by Mark Van Proyen
Seven recent small works on paper by Robert Hudson beg the question: are they, strictly speaking, drawings? In these post-Warholian days, the preferred term, works on paper, gets to the real gist of those seen here. All sport collage elements, and the majority feature applications of diluted polychrome acrylic paint added to other materials such as compressed charcoal, frottage and spray paint. For the most part, they look quite different, and were no doubt selected for that reason. We can be assured that, because Hudson is such a prolific creator, that there are many more examples from which this grouping could be expanded.
Hudson, it’s worth remembering, is one of the best-known of the artists who first came to international attention in Peter Selz’s 1967 Funk exhibition at the University Art Museum (in Berkeley). The artists included in that exhibition were on to something far ahead of their time, making work that had to do with an Americanized update of surrealist esthetic procedures that served as a maximalist reversal of the Minimalist credo of “less is more.” Hudson’s contribution to the Funk esthetic was unique in that he did polychrome steel and ceramic sculptures that found a perfect, uncanny balance between Surrealist and Constructivist tendencies, adding an additional element of psychedelic illusionism. At the time, most informed viewers would have assumed that those differing stylistic camps had nothing resembling a common ground, but Hudson proved them wrong, and the Funk esthetic went on to become a pervasive albeit under-recognized model for a lot of subsequent artistic activity making use of hybridized forms and materials. Around 1980, some people started to refer to that hybrid esthetic as something called “post-modernism.”
Given that Hudson is now in his eighties, it seems natural that these recent works look as if they are casting a retrospective glance, seeking ways of synopsizing and consolidating the complex themes of his earlier work. Two of them incorporate postcard announcements from previous exhibitions that feature images of earlier, Funk-era sculptures, and three reveal the primary-color pointillistic technique that was a common feature of the paintings that he did throughout the 1970s and 1980s. There are also several imagistic echoes of country life, such as horses, a row of trees, a buzzard, all reminding us that, not only does he live in a rural Sonoma county environment, but that he also grew up in a ranching community in eastern Washington. There are even some fragments of charming 1950s-era package design that recall the distant memory of a happy childhood, some of these providing surprising color punches as is the case in the lower left of Chases Dirt (2018), the only horizontally formatted piece in the exhibition.
There are also some vague allusions to other artists’ work. In Buzzard (2018), we see a fragment at the upper left that seems to nod in the direction of Bruce Conner’s collage work from the 1960s, evoking a morbid Victoriana that seems an uncharacteristic note in relation to the colorful ebullience of Hudson’s own style. A similar Victoriana is also evident in Chases Dirt, only this time, it harks to the early 1960s paste-up collages made by Jess. Lucky Strike (2018) seems close to being an obvious homage to the ceramic sculpture of Richard Shaw, with whom Hudson shared a studio in Stinson Beach in the early 1970s.
Untitled (Leaves and Birds) from 2019 is the most recent work in the exhibition, and also the one that seems to verge the furthest away from the others. One reason for this is that its pictorial organization is less dependent on geometrical point/counterpoint structures; the other is that it is dominated by several Rorschach-like black-and-white silhouettes formulated from tree leaves and bird feathers, which seem to have been used as templates for the spray-painted shapes. There are some very small colored collage elements added, but the overall effect is that of a magical conjuration, almost as if the image was the residue of a spirit ceremony. I think that it was Thomas Albright who long ago pointed out that Hudson was influenced by contact with Native American tribal cultures when he lived in eastern Washington, and this particular piece bears that observation out. Since it is the most recent piece in the exhibition, it also makes us wonder if it may be pointing the way for new things to come.
Any inventory of images and materials would miss the special point of this exhibition, which is how it reveals the idiosyncratic ways Hudson uses materials, always with a deft sleight-of-hand and a clear eye for crisp albeit sometimes precarious pictorial organization. To view these works is to see the efforts of a seasoned juggler who can keep an amazing variety of compositional and imagistic balls in the visual air, even when he is working at a relatively small scale. Always, he makes it look easy while reminding us that he has been doing so since before the time that the so-called provisional painters were born.
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Project: Robert Hudson Drawings @ Brian Gross Fine Art through November 2, 2019.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.