Permanent culture; temporary issues in Stephen Hobbs’s exhibition

Signs of a Transforming City, an etching by Stephen Hobbs. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

Signs of a Transforming City, an etching by Stephen Hobbs. Photograph courtesy David Krut Projects.

There’s something dishearteningly unresolved in the overall impact of Stephen Hobbs’s current solo exhibition, which offers a foray into the rhetoric of camouflage and opens a can of vague worms onto a range of hinted at and skirted around army-related political innuendo. The unequivocal saving grace of this exhibition is Hobbs’s printmaking skills: the show brings to the fore some utterly lovely manifestations of techniques like sugar lift, hard ground and aquatint, often not foregrounded in contemporary exhibitions which find themselves too deeply moored in conceptual manoeuvres.

Comprising close to 40 works, the exhibition features table top constructions of cardboard  and chipboard and a looped digital display of all the exhibition’s components on a monitor. The value and relevance of these two elements is not clear at the outset: granted there may be an elaborate intellectual justification for them, but for the casual gallery visitor who does not want to peruse the R100 catalogue, there and then, no clues are offered, and rather than intrigue or entice you, they might cause your eye to glance away from the exhibition’s rich heart.

The digital display feels too gimmicky and slick and the constructions feel not slick enough and give a sense of being projects rather than fully resolved art works. Perhaps this is a comment on bunkers or the makeshift notion of an army identity; either way, they bring a sense of jarring values.

Arguably, the rich heart of this exhibition is in a group of four unframed etchings pinned quietly to the wall. Not so abstract that they lose the focus of the gesture and not holding so tightly to representational values that they lose their guts, the works entitled Pillbox and Signs of [a Transforming City], two relatively demure hard ground etchings which both feature aquatint shimmer with a level of realness that brings you back and will leave you touched. They also offer insight into Hobbs’s pre-established body of work and sit comfortably in his oeuvre.

These works reveal Hobbs’s astuteness as printmaker and one who wields his stylus with perspicuity, reflecting on the city of Johannesburg’s dynamic with nuance and sophisticated understanding. Beautifully printed, they celebrate the way in which acid has inflicted errant bites on the surface of the plates, lending the work a tight sense of authenticity which is delicious.

In a sense, the size of the exhibition hurts its impact. There are several pieces which reflect on the notion of editioned printmaking. Hobbs has worked on printed – and maybe reject – prints and shown them as original drawings rather than as part of an edition, disabusing the work of its attachment to the idea of impeccable copies. While this is a perfectly acceptable means of creating drawings in this context, you do heave a bit of a sigh of relief when you confront the cleanly printed etching, framed behind glass which is not a print in the guise of a drawing.

  • Stephen Hobbs’s exhibition Permanent Culture at 1800m is at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until September 25. 0114470627 or

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