Meditations on urban context

By Aaren Madden, November 2012

Ira Hoffecker’s paintings are inspired by the tension, energy and history of cities.

Before moving to Victoria with her family eight years ago, artist Ira Hoffecker had always lived in large cities: Paris, Lima, Cusco, Berlin, Hamburg. She studied French and Economics in Munich, then in 1984-5, worked as a translator near Paris. Every weekend she was in the city visiting galleries and museums, reading Camus, Proust, Zola, de Beauvoir. “It was my pivotal year,” she says. 

During that year, a painting by Anselm Kiefer, a German artist whose large-scale, often bleak works grapple with Germany’s troubled past, both moved her and impressed on her the significance art could have. Hoffecker recalls, “There was lead and straw, and not much more. And it spoke so much to me.” Growing up in postwar Germany, she explains, “There was nothing to be proud of, just incredible pain.” Kiefer’s painting hinted at what lay beneath the day-to-day strength and humour of her elders, and the extent to which painting was able to articulate collective intangible truths, yet bring personal meaning to each viewer.

“You discover artists that do something to you,” she muses. For her, those working in metal (her own art practice began with the medium) most often strike a chord: Kiefer, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, Eduardo Chillida. But also, the black and white paintings of Franz Kline. Besides being impressed by these artists’ breadth of media, style and scale, Hoffecker was influenced by “their thoughts about space.”

Urban space is what specifically fascinates Hoffecker, who has moved 26 times in 31 years and continues to be drawn to large cities—“especially,” she says, “European cities where you have old houses that are destroyed and have to be taken down. What do you put in that works with the city?” 

Her practice revolves around such questions, answered in paintings that act as meditations on urban context. As we talk, she leafs through a book on urban planning (one of over 50 in her collection) called Coming from the South by Eduard Bru. Aerial views and maps of cities fly by; the angles, grid and intersections are echoed in the paintings filling her studio. 

They are far from literal, however. “Something I like in my work is to think about cities like a topographic map, but then of course to step back and to also look at [my work] as a painting; to go between the abstraction and representation. What I want is to have created a painting, not a topographic map. So I play with the colours and I play with the shapes,” explains Hoffecker, who though painting for a mere five years, has gallery representation across Canada.

Soon after her arrival from Hamburg, where she and her husband owned a film marketing company, she enrolled at the Vancouver Island School of Art, where she will earn her diploma this spring. At first, her considerations of urban place were non-specific. “Urban Settings” 18, 19 and 20 are a subset in a series of paintings on raw linen with rectangular shapes of varying sizes painted in one or more layers of black, white, cream or grey. Thick, quickly gestured lines add depth and dynamism. Layers of linen applied on top further evoke an urban space in flux. There is a captivating sense of simultaneously erosive and additive energy at work.

With those paintings, “it was more about the material,” says Hoffecker. Now she paints with a certain city in mind and concerns herself with not only the layout of space, but with sense of place. “I don’t want to only bring in how it looks exactly; I want to bring in the atmosphere,” she explains. “There are so many things that come in: how you feel that day, your own memories, experiences.” “Oak Bay Window” (see front cover) is one example. It captures the forward motion of the bustling high street Hoffecker felt on an afternoon when she had a few moments to wander. The text acts as another evocative mark, more than written communication.

Abstraction allows the viewer to take their own route through her paintings—following a crisp, straight line, perhaps, then a series of drips to another undulating surface relief formed from intersecting layers of paint. Most of her current work features layers of clear resin in between levels of paint. The resin in turn carries layers of colour and shape on top that achieve depth and cast shadows, creating a push and pull reminiscent of the tension, energy and history inherent in city spaces. 

“Berlin Alexanderplatz”, a painting that won the 2012 Sooke Fine Arts Show Juror’s Award and a $1000 award at the Painting on the Edge exhibition in Vancouver, shows this. The circle references Potsdamer Platz, an important intersection in Berlin that was destroyed during the war, then split by the Iron Curtain. Today it is a thriving area full of modern high-rises and commerce. “It has changed so often during the centuries,” she says. 

She always works in a series, and “Berlin Alexanderplatz V” is a smaller work in which she resolves some of the technical approaches for the larger work mentioned above. In it, a sharp, straight yellow patch floating diagonally on top of the resin is made more so by its contrast to the muted, organic line of another yellow beneath the resin’s surface.

These conversations are important to Hoffecker. They create the context that makes the painting complete and contribute to the whole. “That’s something I look for in my work. It could be shapes, it could be buildings. They have to communicate,” says Hoffecker.

As is the case with urban spaces. “I am interested in city planning, but about the whole, not about one building. The whole has to work with the city,” she says. Examples? Locally, she finds the Atrium building a prime example of the connection possible with thoughtful architecture realized on a human scale. “Starchitects” often achieve the opposite. “We went to Australia, and of course I booked 14 hours to stay in LA on the way, so we can go to the Museum of Contemporary Art,” she says. Down the street from MOCA loomed Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. “It might be a masterpiece in architecture, but you know what? It doesn’t fit. You want city planners to think about context. What is around [the building] to make reference to the history. That is something I have always been occupied with,” Hoffecker says. 

Just as well-planned city spaces do, each viewing of Hoffecker’s paintings promises a new set of discoveries and conversations.

 

These and other paintings by Ira Hoffecker are on view at The Gallery at the MAC (along with one at the Royal Theatre) until Dec 17; open during regular performance hours or by appointment by calling 250-361-0800. See www.irahoffecker.com.

Writer Aaren Madden is a regular contributor to Focus (see Island Interview). She has a keen interest in art and how community is influenced by urban planning.