Pat Hoffie

Homage to the unknown woman
ROZ MACALLAN GALLERY, BRISBANE
March 19 – April 7, 1987

Attached to more obviously important issues than those of Redford, but somewhat less coherent than his, is the work of Pat Hoffie. Hoffie was one of only two Queenslanders selected for the Moet Chandon Prize exhibition earlier this year.

Her work has the advantage of clearly mixing general concerns with specific ones. She portrays her friends and herself in situations that appear to share a private knowledge, but, in addition to this, she tries to express general attitudes about the role of women.

In the (to this date) no-man's-land of Roz MacAllan's walls this is not surprising. Yet where Hoffie is least successful is in the formation of a cogent point of view concerning the problems of gender.

It is a pity that in her catalogue statements she tries to dissociate herself from theory. For theory is what she badly needs.

Her disavowal of what she calls the "hegemony of text" is itself, albeit self-contradictorily, theoretical intervention. In addition, her attempts to defend "the decorative" a traditional domain of women - as a positive quality in art require a careful theoretical strategy.

Moreover, in her pictures, "the gaze", a phenomenon which has attracted elaborate analysis in feminist theory, tends to act as a counter-productive fetish. Similarly, her intention to eliminate gesture, the "obvious handiwork of the artist" by, "trying to get the canvas as flat and matter-of-fact" as she can, takes no account of the theoretical pitfalls of presenting information as "fact".

So in spite of her catalogue statements, Hoffie works in the domain of both feminist concerns and postmodemist semiotics. Yet if her work fails it is chiefly through lack of ideological rigour-there is an inadequate thinking through of the consequences and implications of all the factors she tries to synthesise.

To sum it up, her work displays an excess of theories accompanied by a paucity of theory. For instance, in four pictures called Homage to the Unknown Woman Hoffie juxtaposes a portrait of herself or a female friend against a drawing of a sculpture from the ancient world. In one case it is an Archaic Greek priestess, in another an unknown Egyptian woman, et cetera.

In each picture the drawing and the painting are pasted side by side on a background consisting of a wax-resist all -over pattern of flower shapes and drips of paint.

Eternal signs of Woman with their connotations of archaeological mystery are thus linked with specific and immediate portrayals of a woman. This characterises femininity as mysterious and transcendent of historical conditions, a position doomed to be politically regressive. For the transcendent is beyond change, and the myth of essential mystique works in the service of the status quo by rendering its object beyond rational enquiry.

Only if the backgrounds were to be taken as disreputable and tawdry -say, wallpaper in a cheap motel - to devalue the reactionary meaning of the images enclosed by them, could we recuperate a feminist position at this level.

But, at the same time, Hoffie's desire to valorise decoration would become contradicted by ornament's being attributed a negative value. Therefore, whichever way the pictures are to be interpreted, as mystical or materialist, they lose coherence.

Likewise, there is no indication of a coherent analysis being applied to the function of the "gaze" which preoccupies much of her work. In Utopia Abandoned-Floating Uncertainties, for example, three female figures bathe in a primordial lily pool and exchange knowing looks; while in the foreground an unhappy male companion looks out, alienated from it all.

Just as in the most conservative of visions, here women become posited as the "other" and linked with nature and intuition in opposition to civilisation as the intellectual domain appropriate only to men. The inter-protagonist gaze in Hoffie's paintings thus divides the genders as somehow essentially beyond each other's understanding rather than attempting to challenge this repressive assumption.

Nor does the frequent soulful look of faces out of the painting at the viewer serve to critique any conventions of the gaze in portraiture - for didn't Dud and Pete explain to us once that good thing about the Mona Lisa was that “... 'er eyes toiler yer about the room"?

Hoffie, however, also has several things in her favour for future development. Firstly she is technically competent. Secondly, she has an emblematic style that is recognisably hers, and a trademark on some level has always been useful to an artist's viability.

Thirdly, and most importantly, she obviously has a strong desire to engage with important issues directly through her work. And, if she does not entirely discount theory, there is every possibility that she will learn from any flawed meanings that may thus result.

Pat Hoffie Masquerade