Alan Hoffman: Photographic Works

Finding Art - High or Low? - in Motor Inns and Plaza Signs

The Georgia Straight, April 27-May 4, 2000, p. 68

Visual Arts
Alan Hoffman: Boys and Girls Welcome!
At Artspeak until May 6

By Robin Laurence

Vernacular architecture — the kinds of structures peculiar to a certain place or people, usually built without the direction of architects or designers — has long been a juicy subject for photographers. Drawing from any number of style sources, popular-culture influences, and art-historical precedents, and ranging from highly decorated, folk-art extravaganza to plainest cinderblock box, the vernacular in architecture speaks directly to human need and local circumstance. It also speaks without the intervention of “high art” or “good taste” or “advanced education”. Which is what makes it such a ripe fruit for plucking by those privileged individuals whose sensibilities have been percolated through all those layers, high art, good taste, and advanced education.

Although some photographers have approached their vernacular subjects with pure affection (think of Jim Breukelman’s portraits of well-groomed midcentury houses, gardens, and topiary), and some with politically inflected melancholy (Howard Ursuliak’s interiors of marginal businesses and failing flea markets), others have brought critical condescension to the project (too numerous to name). Then there are those like Alan Hoffman, who unite affection, melancholy and condescension in a weird tightrope walk across the abyss of postmodernism.

If Hoffman, an award-winning graduate of Emily Carr Institute of Art+Design, actually likes the subjects he’s photographing, he’s not going to flat-out admit it. At least, not to his friends and colleagues, many of whom have written commentaries on the photographs for the poster that folds up into an eensy-weensy catalogue accompanying the show. (The catalogue, so modestly assembled, is a wonderful little object.) They can’t admit they like the subjects, either, although they can comment on the David Lynch-like, weird-culture ominousness of the works, or their conflicted nostalgias. And they can say things such as “Irony is the dross caused by entropy,” or invent oblique minifictions to disguise their true feelings.

A great deal of opinion about vernacular architecture is lodged, however, in the show’s press release. “Hoffman has chosen to photograph the clumsy manifestations of low-brow aspirations — not the grandiose failures of Vancouver modernism so comprehensively covered by this city’s more senior artists.” Well, hey, I hate Vancouver Specials, too, but aren’t “clumsy” and “low-brow” just a tad too condemning and stereotypical? Do the people who build and occupy these structures think of their taste as clumsy and low-brow?

The exhibition comprises 13 large C-prints in two series. The photos in the first series, “Terminus”, were taken in Vancouver in 1998, and include images of the Ridge Theatre, a Vancouver Special, and a peeling warehouse stranded beside a railway track. The photos in the second series, “Ticker”, were taken in Hoffman’s home town, Penticton, in 1999, and include images of a peach-shaped vending booth, a couple of motor-inns, a Penticton Plaza sign, and a tire shop. Tiny remnants of the natural environment are present in the background of some of these photos: a slice of blue mountain range, a dot of evergreen-spotted hillside.

Both series exploit the rich, saturated Cibachrome palette, although paradoxically casting each city against climatic type: the Vancouver images are taken under brilliant blue skies (developed here to a deep, disturbing hue of cobalt), while the Penticton images are taken under cloudy skies. You might suppose that whether the weather is hot or whether the weather is cold is incidental to the architecture, but no, the way the sky looks greatly affects the reading of each photograph. The extravagant blue skies of Hoffman’s Vancouver are like the near-grimacing fake smile of someone who cares way too much; the pale clouds of Penticton, like the muffled moan of someone way past caring. These moods don’t always correspond with how well or badly the structures depicted have been maintained, but you suppose they reflect the artist’s ironic strategies.

Besides their unassuming subject matter and their deserted views (the degree to which these scenes are unpopulated is almost apocalyptic), what’s most noticeable about these photographs is that they’re in sharp focus only along narrow, curving band that runs vertically through the near centre of them. Hoffman apparently achieves this effect by tilting his large-format camera away from his subject. His shifting and elusive focus is described as “astigmatic” by Montreal critic Henry Lehmann’s nice analogy, although what popped into my mind was the metaphor of a migraine, minus the scintillations and wiggly lines. Either way, the condition evoked is more ophthalmology than surreality, more pathology than nostalgia. The shifting field of sharpness and blur betrays, again, Hoffman’s ambivalence about his subject matter.

The show’s title, Boys and Girls Welcome!, is derived from the fading sign on the façade of a little Sunday-school building in Hoffman’s photo of the same name. It’s a message that many viewers read as sinister-David Lynch again. Maybe I’m perverse, but I see that sign as cheerily optimistic, just like the bright little blobs of yellow (are they dandelions or marigolds?) in the unfocused lawn.

Something overlooked by the catalogue writers, probably because it’s too unhip, is what the architectural styles Hoffman has documented (or undocumented, depending on your take) might themselves signify. While looking at El Rancho, an image of a peachy-pink, cinder-block motor hotel, artist and Artspeak assistant Kathleen Ritter has noted the “bad” taste and the “horrors of small town life” symbolized here. What I read in this building is a touching futility, a dilute invocation of ranch-style architecture.

Combined with the name of the motel and the bronco-busting cowboy decoration on its facade, the building conveys a persistent nostalgia for some improbable notion of the Wild West, a West now paved to the horizon with asphalt. (You could deconstruct it further, speak of conquest and colonialism and the displacement of aboriginal peoples.) But hey, I grew up in a place where the Wild West was institutionalized and marketed to a truly crazy degree, despite or because of which I have a perverse fondness for ranch-style motels. Even if David Lynch has been cast as the night clerk.