In a 1992 interview with Dutch critic Renée Steenbergen, Teun Hocks said, ”Sometimes I get the feeling that maybe my whole life is taking place unconsciously, as if I were not present myself.” The irony is that this singular artist is not only very present in his photo/paintings; he is almost always its sole subject.
There are many artists who have painted and photographed themselves relentlessly. Rembrandt and Egon Schiele are painters who come to mind. John Coplans and Francesca Woodman are photographers who are not only the subject of most of their work but also obsessive documenters of their frailty and physical or psychic disintegration.
Teun Hocks never views himself with such intimate scrutiny. His artistic persona is so much a part of the quotidian, lived world that it is impossible to picture him as a navel gazer. In this respect alone he is very much embedded in the mainstream of Dutch art history: a history rich in social and mercantile landscape, a tapestry of a people woven of broad tolerance, where the middle of the road consensus, as well as its outer extremes, is one of its signatures. Little in the history of Dutch art reaches for the existential and metaphysical angoisse that one associates with German, Scandinavian or German art, or even of the religious and political fervor of Italian art. Dutch art is dominated by the everyday, the ordinary, and the life of an Everyman. And Hocks’ persona is, above all else, that near anonymous Everyman.
Born in 1947 in Leiden, Hocks expressed an interest in photography as well as painting in his early teens. He pursued studies in both, and by his mid-twenties he had begun to merge the two media by adding paint to his black and white photos. Like South African artist William Kentridge, Hocks also turned to performance art, a medium where he himself became the living canvas. By 1979 these multiple interests began to merge in the kind of work that has become his defining mark—the self-modeled photo/ painting, theatrical tableau. There is a disquieting but deadpan humor, a very Dutch sense of self-satire that hovers around this work—as if the painter Magritte, the comedian Buster Keaton and the existential playwright Samuel Beckett had all been loosed in a multi-media brainstorming session. This at first may seem like heavy artistic freight to bear, but it is all rendered with a casual, even light, Dutch hand. At first look, these tableaux appear to be not much more than a one line “gotcha” visual pun. But when you stick to them for a bit their rich sense of life’s innate absurdity assumes a deeper dimension. Dutch composer Martin Kuipers has set six of Hocks’ works to music. They are slow pan/zoom reveals of each work that convey a frozen cinematic moment.
Hocks also has made Super-8 films and videos that capture a moment in time, many of them live action versions of his photo/paintings. His home page features a video of him swinging from a chandelier. Another is of him sitting next to a copse of cut trees, playing a saw with a violin bow.
The music and action is a looped drone. The sense of being caught in time at a moment not quite realized is central to his work and is the source of its humor. His characters are endlessly energetic and/or optimistic, even if common sense would seem to dictate otherwise; they are often unaware of the consequences of their own self-constructed scenarios, such as this of a man playing with a toy train that is doomed to run him over once he sets it free.
Hocks’ characters are never passive in the world. They are hard at work, though the efficacy of their assignments is often difficult to fathom or even to decipher. There is a big dose of whimsical metaphor running through these pieces.
At times Hocks seems beset by a world where nature or fate seems to have constructed a scene around him that is at best confusing, at worst confounding, even anxious, as he doesn’t know which way to turn to confront his dilemma.
The photo/paintings usually begin with a pencil or ink sketch on paper. They often differ substantively from the finished work but the key idea is always present. Sometimes, as in this drawing, the finished work is quite close to its sketch.
The opening essay by critic Janet Koplos in Aperture’s monograph on Hocks, published in 2006 examines one of his most famous pieces, a businessman standing alone on broken ice, looking askance over his left shoulder at his hat and briefcase on adjacent ice pieces. His umbrella lies unseen on another piece of ice off his right shoulder.
This work, like all of Hocks’ images, is titled “Untitled.” He has said that this is not some kind of arch conceit or reference to many of the Abstract Expressionist artists whose paintings were stubbornly untitled. Hocks believes that giving these seeming very rudimentary images a title would reduce the rich ambiguity of life’s small moments that he hopes they portray, however surreal they may seem.
The process of creating each of these witty and enigmatic works is best described by Koplos in her introductory essay:
He develops an idea through a cartoon, or several. Then he paints a backdrop, finds or makes props, obtains whatever he needs in the way of costume, and does the lighting. He tests the effect with a Polaroid. Even after he takes his final pose against his backdrop and clicks the shutter of his Horseman 6×9 cm. technical camera, he is still not finished. Next he paints over the black and white print, enlarged to three feet tall or more, setting it on a painter’s easel to work. This, too, might be an historical joke, a recollection of hand coloring in the days before color film. His painting, however, is unlike that tender tinting. It is a means of maintaining a peculiarly doubled reality.
His pieces, although absurdly humorous, also represent the sometimes-darker existential elements of life. This cloaked man of affairs, whose daily rituals must operate by an almost Kantian clockwork regularity, somehow finds himself not at his tram stop waiting for the next car, but passively standing in an unlikely, hostile space, where even the badges of his identity are floating away from him. Talk about cast adrift. This is humorous only if you are looking at the image as a staged gesture. Were it your own nightmare, it would put you on the verge of panic. Almost all of Hock’s images have this sense of a single person lost in a surreal or alien environment. Often his characters do not yet know what a desperate scenario they inhabit, but they totter right on the edge of awareness. It is this very Keatonesque state of mind that gives rise to the humor. Buster Keaton, more than any other of our great cinematic comedians, was often caught in a scene not of his own making, spun out of control and now one that he will surely have to deal with. Nor did Keaton panic; his stalwart confrontation with the absurdly inevitable most often allowed him to triumph. You don’t sense that Hocks will be a lost soul. He is only momentarily non-plussed.
Here is his initial drawing for the man on the ice floe.
These rich, theatrical fables are built largely by the artist himself. His studio is surprisingly small and the sets are often designed, like those of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, in obvious false perspective. Here is a photo of Hocks at work painting one of the ice floes. Notice that the wrinkled backing is much closer than you would expect.
Even at the final stage, after costuming and props, Hocks sometimes changes poses for the final image. In a reference Polaroid, he looks over his right shoulder at the umbrella; in the pencil sketch, he looks straight ahead, almost at the viewer; in the final version, he looks at his briefcase.
Each work is done in an edition of only three prints. The photos are lightly colored with thin oils so that their origin as photographs is never fully masked.
Not all of Hocks’ visual anecdotes are of beleaguered middle-aged men cast off from their nominal moorings. In some works, he address in an equally wry way the subject of his own profession—that of the artist. The dual disciplines of photography and painting are lovingly rendered in a simple pencil drawing of an unlikely four-legged photo tripod embracing the artist. The painter holds his palette behind his back as his camera either consoles him over a troublesome canvas or clamors for his attention, calling him back to documenting the real world. I have never seen this drawing as a realized painting and suspect that it represents a private moment of reflection between the artist and his media.
A more whimsical work captures that duality in an ironic visual pun. Hocks is in a gallery photographing a painting that is hung upside down on the wall but which will look right side up to the photographer whose head is buried in the black cloth. The success of this piece is dependent on knowing that the image is inverted by the lens when it is focused on the ground glass, that it looks right side up to the photographer— a clever “in joke.”
A further immersion into this illusory world of artist vs. work is portrayed in the metaphor of the impoverished painter in his cold garret having to burn his own work to stay warm. Here, the painter warms himself by the painted flames of his creation.
Occasionally, Hocks is not the subject of his work. Here, he makes a stand-alone tableau that is dense with ambiguity that would in another time and place surely qualify him as a Surrealist. One of the most haunting of these is of a field of clocks, a truly uncertain crop. The harvest is erratic, each clock reading a different time, much like the variety of shapes of a single crop in a vegetable garden.
The mélange of real and artifice, of photography and painting, of literal and metaphorical—the dualities that represent Hocks’ work prevent it from locking into any single reading. Koplos expresses it well:
He does not wish the work to be photographic documentation. He does not seek the showy hand of realistic painting. He prefers that we think of ourselves in a theater, watching a man putting on a show.
Oddly, this overt, theatrical artifice and posture has made the man himself seem even more elusive. I have been at pains to find any photograph of him outside the stage of his work. Whether this is deliberate or accidental is yet another question. But here is a recent photograph that I believe is of Hocks. It was taken on May 29, 2009 at a 25th anniversary exhibition of the TORCH gallery of Amsterdam, the artist’s gallery since 1986. He is not at all the dour, befuddled burger of his most famous work. He looks more like a pixie.
(Next week, a look at another photographer who obsessively documented herself—even until her very premature death—Francesca Woodman.)