of a single set of preserved painterly gestures, the artist plays startling variations on a theme. In his new series, a wave-like form, disintegrating at its margins into specks and spatters like flecks of wind-scattered sea-spume, is successively transformed from one print to the next both through colour and through the associations created by a title. The first of these fertile swathes of form is printed in a hot medley of yellows, oranges and reds, on a light speckled ground. It might resemble a figure, or two figures reclining, seen in silhouette through half-closed eyes at the end of a blazing day. The name given to this heat-saturated image is In India. Then the same form mutates into a convulsion of browns, violets and vermilions: now, suddenly, it is Delhi. Next, translated into an intense sequence of blue and ultramarine, it turns into something else again, a doodle or blot suggesting a hugely blown-up accident involving a fountain pen: La plume de ma tante. There is a black as well as a blue version of auntys pen. Then, once more with feeling, the same forms appear in black and viridian, on a mottled and stained field of brown wash: this is Mud, and how muddy and earth-impregnated it feels.
A new set of gestures comes on stage next, a hatched mass of dark bluey-black clouds set above veils of green and lighter blue: Stormy Weather. At the last, both plates are printed together, so that those storm-clouds hover above the wave-like form of the earlier sequence. Printed in brown, madder and ochre, their collision is itself upstaged by a huge, splash-like welter of yellow and green paint, furiously applied directly to the paper by hand. Attack, the artist calls this weird, vibrant, sense-stunning work, as if to declare his determination to stay on the offensive.
La plume de ma tante is a phrase taken from the French textbooks of the past, recalling the tortuosly stilted exercises in vocab-learning that once tormented Ronald Searles cynical 1950s schoolboy, Nigel Molesworth. Its use here suggests a wry awareness that these prints themselves represent, if not exactly an exercise, then a programmatic demonstration of the methods that the artist has pursued. How much, they prove, he can wring from the apparently restricted means of his own self-invented pictorial language. How many different memories, places, weathers, emotions can be communicated by the self-same pictorial forms, altered here by colour, there by combination or recombination.
The title of the series, drawn from a short poem by Robert Frost, has a hint of morbidity about it. But these intoxicating pictures are full of an exuberant, fiery vitality.