Master Strokes

Master Strokes

Step into the exhibition Eileen Hogan: Personal Geographies, on view at the Yale Center for British Art through August 11, and you’ll know you’re in the presence of a master. For one, there’s the light. A muted palette gives Hogan’s lighter colors sparkle and shine, from the spray of water cast by a garden sprinkler to the bands of sunlight flung across a grassy lawn. But there’s something more to these paintings—layered works in oil, wax, charcoal, pen and ink executed on paper—that’s harder to pin down.

Hogan’s idea about where to focus the viewer’s gaze, of foreground and background, is remarkable. There’s a clear distinction between the two in many of the landscapes on view and a tipping of the expected balance. In Manchester Square 2 (2005) and Portman Square (2006), simple grassy expanses striped with light in the foreground assume more importance than the backgrounded buildings, trees and fences that, with their profusion of detail, ordinarily might be considered of more interest. In Bryanston Square 1 (2009), more than half the canvas is a foregrounded smear of white, gray, pink, pale green, powder blue and lavender snow. In the background, a finely detailed image of snow-laced trees, park benches and buildings is held back, as if to avoid overwhelming what might otherwise go unnoticed.

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This daring balancing act is even more striking in Victoria Park, 7 February 2016 (2016), in which Hogan has given a monochromatic playing field, hoary with patchy frost, nearly the entire canvas. A “football” goal, like a thin, white rectangle drawn in chalk, stands in the upper left corner. There’s almost a curve to the horizon of the park—the line at which foreground meets background—as if to stretch the impression of the distance across the field. A pink glow from behind the trees at the very top of the canvas suggests dawn or dusk. You could almost step into the canvas.

Hogan’s portraits have their own vitality. Simultaneously realistic and impressionistic, they’re animated with a lifelike quality Hogan reportedly accomplishes by sketching her subjects as they’re being interviewed by someone else about their lives. “The presence of a third person meant that the focus of my sitter was turned toward the interviewer, leaving me free to work almost unobserved, and of necessity in silence, rather than having to talk and paint at the same time,” Hogan explains on one of the object labels.

Her paintings of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the owner of the garden Little Sparta near Edinburgh—one of her favorite subjects—provide an example of more casual portraiture. In all three works in which he appears, Finlay is portrayed looking not at us, but downward, as gardeners often do. What faces us is not his face, but darker blotches of shadow on his forehead. In Ian Hamilton Finlay (2012), the gardener is half framed by what may be a fencepost and twiggy branches, with the strict geometry of a fence separating a bright foreground of ethereal plants from the dark, forested depths behind it. Finlay’s clothing is rumpled, his hair uncombed—the kinds of realistic details to be found in many of Hogan’s portraits.

In her paintings of two World War II veterans, this same characterization through posture can be seen in the hunched shoulders of a jacket in Robert Antony “Tony” Leake (2015) or the tilt of a head in Alistair Urquhart (version 2) (2015). In an instantly recognizable portrait of Prince Charles, Hogan again makes an unconventional framing choice. The prince, looking up from his work at a desk, is dwarfed by a vase full of flowers.

The subject matter of Eileen Hogan’s paintings is nothing new: gardens, personal objects, members of the British elite. There’s little provocation here among the bluebells and the beehives—unless, apparently, you’re an artist. Several museumgoers were overheard exclaiming at Hogan’s technique; one even lamented she felt like going home and throwing away her own sketchbooks.

The exhibition, curated by Elisabeth Fairman, is as much about process and technique as it is about content. Hogan’s portable palette and supplies are on display, as are 20 sketchbooks. In a 12-minute video, she flips through sketches, talking about her process, and is seen working in her studio, which she inherited from the British painter Leonard Rosoman, who had worked there for 50 years.

Ultimately, what’s most compelling about Eileen Hogan: Personal Geographies is Hogan’s ability to help us see places and people both as they are and in a whole new light.

Eileen Hogan: Personal Geographies
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through August 11
(203) 432-2800 |…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-2 and 4-5 provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art. Images 3 and 6 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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