If there is anything that many of us are craving right now, it is playfulness and escapism. Hide and Seek, the exhibition of new paintings by Oliver Hoffmeister at Gymnasium Gallery, offers exactly this. The artist has created a body of work that engages with hidden or imagined narratives about Berwick-upon-Tweed. Drawing upon old photographs and documentation found online, Hoffmeister recreates memories and plays games with our understanding of fiction and reality, allowing the imagination to run wild.
Hoffmeister’s small paintings have been organised around the gallery, a former gymnasium situated in the town’s historic eighteenth-century barracks, on free standing frames that reference the old gym bars that are still present. They are strikingly colourful and complex and, in a space that is otherwise wooden and timeworn, stand out as small and precious objects. Their edges and fixings are exposed, which makes the paintings seem more three-dimensional and sculptural, inviting the viewer to explore. In the introductory film made to accompany the exhibition, Hoffmeister expresses the importance of a painting to be more than just paint on a two-dimensional surface.
Immediately eye catching are ‘Midnight Dancer’ (2020) and ‘Crash’ (2021), offering a glimpse of narratives that leave the viewer to work out the rest. ‘Midnight Dancer’ portrays a jester-like character with their face turned away, dressed in an outfit made of various vibrant and patterned Cubist-like surfaces. In the top right-hand corner of the painting is an off-white disc that might allude to a spotlight or the moon. It is left up to us to ponder who this dancer is and where they are. Similarly, in ‘Crash’, airplane wreckage, pictured in an idyllic rural setting that has no obvious landmarks, leaves the viewer wondering.
These narrative gaps, left open for the viewer, create a seam of mystery which runs through the exhibition. The transient space between fiction and reality is a key element here, disclosing recurring motifs and imagery. For example, ‘Ribbon Cut (1)’ and ‘Ribbon Cut (2)’ (both 2021) show images of a crowd gathering at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the Royal Border Bridge being opened across the River Tweed. The ribbon was cut at both ends of the bridge by the same people. Military figures at the forefront of each have been painted in a range of colour gradients. The first painting, located at the front of the gallery, is in deep hues of orange and green; the second at the back of the space in light pastel hues of pink and blue. Their parallels and subtle differences create a harmonisation of the space, enhanced by the careful positioning of other works on display units around the gymnasium.
Both obscure and familiar imagery are combined in a way that drives home the idea these paintings, like all works of art, are open to interpretation. In the central space, ‘Green Dress’ (2020) is a portrait of a lady in a long, period style green dress, clearly referencing the historical photograph that is its inspiration. ‘Amble’ (2020), a side profile of a surreal looking character who has an absurdly long pointed nose sits alongside ‘Mirage’ (2020), depicting a fantastical blue hybrid of ghost and animal. This juxtaposition of wildly different imagery intensifies the sense of ambiguity that manifests between viewer and artwork, creating a dreamlike quality wherein nothing is certain.
Each piece incorporates historical and contemporary painting techniques, whilst referencing portraiture and figurative painting traditions. In ‘Match Point’ (2020), two tennis players take a break and the scene looks decidedly impressionist. And there’s ‘Untitled (Skull)’ (2020), in which a skull is painted in a traditional still life manner. This series of paintings finds cohesion through a solarised palette and the overlaying of transparent geometric sections. The use of expressive patterns and textures give visual cohesion to the entire body of work in Hide and Seek.
It is the notion of the revealed subconscious that fits perfectly with the show’s title: a widely recognised game of exploration and discovery. This exhibition serves as a game, inviting the viewer to weave through the works and make up their own stories, reflect on their own histories. The gallery space, an old gymnasium, has windows that face out to the barracks, one of the most historically significant places in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Hide and Seek is a contemporary and imaginative nod to both remembrance and discovery and provides yet another story to tell.
Oliver Hoffmeister: Hide and Seek runs from 22 May to 27 June 2021 at the
Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick Visual Arts, Berwick upon Tweed.
Visitors can book timed slots to visit the exhibition; please visit the Berwick Visual Arts website for more details.
Michaela Hall is an artist and writer based in Gateshead.
This review is supported by Berwick Visual Arts.