Until last week I was not familiar with Cherry Hood’s Bobby, but I had such a strong reaction when randomly coming across it I thought it worthy of attention. Under discussion are some of the salient features that make this work stand out & what makes it exceptional.
There are many ways to look at or appreciate an artwork, you might approach it from a gender perspective, from a formal or sociological aspect or perhaps a psychological perspective? Diachronically or synchronically. And possibly a mix of contexts.
Art appreciation is a very personal thing, it’s a bit like defining colour, a bluey mauve or a mauvey blue, is teal a greenish-blue or a blueish green? The infamous duck / rabbit illusion; many would insist it is more duck-like than rabbit-like and vice versa.
Like these examples appreciating or responding to an artwork can be a profoundly subjective experience.
But firstly, what is most apparent about Bobby is the artist’s confidence with the watercolour medium. I don’t know much about watercolour technique but it is a difficult medium to master because once the pigment is mixed with water it can have a life of its own. If you make a major mistake, unlike oil painting you cannot cover it up, it is usually a start again situation because the paper support is so easily compromised. It is easy to see how Hood has allowed the colour to travel in this work but not to eclipse every part of the paper. Knowing how much watercolour to apply, in what consistency and in which tones, as well as knowing when to halt such applications, I imagine would take decades to master.
When approaching Bobby, what struck me immediately was the way in which the artist has achieved so much character in what appears to be an intuitive manner with what seems a relatively sparse application of paint. This may or may not be the first attempt at Bobby for the artist, however, it is obvious from the fluid technique that a master is at work – the watercolour medium is superlatively manipulated to achieve a depth of character using this inherently difficult process.
The strongest aspect of this work for me is Bobby’s vulnerability.
The vulnerability derives as much from what is not there as it does from what is there. As mentioned, many sections of the support (the paper itself) are left exposed, in other words the artist has incorporated the support into the work itself as a spatial device. Hood has deliberately underworked the watercolour medium to leave sections of the paper uncovered. The underworking of the watercolour especially in this portrait aids the feeling of vulnerability because it gives it a light, transient or tenuous feeling.
Additionally, the watercolour tones are dirty and the application irregular, which also advances the idea that the protagonist is not fully protected in his world; this is conceivable when you consider that early teenage boys are subjected to the cut and thrust of both the adult world and the often brutal world of personal or schoolyard politics. Bobby does not live in a perfect world; whether of his own making or that of the adults which provide the mirror onto his world is open to interpretation.
It is a given that human faces are not symmetrical, but the two halves of Bobby’s face are definitively asymmetrical further giving the impression of a child whose life is in a state of flux; in a state of constant change. The sporadic and uneven application of watercolour assists this explanation as well as giving the figure a sense of immediacy, of being poised to take action. The distinct asymmetry of the face also tells us Hood is not interested in faithful figurative representations.
These formal attributes in combination with the protagonist’s intense gaze of defiance contribute to the sense of vulnerability in one so young. The overall feeling is one of teenage bravado rather than adult confidence. Overt confidence is undermined by the scrappy application of paint which the viewer associates with perhaps a scrappy or less than perfect life.
Moreover, the layers of colour hint at bruising and this realisation tugs at the heart strings; it makes us consider whether Bobby is bruised actually, psychologically bruised or both from forces acting upon him.
In spite of that bravado, the sense of susceptibility in this young boy equates to a certain innocence in terms of the serious life questions or issues which confront adults – relationships, sexuality, responsibilities, deadlines, employment, mortgages, money problems etc. They all lie in wait fully but in the interim may be impacting him adversely in confusing ways in the present of his immature teenage years.
However, in combination with the bravado is a powerful sense of inchoate sexual awakening.
Bobby’s forceful gaze is charged with sensuality and new found knowledge, and the power of those awakened forces working within a young mind and heart.
It is perhaps this knowledge to which we can attribute a compelling and yet naive sense of his own power; this is seen in his strong defiant gaze. However, sexual awakening in young teenagers can place them in a uniquely vulnerable position in terms of what it means and how to deal with it.
Hood is not interested in scrupulous facial presentations, she is more interested in the sensuality the image conveys as well as the many indefinable elements young minds are preoccupied with as they approach adulthood from the brink of a pure and innocent childhood.