JEANNE HOFFMAN: HOMEMAKING

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST  |  ARTIST WRITE-UP  |  CLAY

Jeanne Hoffman_Calypso

Jeanne Hoffman  |  Calypso  |  2020  |  Glazed Ceramic  

Hoffman’s work jangles with artefacts – the memories of shipwrecks, Japanese gardens, scenes from the corner of an eye, and fragments of poetry. 

BY CAITLIN MACDONALD

JEANNE HOFFMAN  (b. 1978) is an artist working between geographies and mediums, creating paintings, drawings, and ceramic objects which function as “temporary shelters for thoughts”. She has exhibited both locally and abroad and has participated in residencies in Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and South Africa. Her work jangles with artefacts – the memories of shipwrecks, Japanese gardens, scenes from the corner of an eye, and fragments of poetry. In a studio populated by her coppery dog and creaturely ceramics, Hoffman makes work that captures both navigation and homemaking at their most generous and expansive.

Before the Second World War, the mariners of the Marshall Islands would map the currents of the Pacific Ocean with the veins of coconut fronds, forming a lattice of crisscrossing seaways. Cowry shells representing islands were fastened to this network, recording, in the mapmaker’s distinctive shorthand, how the waves bent and broke around the land. Holding a grid made from clay, placing one’s thumb over Jeanne Hoffman’s fingerprint, is reminiscent of this particular cartography. The shape itself, the interrupted, wonky grid, like a fishing net moved by the ocean, was similar. It is a form one catches many times in her work. In ladder-like shapes or in the suggestions of a window frame through which snatches of scenery slip into view. It is striking too that Hoffman’s project is to create strange maps, fabulating poetic objects to coax out memory and locate the viewer in a place.

Jeanne Hoffman  |  Untitled glazed ceramic from “Drift” exhibition  |  2018 

Jeanne Hoffman  |  Shipwrecked cargoes (ii)  |  2012  |  Glazed Ceramic 

In her 2018 exhibition, Drift, a standing wooden grid organised her clay works, raising them to the hearts and lungs of the visitor. Clay objects mimicking the texture of modular barnacles, bubbling foam, woven baskets, and sleek whale skin were placed at points of intersection, forming coordinates for the navigator. These forms are not closed facts, but capacious oddities open for interpretation. The invitation of Hoffman’s work is to chase the tail of the forms’ suggestions, to allow the imagination to rush into the object, to see a snake in a coil of clay or an elephant’s tusk in a spire, and so on. As the viewer drifts from object to object a unique story emerges, populated by characters made in collaboration with the imaginations of both artist and visitor.  This particular exhibition was deeply bound to the potency of movement. The title references Guy Debord’s revolutionary strategy of dérive, the call to walk through an environment freely and aimlessly. Born in the smoggy cities of mid-twentieth-century Europe, this tactic was an injunction to defy the well-worn paths between workplace and home, opening up the landscape for pleasure and surprise. A memory of this liberating potential lingers in weaving a path through Hoffman’s charismatic objects.

The invitation of Hoffman’s work is to chase the tail of the forms’ suggestions, to allow the imagination to rush into the object, to see a snake in a coil of clay or an elephant’s tusk in a spire, and so on.

Jeanne Hoffman

Jeanne Hoffman  |  Now a landscape, now a room  |  2021 |  Acrylic on Italian Cotton  

Digression guides Hoffman’s work. She lays out fragments of the familiar, the artefacts of domestic life, setting a table with broken plates overgrown with marine life, placing bouquets in vases gnarled with scales. The maligned art of homemaking is both legible and unsettled by her forms. She speaks often about the significance of Japanese gardening to her practice, in particular the concept of “borrowed scenery” or shakkei. This is the concept of capturing the world beyond reach. For example, a gardener might frame the view of a distant mountain with structures of branches and its misty purple hue inwards by growing heavy-headed Wisteria.

This influence is apparent in her paintings which endeavour to “make a landscape fit indoors” drawing forms from garden scenes and domestic motifs but never dwelling on them for long enough that they become literal representations. In her ceramics, this domestic preoccupation, this interest in the ministrations of gardening is realised in three dimensions. In general, the works are not monuments. They are objects at the domestic-scale, strange creatures with elephantine skins made to occupy the corners of kitchens or to sit on hallway tables filled with flowers. Penetrating even deeper than the home, these objects are at once borrowing scenery from the outside world and the hidden recesses of the body. Placing her palm on the dome of one object (a cranium like a flour-filled sack), she explains that the works are “organ-sized”.

This aesthetics of accrual - the layering of molluscs and bell jars, flowers, and pearls of porcelain - ultimately draws Hoffman home to the Cape, to this noisy shoreline of interweaving tongues and traditions finding dissonance, fusion, and transformation.

During her residence at the European Ceramic Work Centre (EKWC) Hoffman first began assembling Shipwrecked Cargoes, an ongoing project that has now spanned twenty years. This work draws inspiration from the rediscovery of the Nanking Cargo, a wealth of Chinese porcelain lost to the surface for centuries after a merchant ship bound for the Netherlands sunk in the South China Sea. When these fine blue and white porcelain objects reemerged, they were transformed by the ocean, softened or blackened or bejewelled with barnacles and coral. In her project, Hoffman situates the work at the edge of the sea, the ever-shifting borderland, exploring how chimaeras emerge in the furnace of migration and time. The project is halved into “east” and “south”, staging a dialogue between clays: the white Chinese porcelain colliding against the red enfleshed South African clay. Both speak with a distinctive voice: Shipwrecked Cargoes (east) is shell-like rendered in blue-grey with flashes of charcoal, cobalt, and gold, while Shipwrecked Cargoes (south) is comprised of imposing, red, anthill-like masses, impressed with holes and lined with fragments of fine china precariously sheltered on the forms’ ledges. An aesthetic of accrual – the layering of molluscs and bell jars, flowers, and pearls of porcelain – ultimately draws Hoffman back home to the Cape, to a noisy shoreline of interweaving tongues and traditions finding dissonance, fusion, and transfiguration.

Jeanne Hoffman  |  Balancing Acts  |   2020  |   Glazed Ceramic  

This desire to return home is at the ticking heart of Hoffman’s work. This is not an uncomplicated urge; it insists on carving new pathways, taking scenic routes back, but return it does. Her artworks are constellation points; they are cowry shells as islands. They are landmarks or footfalls. They are ways of feeling at home in fragments and an invitation to others to find shelter in the in-between.

All images courtesy of Jeanne Hoffman

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