catalogue essay
It is no longer origin that gives rise to historicity; it is historicity that,in its very fabric, makes possible the necessity of an origin which must be both internal and foreign to it: like the virtual tip of a cone in which all differences, all dispersions, all discontinuities would be knitted together so as to form no more than a single point of identity, the impalpable figure of the Same, yet possessing the power, nevertheless,to burst open upon itself and become other.
Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les Choses

That Nicky Hoberman's paintings are able to engender a critique of contemporary society has been a major feature of their critical reception. The identity of the child as a culturally specific construction , play-acting as not just a condition of innocence but as a way of rehearsing darker identities, fantasy as the child's mask that presents itself to the world and how sexuality is negotiated within such a presentation, are among the issues that her work opens up to scrutiny. In general Hoberman's work has demonstrated that issues relating to representations of children address many taboos at work in society. But however relevant they may be in terms of the issues they bring to light, to read the representations in such terms entails a discussion about the effects of her work purely as images.
To take into account that these images have been constituted through the medium of painting can hopefully address another question. How has Hoberman's work been able to engender such a critical response? The implication here is that confronting a spectator with images that challenge beliefs and perceptions about the world depends upon how such images are constituted and structured. It is through a level of mediation that an image can be said to turn its 'face' toward the spectator and to bring into play a genuine 'confrontation'. In Hoberman's work, the fact that this mediation takes place within the medium of painting is, in itself, significant.
Before Hoberman's work can be discussed as painting a further distinction must be made that brings into question the position of her work within the context of its reception. For her work is not just painting but more precisely a type of figurative painting. Although her work has been received into a broad context of contemporary British art her work does not seem to have emerged specifically out of such a framework. While owing much to a broadly artistic British context, it has few if any allegiances with British figurative painting. This is significant as her practice has been moving toward a two fold radicalisation, both in terms of the effect of the works' images and at the same time positioning herself within a radicalisation of painting. The latter distances her work from many of her direct contemporaries and a deeper tradition of British figurative painting. This happens most saliently in terms of the tendency for figuration in British painting to be used as a trope within essentialist discussions. For example Jenny Saville's use of painting as a self interrogation could be said to share much with an older generation of artists such as Lucien Freud. The ease through which such painting is co-opted, critically, into British humanist thinking where painting occupies a status of unquestionable authority is not applicable to Hoberman's work. The matter in hand for her is not to define vision as an affirmation of an essentialist ideal of presence but to enlist it toward an interrogation of how the mechanisms of identity operate.
Hoberman's practice is more deeply rooted in a wider tradition. Before she was a painting student on the M.A. course at Chelsea School of Art, Hoberman had studied fine art in Paris at Parsons School of Design. Early links with Paris and French culture were preceded by academic studies at Oxford University where she completed a degree in Modern History where one area of study had been Baudelaire. Already an accomplished French speaker her studies in Paris were, through his writings, informed with an understanding of modernity and contemporaienity. Her early work demonstrated an interest in figuration in painting as a forcing ground for fundamental modernist issues. A brief encounter with making single portraits collected together as a taxonomy was transposed into a number of paintings which were derived from photographs she took in Paris. These were images that focused upon the isolation of people in public spaces. One particular painting was of two children slouched in chairs during a visit to a museum, tired, bored and recoiling into a detachment from their ordeal as tourists. This painting pointed to both Hoberman's sources and future preoccupations. The subject of this work can be described as absorptive - the children being self-absorbed through boredom which isolates them from each other and their immediate surroundings. The cultural setting, a location for looking at objects which have been made specifically to be seen, or beheld, furthers a relationship with these children oscillating between a status as object and subject. Hoberman herself had been engaged with aspects of French nineteenth century painting where absorptive themes and beholding structures are undoubtedly crucial pictorial mechanisms . Manet's work is particularly significant here. A Baudelairian idea of the flaneur's double structure of being both 'in' and 'detached' from the crowd of the city can also be detected as conditioning the thematic logic of these paintings. At the same time as encountering painting thematically, Hoberman was grappling with the issue of the role of photography in her work which was only later to be fully addressed through her meeting with Mark Wright in London. Before that meeting her key sources in terms of this issue were painters like Manet and Degas, who were early on using photography as a source in their work, and also the work of contemporary photographers. A further thematic link Hoberman made in her Paris years was to Velasquez's Las Meninas (a link which further reinforced her association with Manet). She made a series of paintings which 'parodied' the children in the foreground of that work by substituting pâtisserie for the figures. Such a transposition commented both on the objectification of the infanta and the courtiers as they present themselves to the king and queen and to the intense effects and associations that 'window display' still has in Paris. These examples point to a continuing preoccupation with beholding structures, absorptive themes and the issue of theatricality through the objectification of the subject. In nineteenth century French painting these were critical imperatives to the emergence of Modernist art. For Hoberman it engendered a critical approach to figurative painting which distanced her from a reactionary rhetoric of painting.
In French critical thinking a distinction between tableau and peinture can be made that is difficult to render in English . The tableau is a type of historical inscription which in a sense comes before the work like a type of logos that contains at once a history and the potential of a work. An idea of the tableau, in terms of painting, that she received at this point was toward structures of closure both in terms of absorptive states and theatrical effects which would act both on the identity of the work as a painting and on the structuring effect of this identity on the spectator. While broadly tackling these issues in Paris, there were still questions about the execution and handling of her work as paintings.
Two factors contributed to a conscious rethinking of her work when she went to London. As an M.A. student in Painting at Chelsea School of Art in
1994-5 she was confronted with critical issues that pertained specifically to contemporary art. Before Chelsea she had met the painter Mark Wright who had introduced to her the blending brush technique. The most significant recent precursor of this technique has been Gerhard Richter but through the 'nineties it has been adopted by a generation of British painters (Mark Wright, Paul Winstanley, Richard Patterson, Glen Brown among many). For Hoberman the blending brush answered the question of how to effect a relationship between paint handling and the photographs, that she had been using as a source for her work, and the handling of paint. In Paris her brushwork had concealed rather than acknowledged her sources. She had, moreover instinctively reacted against a type of painterly abstraction that was prevalent at Chelsea and also wanted to distance herself from naturalistic associations of painterly qualities in terms of artists such as Freud. This shift also meant she was no longer painting from photographs so much as making paintings of photographs. The blending or blur brush softens areas to create effects that can be likened to a photographic depth of field. Her increasing use of the Polaroid camera added to this, unnaturalistic colour qualities which she chose to exploit rather than repress. Polaroid photography and the blending brush technique had an important transforming effect on her work.
These technical strategies were played out within a thematic concern for which her Polaroid photographs were the key source. She photographed children who were either acting out roles through play or fantasy or confirming more passively to exterior expectations. The Polaroids played a different and more intense role than photographs played in her Paris paintings. The Polaroids were taken within the private context of children who the artist knew in some way.
The majority of her subjects have been girls and one feature of these images has been the way the girls are dressed. They are turned out like sweet confections (recalling her Las Meninas pâtisserie paintings) and this echoed by many of the paintings' titles such as prune whip and truly scrumptious . But even in a painting like Mermaid where the girl's clothes are a simple tee shirt, jeans and trainers, the coquettishness of the pose alludes to complex connotations in the sexual codes that it embodies. Mermaid as a title refers both to an allusion set up within the pose, the crossing of the girls legs on a lateral axis making a potential tail as well as an asexual mode of dress turning the subject into part girl, part boy. The placement of the figure on a relatively flat ground gives rise to a spatial ambivalence; is she in or on the ground or is she more in the painting? The figures have been lifted (in a sense cut out) from their photographic origins and placed into or upon flat, intensely coloured grounds. The relatively large scale of such works brings into effect a further conditioning factor which contributes to the force that these paintings have. The figures themselves very much act as shapes that are stamped out against or in spite of their ground. This heightens the sense that they are isolated at a momentary and telling point. A point perhaps ordinarily difficult to perceive is brought into vision. The intensity of this moment renders the image in terms of qualities that exceed the normative readings of a child's identity.
This manner of cutting out the figure and placing it into a displaced field I've likened elsewhere to technologies of representation . In mass media images the ease by which such an operation can take place has been revolutionised by computer-imaging programmes. To take a photographic image and to then manipulate it in a way which can most easily be described as cut and paste is an almost commonplace feature of the images that inhabit billboards, shop windows, T.V., magazines and books. The large scale of these works adds to this relationship.
This is an active and striking aspect in the more recent and much larger paintings of groups of children. In Hoberman's later work there is an integration and a new ambition, working upon the developments made in her previous work.
Truly Scrumptious is a 'collage' of four figures and eight dogs. The dogs (in fact the same dog eight times) weave between the figures bringing together the four cut out shapes of the figures presented in a frieze like arrangement. A type of compositional, almost abstract unity is almost confounded by a radically changing perspective (of the camera) on each figure from the far left to the far right. The girl on the right is looking up directly to someone above her, she is also looking directly at the spectator meaning that the spectator must negotiate a compromise. In Spook and Spook II, a divided pictorial structure (both in composition and in terms of beholding mechanisms) is at work. Spook is made up of three figures, two grouped together on the left edge of the painting and one on the far right. The right hand girl is contorted into a posture that addresses the spectator so as to elicit a response. The response required is to acknowledge the child and to participate in the active sense of the excessive identity she is playing out. The glances of the other two girls also address the spectator's space; the nearer figure with a sense of unease and recoil and the other in a state of absorbed amusement. These two figures seem to be responding to effects happening in the space of the spectator while the isolated figure is attempting to elicit a response from the same space. The division in this structure brings into play the sense that the beholder is both active and passive to the confrontations represented in the painting itself. The beholder is both the perpetuator and the receiver of the effects at work.
Spook II has a similar but more complex structure. A grouping of four girls to the left of the canvas are all looking into the space of the spectator. The gestures and facial characteristics of each child point to significantly different modes of address to the spectator. One is amused, two seemed concentrated is if in an attempt to "psyche out" the viewer. The fourth in this group, backed by a lace curtain seems in a trance, an effect that is increased by the sleepwalking gesture that she makes with her arms. On the right of the picture another girl is isolated from this grouping. Her separation is further marked by the fact that she is absorbed by looking at the other girls. She is detached from their theatrical address to the beholder and like a surrogate she displaces the viewer's experience of their posturing into the structure of the picture.
The task set for the spectator by these multiple figure paintings is paraphrased by many of their titles such as Hide and Seek and Camouflage. Hide and Seek refers not only to the game which the children in the painting are perhaps playing. It seems more to refer to what is revealed and what is concealed, what is there and what is absent (through the readings of the figures, their gestures and their relationship to each other). These paintings are not simply figurative accounts of the phenomena of a corporeal presence. They play upon uncertainties compounded by the complexities of the confrontation that the figure has with its viewer. These psychological uncertainties are intensified by the resonance of the child as a sign, and also throw into question and even mirror the viewers troubled response to the painting as a sign and as a surface.
Mick Finch, 1998.