New York-based Santa Fe Art Institute artist-in-residence Judith Hoffman has always made art, although not always in the way she does now. She started off as a geek—specifically, a numbers geek. She was a second-semester senior majoring in mathematics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., when, thanks to one fortuitous painting class, something clicked.
"Nothing had ever hit me the way this class did," Hoffman says. After spring break of her senior year, she decided not to return to her mathematics studies. "There was a clarity there about how I needed to do [art] full-time, and I went immediately on residency and kind of took a year to see if I was still making art and if I was still painting."
She was. So she packed herself off to school again—this time to the Art Institute of Chicago for two years.
At Smith, Hoffman had taken a multitude of elective drawing classes, but it wasn't until she dipped a brush in paint that she realized what she wanted her life's direction to be. By the time she finished at the Art Institute and earned a graduate degree from Pratt Institute, her focus had settled into a few specific media, namely painting, multimedia and sculpting.
"It's been interesting because I've made sculpture over the last four or five years…I think part of it is that sculpture is really hard for me in a way that painting isn't," Hoffman says. "You know when something is easy for you? You don't have to struggle; it's not as interesting of a problem." Despite that, Hoffman says, "Painting: I still love to do it."
Last year, over a six-month period, Hoffman made a daily painting based on a newspaper article. Each painting is the same size as the printed image from its associated article, and the paper is the same size as the newspaper page.
But Hoffman was in the midst of a transitional period, she admits. Over the last four to five years, her sculptural body of work has been growing. Moreover, her sculptures themselves have been growing.
In September 2010, Hoffman went on residency to Art Farm in Marquette, Neb. "The farm I was on…was super dilapidated and rundown," Hoffman says, "and I was really interested in the sort of hoarding and
collection; and also, what does it mean that, as a symbolic visual, our farms are so rundown? My studio was an old schoolhouse, and so that was the second big paper piece that I made: I sewed a paper slipcover for the building."
That was her first step into making large-scale art, she recalls. The building was 40 feet high and 25 feet wide, and the cover was made up of more than 400 pieces of paper.
Art Farm was also the first of many residencies Hoffman plans to attend through May 2012. Following her time in Nebraska, she attended a program in Vermont before coming to Santa Fe for an early summer stint. During the Vermont program, she made a sculpture every day. She was compelled by the impact of world events: in January, the Egyptian riots and, in March, the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
"I felt there was a bridge there," Hoffman says. "I wanted to create an object that dealt with the connection between two isolated things, and I wanted to do it large-scale, but fragile, so that its objecthood contained its metaphor."
To that end, Hoffman constructed—from exclusively white paper, tape and glue—a frameless, 36-inch-high, 15-foot-long sculpture of a bridge, which hangs by thin metal cables from the walls in her studio space at SFAI. The work is perspective-skewed in all directions: Looking down the bridge lengthwise, it shrinks disconcertingly quick into the near distance, and its sides all slant calculatedly off to one side.
"Sculpture so often doesn't call attention to its different perspectives," Hoffman says, "so I wanted to create something that guaranteed that, from everywhere you stood, your perception of it was different, and also that it challenged your own sense of space." She calls it "The First Thing They Do Is Bomb the Bridges," in reference to military strategy.
Hoffman's second SFAI piece, which occupies an entire studio space, consists of a tiny paper house—currently green, although Hoffman says she plans to paint it blue—with a subtle dusting of glitter and its own shadow made of a dark paper cutout on the floor. Floating above it on a long wire attached to the ceiling is a boxy, gray cloud structure made of high-acid paper folded over a foam core structure and wood skeleton. The installation is bare and minimalist, but carries a quiet ominousness. From the distance or from the sides, the cloud formation is almost unrecognizable. Up close, however, the formation billows and swells up above the viewer's head and tapers down toward the house. The cloud, like the bridge, is constructed with exaggerated perspective, and harbors a downplayed metaphor pulled from the Fukushima incident.
Hoffman had been watching the reactor meltdown on the news, she says, and started wondering about the differences between the smoke from a nuclear meltdown and that from a normal explosion.
"What were the toxins that were coming in and our perception of that?" she wondered. "Because the big news about Japan that I thought was interesting was that internal[ly] Japan was seeing one message, and the rest of the world was seeing another thing. I was very interested in that as a much larger phenomenon: What do we tell ourselves versus what others see? I wanted to deal with something that juxtaposed our perception of our existence against our impact, while still being in dialogue."
After Hoffman completes her SFAI residency this summer, she will travel to Georgia, Nebraska and New York among other locales through the end of her residency tour in 2012.
Santa Fe Art Institute
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SFAI hosts more than 50 artists and writers in residence each year