It Still Smells of Nothing: Cathrin Hoffmann at Public Gallery

Tuesday 27th October, 2020

By Florence Kettle

Public Gallery has been busy this year. Having put on a mammoth digital exhibition NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT from 6th May to 10th July, Cathrin Hoffmann’s first ever solo exhibition is the third physical show in their new Middlesex Street space. Opening on 14th October, the show reflects on the liminality of lockdown and on creativity in isolation, featuring the artist’s first sculptural works alongside eight oil paintings.

The first thing to mention about Hoffmann’s paintings is their scale. These works have presence, and they demand pause. Discussing this with the artist and other attendees at the opening, there is recognition of the significance of coming to see these works of riotous red and blue after months of lockdown, experiencing work exclusively on screen. Hoffmann notes that while this year has been significant in her life as a maker, many people have been discovering her work through Instagram, piece by piece, squares on a feed. This lends an additional sense of significance to the show, which is also testament to chance and the importance of working relationally; Hoffmann first met the Public team when undertaking a residency in London last year, and the show’s development has built from there.

The idea of Hoffmann’s audience growing through digital platforms this year is fascinating given the artist’s process and relationship to the digital. She composes her pieces on a graphic tablet before rendering the final composition in paint, having said that using the tablet allows her to think sculpturally and to play with the whole shape of the body. Hoffmann describes her journey to becoming an artist as one born in struggle; having worked as a graphic designer for around 10 years, she turned 30 and decided to pursue her latent artistic dreams. She describes a period of ‘breakdown’; she threw it all up in the air, trading security for precarity, determined to work through the difficulty. This journey seems apt to our current moment, as in 2020 Hoffmann has again been making in adversity. The figures in her paintings are anguished and contorted, exuding discomfort, alone with their shadows. They are confronting to look at yet appear settled in repose. In this way, the work embodies what so many people have described experiencing in recent months: oscillation between optimism and despair, contentedness and boredom, relief and grief. These ideas have been brought into immediate relationship through the collective isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and are made manifest in these contradictory bodies.

The sculptural language established in the paintings enables the sculptures, Blue Skull With At Least A Cherry and Triage, to sit in natural dialogue with them. These pieces isolate what is already exaggerated in the paintings, in terms of the outsized hands and heads as well as in the textural palette of lumps and bumps. Hoffmann says she is ‘attracted by the ambivalence between perfection and imperfection,’ and seeks through this to question what comprises the human in a post-digital age. Continuous across her paintings and sculpture are amplified pimples, nipples, lips and acrylic nails – the latter perhaps most notably so, alternately vividly coloured, gem-like structures or yellowed, decaying appendages. Talking about her process of painting from digitally made images, she expresses delight in the moments when the paint medium allows and necessitates blemish to emerge from the digital precision: the brushstrokes, the dirt, the hair, the inconsistency, the humanity.

Having encountered Hoffmann’s bored, lonely, horny, open, threatening, playful work at Public, I came away feeling hopeful. It seems we might be able to glory in the waiting while it lasts, knowing the buzz of the gallery is safe.

It Still Smells of Nothing is on show at Public Gallery, London, until 14th November.