Christopher Martin Hoff and the Art of (Dis)Appearing

Posted on March 14, 2013, 7:00 am
37 mins

Untitled self portrait

“Untitled (City Hall Reflection),” Oil on Linen. The only self-portrait I ever saw from Hoff…in fact, the only human presence I saw in his work. Image courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery.

On March 12, 2012, Christopher Martin Hoff passed away in his sleep. At the time of his passing, I was compiling an essay about him and his work as a plein air painter. I had several casual interviews with him the previous autumn and a few phone conversations and emails in the weeks before his death. Without a venue in mind to publish my essay, I had felt no urgency to complete it. I came to sorely regret that when his passing was announced at the end of March.

I could not turn my essay into a eulogy then. My notes felt incomplete, and in any event it felt disingenuous as a casual acquaintance and admirer to write a chummy tribute when those closest to him were grieving so deeply and struggling to put words to their loss. This wouldn’t have been an issue had I been able to maintain a critical distance, but I grieved more than I could have expected—as if one can or should expect to grieve about one as young and vibrant as Hoff—and I know I was not alone. When I told a friend who had met Hoff that I was working again on this article he said, “You’d be surprised how much I still think about him.”

“No,” I replied, “I wouldn’t.” Hoff was a true artist, beloved by a community that delighted in the imaginary, unpeopled spaces he shared with us as much as we loved sharing our public space with him and his easel. He was oft seen around town, painting diligently with his headphones on, lost in a world of his own, which was a distillation of our world. Despite his focus, he never dismissed people who stopped to comment or ask about his work. He became an advocate for the labor and love of art to many who may not have otherwise visited a museum or gallery. Though I love his work, this is no hagiography. A white-washed tribute outshines the subtle glow of a radiant life. I would rather we remember Hoff with the same diffuse joy that lights the sleek lines of his paintings.

Omnia Tempus Habent

Hoff and I first met at a gallery opening. We arranged to meet soon after. It was a beautiful day and I suggested that we meander as we talked and he happily agreed. That decision prevented me from writing much of what he said verbatim, which is somewhat regrettable as I try to accurately relate his words now. I don’t truly regret it because we were both flaneurs. We were both in love with exploring the city, and to have shoved ourselves into café chairs would have been utterly unnatural, especially when discussing his work as a plein air artist. As such, I never once saw him seated, and he will always be standing in my mind, always poised and active.

For example, when we began our first stroll at Jackson and Occidental, I remarked that his medium and his idiom both displayed a rare commitment to craftsmanship that has fallen out of favor with the rise of conceptual work using cheaper, less conventional materials. His finished works were all of oil and linen, which are costly and situated him firmly in a painterly tradition, as did his realistic representational work of outdoor scenes. Whether urban or parochial, representational works may be beautiful historical documents, but without the novel or didactic hook so desired by many, they can be variously accused of quaint nostalgia or a lack of criticality and originality. I spoke of my discontent with artists and commentators who treat representation and fine technique as inferior and antiquated next to pure concept. Hoff blinked, took a deep breath, and nodded emphatically with a protracted sigh. That was somehow sufficient. We spent the next few minutes admiring the architectural ornamentation on the buildings there in Pioneer Square, happily indulging our mutual appreciation of these crafted vanities.

I eventually revisited the subject only to say that I was glad that he was preserving the tradition while visually preserving his subject matter, making his work a sort of time capsule on multiple levels. He accepted this assessment with enthusiasm and affirmed that he was very much interested in ideas of time and history, but he doubted that any painting could be a truly accurate document, even one painted from a photograph. He added that he wasn’t interested in painting buildings of architectural significance out of a desire to preserve them. He would rather paint what was considered ugly and banal. He greatly admired the ornamentation that we had been observing, especially because he had worked in construction and knew how rare such quality is these days. He was intrigued by the idea of those craftsmen and artists of Gothic cathedrals who carved countless ornaments and images for a theoretical, incorporeal audience. He respected the craft and dedication of such artisans, but he wanted his work to do the opposite. That is, he wanted to take what was ignored or invisible at street level and make it appear to people anew. What was monumental and well-designed was worthy of respect, but it wouldn’t be the subject of his work. It already got all the attention it needed.

I continued by saying that he diverged from tradition by leaving the people out and by selecting places that were certain to change even as he was painting them, certain to never look the same way again. However technically accurate his depiction might be, it would not be of a decisive moment in time, but of a period in the life of these places and—because they are manmade—the lives of those who inhabit and construct them.

“There are no humans in your work,” I said. “Only humanity.” He only laughed and nodded. But it is true. His subjects were all manufactured environments—and not the glittering towers and arcades held up as the paragon of modern urbanity. These marvels may be central to the spectacle of a thriving cityscape, but in practice they are the most cellular and stifling elements of it. Hoff focused on the alleys and streets that are the channels of active life, the cranes that raise and level the shifting topography, the dumpsters brimming with debris of it all. Without overt commentary or cynicism, the most pedestrian places became adventurous or mysterious. In certain images, these stigmatized things could become sublime, beatified.

Ahab Oil on linen

“Ahab,” Oil on Linen. Image courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery.

I couldn’t resist using religious terminology at the time, especially after discussing sacred architecture, so I was compelled to mention my belief that if art can be called a religion, it is distinct as a religion of action rather than belief. Its one tenet is that things are simply worth doing, against nihilism. This inspired him to talk about his own need to create for himself—to first create a schedule and a regimen to be the framework, a scaffold or blueprint for the greater creative work…and work…and work, even if it all seemed an absurd endeavor in the final assessment.

He had worked in construction before and we were watching road repairs on First Avenue as we spoke. I asked if his background and familiarity with forms from construction kept him interested in painting sites being built or demolished. He asserted that those paintings were not so numerous in his oeuvre, but a practical knowledge of the industry helped him in planning and scheduling his work on paintings of construction sites, especially his paintings of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York City. Winter was coming, which meant that construction would slow for some projects. The season seemed all wrong for plein air painting, but he was ever determined to continue his work.

I asked wryly if he liked being in a city that would never be finished. He said he liked seeing new public transportation and art coming in, but the change he saw as a whole wasn’t necessarily for the better. He didn’t resort to old laments like, “This place isn’t cool anymore,” or “Gentrification ruins everything.” Though it seemed not so much of immediate concern for him, he commented on the growing rarity of workspaces for artists and a vague loss of character in many neighborhoods. Though it occasionally meant the destruction of older buildings we liked, we both appreciated that the natural barriers (water and hills) prevented sprawl and encouraged density in the city environs. That led us to discuss another part of the country where this is not the case.

Southeast to Northwest

Hoff and I both grew up in and around Atlanta, but we didn’t get much into his background there, mostly because I was too busy complaining about the state and the city—its philistinism, its sprawl, its wastefulness, all the worst elements of consumer culture that dismiss the history and craft that his work exemplified. He laughed, nodded, shrugged, allowed me to vent. It was a lousy way of paying him a compliment—talking about how great his work was because it wasn’t something else—but he took it in stride. Whether his patience was inborn or something acquired through his practice, it was appreciated. My ultimate point was that Seattle was a sanctuary from this, that there was an appreciation of craft here and perhaps in time it would be appreciated elsewhere. When I asked whether it was easier to work in the hot Southern humidity or the perpetual dampness of the Northwest, he said that you just can’t work in the former for too long. Seattle, despite its persistent mist, was a place where being a plein air artist was much easier for him.

He attended Savannah College of Art and Design and it was there that first took up plein air painting. He said he was not cut out for painting in a studio for hours, that despite the complications of working in the open the reward of being out in the world felt more satisfying and active. I remarked that painting representational work seems to be inaccurately regarded as a passive activity, wherein the painter is reproducing something in stillness. He suggested that, indeed, it can be passive and that by painting environments that were in flux he was more actively involved and in the moment—even anticipating what was to come next and reacting.

To this I raised the point that his work became something like landscape as portraiture, in the sense that—to paraphrase Thoreau—a true portrait doesn’t capture a person in a particular moment but as that person always was. The scenes that he painted did not come from photographs and often had surreal additions—or omissions—that struck at the essence of the place. Those subtle details could suggest tension and motion, such as in “The Blanket,” wherein all power lines and wires have disappeared and the traffic lights hover in a diffuse sky. Things are weighty but afloat—even the pieces of clock tower and building cut by bands of that impassive sky. To be diffuse here is not passive, but to infuse the entire scene with its light, its beautifying character.

Sono Oil on Linen

“Sono,” Oil on Linen. Image courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery.

Hoff spent hours at a site, studying it before he committed to painting it. He came with a plan, but even then that he was not sure how a painting would turn out until late in the process. I remarked that it sounded like the place was “revealing itself” to him, but after discussing that we agreed that this was an unsatisfying phrase, as it again implied passivity. The site was changing, the painting was changing, and even his perspective was changing. Things were not revealed but rather appeared together, allowing personal vision and reality, memory and document to coalesce through the painstaking, stroke-by-stroke work of observing and painting. Naturally, the light would change over the course of a day, especially on a clear day. He often painted at multiple sites in a day, spending a few hours at each, following a disciplined schedule, rain or shine (within reason, of course).

Though he had already shown his stoicism about the rain, I had to ask how he viewed it. A challenge? A nuisance? A constant baptism (jokingly) that kept him in state of purity and awareness of the moment? He laughed at the last one and was again content to nod. Really, it was a part of the ecology the necessary character of a place he loved, impossible to remove without damaging the whole. As we in the northwest often tell ourselves on rainy days, without this persistent mist we would not have the lush greenery that we enjoy, but there is the more immediate effect of the way it alters the light. Hoff loved the peculiar light of the Northwest—the oblique way it hits the globe, the vibrant, cloud-filtered light on overcast days intensifies the colors beside the grey of concrete and sky, wreathing even dumpsters and hydrants in a subtle halo. Hoff captured this glow masterfully, but I love most the rain-soaked sheen with of his streets and sidewalks. These were not flat surfaces under Hoff’s brush, for he somehow managed to capture the reflectivity of wet cement, tricking the eyes so that there seemed to be multiple fields of focus—the walkway and sky reflected in it.

He was particularly pleased when I said this, but he was neither bashful nor pompous about it. He was pleased to know that his talents were appreciated, but he preferred the viewer to recognize the beauty of the place not the skill of the painter. He didn’t even need to say it; it was written all over his face, and it is moments like that that make me heartsick to know that he is gone.

Omnia Munda Mundis

Hoff’s works were on display when we took our first walk and we went into Linda Hodges Gallery, which still represents his work. The process of going through a show with an artist can be awkward, but not with Hoff. There was always something to discuss, some little secret to discover. Most of the works were from a series that contained references to “Moby Dick,” but this had to explained to me, as one who has only read Melville in chunks.

The symphony oil on linen

“The Symphony: For Ed and Mary,” Oil on Linen Image courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery.

One of the more overt references is in “The Pulpit,” an image of a billboard in a parking lot northwest of Pine Street and Melrose Avenue. The focus is on the columns and one sees only a triangle of the board above. A stacked burger (a Big Mac, based on its telling, arterial red background) peels back to reveal a ship. When we first saw it together, my friend—the one who still misses Hoff—asked if that ship had been there when he painted it. “I think so,” I said stupidly. “I think maybe there was a Captain Morgan’s ad plastered underneath and he was capturing it in transition.” When my friend asked if a column really had been cut through as depicted in “The Symphony” (a condemned, burned out apartment building that had sat as a particularly dangerous squat for years at the corner of Pine and Summit), I said, “I seem to remember there being a gap there,” though it was structurally impossible. And honestly, I did picture in my mind a gap in that column I had seen so many times before. If that must be an indication of the fallibility and malleability of my memory, let it also be a testament to Hoff’s virtuosity as a painter. A silent part of me knew it was a surreal space but it was a sublime tension to be without the words to describe what was real and what was constructed. I at least agreed that the line ascending into space in “Ahab” was an imaginative addition of the artist.

Hoff confessed that he tried to make some alteration, hide some treasure in every work. It was already a pastiche in its final form, an imagined scene. In the painting “In His Wake” (painted just further up the hill on Pine), the addition of a White Whale’s tail breaching on the side of a distant wall transforms the sidewalk into a white stretch of placid water and the plastic netting on either side into churning orange and black waves. It’s a striking effect that turns an already beautiful rendering of a cluttered, banal walkway into a scene of adventure. However realistic these images were, they were unreal.

In a previous series, he had placed mischievous raven totems in the works. Hoff was again preserving an aspect of the region, one that has all but disappeared from our immediate experience but is still present with us as part of the land. Time becomes illusory through memory and representation. Time, it is said, is simply the universe’s way of preventing everything from happening at once, and Hoff ensured that the little tussle between being and non-being wouldn’t spoil the eternal moment of his images.

I can’t say that he was so existential about it. I have a feeling that phenomena were more important to him than philosophy, which always makes for a more compelling and immersive world in the work of visual artists. Even if one is inspired to reflect on sociological and philosophical concerns through his work, there was no central dogma, no propaganda. It was a vessel for exploration and reverie. Melville wrote, “the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.” In Hoff’s paintings, you were thrust onto the prow of a city still and seemingly uninhabited but vibrating with energy, somehow made more true for its absence of verisimilitude.

In Hoff’s paintings, Seattle was more of a city than it sometimes wants to be. A city is porous, has seepage and secrets, is diffuse but bound together by lines shooting in all directions parallel and perpendicular to the earth. It is filled with shops whose owners know their chaotic inventory by sight and touch, whose bars are patinated with sweat and stories, whose apartments spill their contents onto the street, set “FREE” on the curb, one transition to the next. The city is a play of inside and outside, of opposites united by physical proximity and willing acceptance that life is in flux. Stillness and sterility are the absence of life. A city is not compartmentalized and atomized; that would be the suburbs. If one values one’s silence and solitude above all else, if one cannot imagine being accosted by a bum (Hoff had been while working, he said) or shat on by pigeons (it has happened to all of us, including Hoff), then one does not belong in the city. I said as much to Hoff and stated that our unease with development as they were (and still are) occurring throughout the city could be attributed to a suburban compartmentalization that stifles the flow and flux of life. I called it “cultural desertification,” which he found funny—perhaps because it was overly dramatic, perhaps because we were geographically so unlike a desert.

Hoff was no Miniver Cheevy. He unconditionally embraced the place and time of his work, most marvelously through an image that only seemed to be of that place and time. That marvelous image then evoked that passion for the city in me and others. In “Sono” the bus wires against a grey sky become an abstraction of the streets below, reflecting the cut of the road in suspended, electrified rays. The cracks and beautiful sheen on the street become a darker version of the sky. There is a unity between the physical and abstract. When I pointed this out to him, he said that he hadn’t considered it before. He was happy that I saw it that way, that these things had secrets and lives that even he didn’t know of after days upon days upon days of painting them. The work may have been done, the place may have been altered beyond recognition, but the world within the painting lived on: Wet grime became nacre; dumpsters and waste bins became phosphorescent arks of color in a sea of grey; the refuse of life was purified.

WTC Project 4 Oil on Line triptych

“WTC Project 4,” Oil on Linen. Image courtesy of the Hoff Family Collection.

In His Wake

I had wanted to see the World Trade Center paintings in progress when Hoff and I last spoke over the phone. It troubles me that our last interactions were disembodied and stilted. The questions I had should have been asked in person. I wanted to know how he was handling such difficult subject matter. The difficulty, I noted, was not so much the expectation placed upon an artist responding to the most significant national tragedy of our generation, whose ramifications are still being felt. This was not going to be “Guernica,” I said, trying to put him at ease. He laughed softly on the other end. The difficulty as I saw it was more specific to his idiom and approach. For one, he was not working with familiar terrain; he was in a different city, a different culture, working with different light, painting a manically changing construction site. This would alter the character of the work dramatically. Furthermore, I believed that his sensitivity to humanity and the great psychic wound that site still represented must have weighed upon his mind. I clarified that the redemptive aspects of his work made him a perfect candidate to redeem the site…but if the subject matter was already explicitly one of symbolic and literal resurrection, did he not feel somewhat redundant?

Yes, I really used the word “redudant.”

Hoff said that he was still figuring it out, that the logistics of working around construction schedules and mapping out the site had kept him busy enough and that, as usual, the final vision was still evolving slowly. I mentioned that his previous “Easter eggs” would be problematic. Totemic ravens were out of context; references to a maniacal whale hunt would probably go unappreciated; missing pieces of buildings would be a grave omission in a place that brings to mind horrifying visions of towers punctured and collapsing. Did he have in mind different hidden treasures?

I could almost hear his face break into a smile on the other end. He knew that I had missed the references in the past at first glance and he coyly stated that I would have to wait and see them for myself. I never had the chance.

In August, Linda Hodges arranged works by Hoff already in private collections and works he had finished but not yet sold. There were also the WTC images, on loan from his family. They were more complete than I expected. Most of the background buildings in “WTC 5” were a flat goldenrod but beautifully drawn. “WTC 4” was a panoramic, vertical triptych that seemed straightforward at first, but at the gap between each square panel the focal point shifted further away, bending the earth so that the bottom panel looked almost straight down while the top looked toward the horizon. It was an imaginative conceit, a perfect example of Hoff’s play with opposites—reconciling vertical and horizontal through one’s own line of vision.

Just days before the opening of the retrospective show, filmmaker Chris Marker had passed away. Marker was an ecumenical flaneur, whose play was with time more than space. The loss sucker punched me when I was already half-dreading Hoff’s final exhibit. These words from Marker’s mesmerizing hymn to time and metropolises Sans Soleil echoed in my mind:

“Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound…disembodied.”

We mourn selfishly. We know that all things must change and perish. We hope for rejuvenation, but we know that some things do not grow back. Do we become as Ahab, avenging a stump of ourselves and lingering phantom pains? Do we hobble on in self-pity? I daresay Hoff would be dismayed at that thought.

Still, I miss Hoff. I miss taking for granted that he was out there, painting in the fresh air. He was a great man and a great artist. In a world that puts a premium on sterility, he showed the beauty of the decayed and fecundating. In a region that laments its climate, he embraced the unique beauty and history of it unequivocally. In a city that is undergoing growing pains, he portrayed its cyclical and timeless aspects, the peace amid the noise and haste. In a community that (let’s face it) can be a little too cloistered and hermetic, he stood on a sidewalk and touched strangers and fans alike, advocating for art in the act of making it.

For all these reasons and more he shall be missed—for all the memories, the laughs and tenderness that came so easy to him, even in the minimal interactions we had. I will eventually forget that last phone call. I will remember the ineffable moments and sights of our walks in Pioneer Square, that would end in front of his apartment, where he gave me a deep, sincere hug and a glowing smile, looking me right in the eye just before we turned and went our separate ways. May we all live with the openness and curiosity toward our world that he did, with vision unhindered by what is visible alone. May we be as imaginative as we are dedicated, so that we may expand our interior universe in all that we do, not narrow it by a singularity of vision. May we find ways of sharing with others, find joy in their joy, in their own discoveries, until we—like towers, columns, lines, totems, all things—disappear.

Portrait of Hoff by Daniel Carrillo

Wet plate collodion portrait of Christopher Martin Hoff. Image courtesy of the photographer, Daniel Carrillo. Carrillo often portrays his subjects before a neutral background. Of this image he said, “I wanted to shoot him outside with his easel because that is how he worked. He was out there rain or shine busting it out.”

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

2 Responses to: Christopher Martin Hoff and the Art of (Dis)Appearing

  1. April 7th, 2013

    Thank you for this excellent essay. I enjoyed talking with him a couple of times and liked his work. Kurt Solmssen

  2. December 24th, 2013

    I noticed he was from Georgia. I wonder if he had Lyme disease and that had anything to do with his heart issues. W