Peter Hoffer’s landscapes, on view at Chase Young Gallery in Boston (November 3–28, 2010), are layered meditations on nineteenth-century Romanticism and nature. The layering is literal as well as conceptual, since Hoffer’s elaborate technique both replicates and comments on the varnishing practices of the salon exhibition. What the French called vernissage and the British “varnishing day” gave painters an opportunity to burnish their works with a fresh coat of varnish or shellac before the public was admitted. (J.M.W. Turner was known to repaint pictures at this point, much to the chagrin of fellow artists, who might see their own paintings upstaged by some bravura brushwork added by the master.) Hoffer became intrigued by what happened to unsold salon paintings, which might be subjected to multiple varnishings as they traveled from venue to venue. In the mid-1990s, he began applying ten to fifteen layers of dammar varnish to his works, sometimes painting between layers as well. More recently, be began using a synthetic resin surface, an epoxy and acrylic coating over the dammar varnish.
The surfaces of his paintings could be raised by an eighth of an inch to a full inch by this process. As anyone aware of the nineteenth-century eccentric painter Albert Pinkham Ryder would expect, this build-up leads to discolorations and surface cracking, effects that can have their own aesthetic appeal. For Hoffer, these “inconsistencies…are intentional and integral.” He sometimes layers off-center to suggest the unevenness of the topography. Hoffer has a modernist’s sensitivity to the physicality of the painted surface as an end in itself. A series of spaghetti-box-format work in the exhibition play with the transitional zone between landscape or seascape and abstraction. In Cape (24-by-96 inches, all works 2010), low surf slips across dark sand under a gray sky. Shifts in muted color suggest a continuous-image triptych. Paint streaks add a veil of surface patterning. The focus in Centre (18-by-70 inches) is on the sky above a narrow base line of water. The swirling amorphous sky shapes demonstrate how effectively the milky stains of resin can mimic the mysterious movement of twilight clouds.
While these paintings have a contemporary edge, they also allude to a nineteenth-century visual trope, the sky studies of John Constable and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes.Valenciennes’s oil studies of cloud and mist, with intuitive brushwork capturing evanescent atmospheric effects, have become better known since the groundbreaking exhibition “In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-Air Painting” (National Gallery of Art, 1996). Hoffer’s exploitation of the chemical processes at work in painting and varnishing also recalls the Romantic painters’ experimentation with accidents such as paint splatters, using them to generate compositions.
Hoffer’s Romantic roots are even more apparent in a series of tree portraits, all with an almost Druidical reverence for the subject. Midway (16-by-48 inches) keeps the elongated proportions of the near-abstractions, but the dark brushy trees in the middle distance anchor the shadowy plain and roiling clouds. The sky—thickly impastoed, with patches of rust and indigo—is convincing both as nature and as painterly surface. A trio of paintings, all 24-inches square, puts the tree up close. The most symmetrical is North East: the thick foliage and delicate branches of the elegantly shaped tree are carefully observed. The splotches of reddish varnish that stain the sky can be read as the rosy light of dawn. In Saint Anthony, the slightly asymmetrical swoop of the big tree’s dense foliage creates a dynamic shape, partially reflected in the narrow stream, and the rust-colored stains at the bottom of the image suggest red-clay soil. The surface is wrinkled, scarred and cracked, “like the terrain itself,” the artist remarks. Escarpment takes full advantage of the notion of geologic upheaval. The tree rises above us at a rakish angle, perched on the steep diagonal of a cliff.
Hoffer’s paintings embody process while, at the same time, presenting themselves as polished reliquary-like works of art. The artist explains: “The markings on the paintings, inconsistencies in the resin and the unrefined finishing of the canvas structure allude to the elements found outside the artist’s control. The result invokes a sense of abandon and a hint of a work in transition. Challenging this is the thick high gloss encapsulating the surface, slick and precious in its packaging.” In a thoroughly contemporary, thoughtful way, Hoffer is revisiting the fruitful tension of nineteenth-century landscapists, who sought to balance truth to nature with fidelity to the formal and technical demands of their art. Chase Young Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue, No. 57, Boston, Massachusetts02118. Telephone (617) 859-7222. On the web at www.chaseyounggallery.com