Post by Hannah Raisin
Burrinja Curator JD Mittmann has been working on a new exhibition exploring the work of one of Australia’s most important abstract artists. Frank Hodgkinson: Sense of Place is currently in the Burrinja Gallery until 5 November, this compelling show features a number of artworks never exhibited in Victoria. I caught up with JD to discover more about the exhibition and how his research and understanding of the artist have shaped the exhibition.
When did you first encounter Frank Hodgkinson’s work and what drew you to it?
Strangely, my first encounter with Frank Hodkinson’s work goes back to when I started working at Burrinja in 2011 when a large canvas painting sat in the corridor next to the gallery. Neil McLeod owned it and had “parked” it there. The piece was impressive, quite similar to the work ‘Evolution’ which is in the exhibition.
It was not until years later when a collector friend of mine in Sydney mentioned Hodgkinson again, I recollected the work, and it appeared that Peter knows Franks’ wife Kate very well.
Learning that Hodgkinson was not only one of Australia’s most prolific abstract artists and illustrators but also had spent time in New Guinea and Arnhem Land made it a perfect fit for us, given the nature of our collection.
How did the idea for Sense of Place come about?
It was the artists strong connection to the places he travelled to and lived at that presented the title. Hodgkinson immersed himself in Spanish culture and tradition when he lived in Spain (on the Island of Mallorca) in the first half of his career. Later, the tropics of New Guinea and its tribal cultures became an inspiration and then, at last, Australia’s Top End and Aboriginal culture and rock art in Arnhem Land drew him in.
The works in the exhibition, Hodgkinson’s oeuvre altogether, give the viewer this strong sense of how connected he was to landscape, fauna and flora. He was a keen observer and his drawing and illustrations prove this.
In the process of curating the show you visited the Hodgkinson estate and spent time with his wife Kate. Can you describe some of your impressions of the artists working environment?
Frank met Kate (a potter who became his third wife) on Clifton Pugh’s bush property Dunmoochin, near Hurstbridge in 1970. They travelled around Australia for a few months before returning to Sydney where Frank originated from. He had always admired the Hawkesbury River region and it was there that they eventually bought a property perched on a cliff overlooking the O’Hara Creek. Right in the middle of the bush.
Frank built a house and studio. Needless to say that he was totally at home there, studying, drawing and painting banksias and eucalypts. They called the property Geebung, after the local trees. It is beautiful. Peaceful.
The house is filled with objects Kate and Frank collected on their travels. Many carvings from New Guinea, barks and sculptures from Arnhem Land adorn the living space. The garden is filled with sculptures and pottery they both produced. As a visitor you get a sense of the creative energy.
The exhibition showcases Hodgkinson’s work along with a number of cultural artefacts from various collections, can you talk about the relationships between the objects and the artworks and how you have woven them into the exhibition.
The objects reflect Frank and Kate’s deep admiration for Indigenous cultures. Frank studied them and illustrated them. For the exhibition we selected some which appear in his published diaries. We present them with the corresponding original illustrations so visitors can make the connection.
Did the experience of visiting Hodgkinson’s studio and home change the way you perceive his work?
It did. I think you always get a better picture of a person if you see the space they inhabit, the kitchen, the book shelves, the art, and of an artist if you get access to the inner sanctum – their studio.
But it was the research and study of existing literature about the artist which painted a picture of Frank Hodgkinson, the artist. And lastly, reading his own writings: He was a brilliant writer and deep thinker. He thought and wrote about art, drawing and seeing. There’s a line he wrote about drawing that stuck with me: “You have to draw a line around the think.”
Through the show have you discovered any of Hodgkinson’s works that totally blew you away or surprised you?
It’s difficult to point to a particular work, he was very skilled and the output is broad. Perhaps ‘Artist Camp’ surprised me: I did not expect to discover a figurative portrait. Certainly, not showing Clifton Pugh and Dr Colin Jock-Hinton in the nude painting, mind you.
What do you think are some of the most valuable experiences in the exhibition – what will viewers take away?
I would encourage viewers to look closely. When we describe him as an abstract artist we don’t do him justice. Many of his works are filled with details, sketches, shadowy figures, plants and animals, skeletons.
Even the most abstract paintings in the exhibition from his ‘Beginnings series’ (which he produced in the 1990s) draw the viewer deep into the cosmos, into the swirling soup of creation, and towards Big Bang’s enormous blast. It’s full on.
Sense of Place includes work from the artists periods in Spain, PNG and Arnhemland. How do you see the work in the exhibition changing through these geographic and cultural influences?
That’s right, and we also present paintings which related to Quinkan Country in Northern Queensland and the Bungle Bungles. What is apparent is a departure from the heavy textures of the Spanish period when Hodgkinson really became an abstract painter and received much acclaim for his work. But upon returning to Australia he took another direction. The ‘heaviness’ and darkness of the early period did not suit the Australian light and landscape. The colours change, and so does the depth of painting.
Hodgkinson’s published diaries are on display in the exhibition. Can you describe the experience of spending time with these intimate records and how they have shaped your understanding of the artist?
As with any diary you read you get to see the world through the eyes of the author. Hodgkinson was very good at illustrating his environments with words, describing plants and animals down to their scientific latin names. He was truly fascinated. And then there are the events and people he encountered during the travels. They are beautiful books.
Do you have a favourite work or series in the exhibition?
I wander through the exhibition every day, never getting tired of looking at the works. I guess what draws my attention really depends on my mood. As much as I am attracted by the darkness of Deya, I love the happy joyfulness of She Sang Him a Crocodile. Polar opposites perhaps, 30 years apart? And a life’s work in-between.
Frank Hodgkinson: Sense of Place is on at Burrinja Gallery until 5 December.
Cnr Glenfern Rd and Matson Dr, Upwey.
Tues – Sun 10am – 4pm.
Tickets Adult $10, Concession/Seniors $7, Burrinja Members $5
Enter the draw to win a special Arts and Culture Indulgence Package worth of $500 including theatre tickets and dinner for 2 plus a night in the gorgeous Twilight Cottages, when you purchase tickets to the exhibition.