Billy Hoff lets his painting take the lead

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Looking at the paintings in Billy Hoff’s new show at A Gallery, or in his studio, one enters a world apart. Yes, they are two-dimensional, they hang on a wall, they are visual arrangements

of colors, shapes, balanced design precepts, constructed with oil paint and brushes on canvas or board. They are also figurative, and tell a story only the artist knows.

Where do these images come from? Hoff refers to an interior world of his devising. He uses different symbolic types: an authority figure, a child, androgynous women, remote men, all with elongated figures and faces, often turned discreetly away from the viewer, or with features scrubbed or sanded out. They live in a vaguely 19th-century world. Although Hoff never studied fashion or tried to pinpoint a particular era, his people are top-hatted, tailcoat-wearing. There may be a hint of spats. They may vary in size, intentionally made large or small within the same plane. They may vibrate like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” or be preternaturally silent and still.

And yet Hoff’s description of his painting process is that of an Abstract Expressionist. “Making art is discovery,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m going. I let the paint and my marks tell me. I follow that for awhile and see where it goes. I’m just interested in making a painting, trying to figure it out.”

He does begin on a white gessoed board or canvas, laying in an initial monochromatic drawing using Prussian Blue or Phthalo Green that places figures in some sort of setting and provides a basic structure. That may all change as the painting develops. One of the paintings he is working on has a brilliant teal green passage through the center, a vertical division between figures on the two sides. There had been another figure in that space. It needed to come out, so several swipes of a large brush accomplished that, and left a mysterious swath of separation.

Colors come out as he needs them. No traditionally laid-out palette of cool and warm yellows, reds, blues, and white. Hoff uses Williamsburg, Gamblin, and Old Holland paints in a variety of colors. Some traditional colors, some earth colors, some wildly intense colors. Color is intuitive to him, and he is more likely to think in terms of values. “Sometimes I just put it down to react against it,” he said. That made sense, as for many artists who use color in a more interpretive manner, it works if the values are right. For Hoff, it does. There can be swaths of orange cutting across a cloud-filled blue sky, or bright yellow shadows that still read as what they are meant to represent.

Hoff remembers a college art professor introducing him to the paintings of Oskar Kokoschka and the German Expressionists. There happened to be an exhibition of Kokoschka’s work at the Guggenheim Museum, one of the best settings for looking at art, and Hoff headed there during that year’s Christmas break. He was blown away. Looking at Kokoschka’s paintings, it is easy to see what Hoff responded to, and what he has incorporated into his own work.

Giacometti is another influence, because of what Hoff calls “his searching, searching, gestural line.” Hoff often listens to podcasts of Wayne Thiebaud teaching art classes while he is painting. Some other artists he mentioned were George Bellows, Paul Cézanne, George Luks, Chaim Soutine, R.B. Kitaj, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, and David Hockney.

Illustrator N.C. Wyeth has had a profound effect on Hoff’s work; he cites examples from several of the children’s books Wyeth illustrated that he has incorporated into the stories he tells himself when designing his compositions of figures in their fantasy settings. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” is the most notable of these. Many of Hoff’s paintings portray figures traveling in boats, sailing toward distant islands on high horizons. “Boats imply passages — from boy to man,” he said. An as-yet-unfinished painting in the studio depicts a collection of figures bound for sea, heading toward the Hornblower property off Squibnocket. Or so it is in the artist’s mind. He mentioned incorporating bits of the real landscape into some of his paintings; living on the Island, it is certainly what he sees every day.

A large painting in the A Gallery show is titled “The Salesman.” It is another group including a tall, large man carrying a briefcase in the foreground, a woman, a child, and a cat, on the deck of a strident yellow, red, and orange boat drawn with marks of active brushwork. They are all heading across a boat-filled sea toward a mound of an island. Hoff said it was like “bringing coals to Newcastle” in his imaginary story.

Another is called “The Wash-Ashores,” after the somewhat pejorative term lifelong Islanders call us newcomers. From a distance, it has the effect of a vignette or a medieval illuminated manuscript by design. The center of the painting shows groups of people in some ambiguous space, neither clearly land nor sea nor the deck of a large boat, merely an expanse of yellow paint. Bright yellow paint, like the brightness of the narrative in a manuscript. This is surrounded by three large frogs across the bottom of the canvas and a visual exploration of the metamorphosis, or in this case regression, as an allegorical frog’s life cycle encircles the central image. Tadpole to adult. Coming to a new place, emigrating, landing, wanting to belong, contributing new material to the established gene pool. Adults to babies. People came to the Island, to this new place, and became part of it.

What’s the story in “Awkward Moment,” one of several small paintings in the show? Once again, boats are part of the iconography. This time, a couple sits in a small skiff, the curve of their shoulders narrowed by a brush loaded with blue paint. It is that sort of application of paint, be it for enhancing (or shaking up) the color palette or refining the drawing, that I find so exciting about Hoff’s work. It is a pleasure to spend some time in the company of these paintings.