Alan Hoffman: Photographic Works

The next picture show

The Vancouver Sun, April 15, 2000, p. H3

Alan Hoffman’s large photographs seem drawn from a happier, more satisfying time.

By Michael Scott

In the ancient days before Costco and WalMart, kids who grew up in small B.C. towns spent their summers at the local plaza, popping wheelies on their CCM bikes, and trading in pop bottles at the supermarket for spare change. The chevron-shaped revolving signs that were characteristic of these old-fashioned retail centres can still summon forth a flood of memory, as one does in a work by Alan Hoffman, a Penticton born artist who graduated from Emily Carr Institute two years ago. In Boys and Girls Welcome, showing until May 6 at Artspeak, 233 Carrall St., Hoffman presents a number of these resonant features of small-town life.

The chevron sign of the Penticton Plaza is one, the coral pink exterior of El-Rancho Motor Hotel is another, and a 1950s vintage tire shop, yet another. Empty of people, these large photographs, printed with saturated colour beneath clouded sides, create a kind of dream landscape waiting for its actors.

In a world where one 1990s strip mall looks much like another, and new suburban houses run together in bland anonymity, Hoffman’s work seem drawn from a happier, more eccentric, more satisfying time. His interest in this offbeat world of vermicular architecture distinguishes him from the more mainstream photographic interest in modernist architecture. Vancouver is famous for its documenters of modernism, among them Roy Arden, Howard Ursuliak, Arni Haraldsson and Chris Gergley. These lenses record a globalized style of building that can look triumphant even when it has fallen onto hard times. Hoffman’s cinderblock huts on the other hand look as odd and well-loved as a slightly dotty old uncle.

Hoffman further invokes memory by manipulating his field of focus. His photos are deliberately blurred except for a curious, slanting ray of clarity through the centre of each image. Because the band of sharp focus lies aslant the picture, the images seem to shimmer. The eye is drawn in, attempting to trace the focus and understand how such disparate portions of the image share the same focal plane. The effect is transporting, like a sudden memory of adolescence sprung unbidden from a passing scent.

Hoffman has also photographed neighbourhood hangouts in Vancouver, under cloudless blue skies as it happens. These seem just as innocent as the Penticton locations. The Ridge theatre, its associated bowling alley (both tenants of a 1950s-vintage plaza) and the Nanaimo Road Sunday School all point toward this memory of childhoods past. Yet, as the exhibition’s catalogue note explains, the photographs “hover between nostalgia and unease,” Thinking back to those days of CCMs and pop bottles, it’s easy enough to believe he’s on to something.