Nicky Hoberman

Entwistle Gallery

The youth cult is getting on a bit. In fact it’s 237 years old—if you date its origin to Rousseau’s Emile (1762), the first child-centered educational treatise. Perhaps the biggest change since then is that, whereas the Romantics were obsessed with spotless preteens, the twentieth century is fixated on fallen preadults. In keeping with that tradition, the South African-born, British-based artist Nicky Hoberman has specialized in lurid paintings of young girls ever since graduating from art school in 1995. She is being touted as one of the rising stars of British art, and her work is featured in the recent Saatchi Gallery catalogue The New Neurotic Realism, published in anticipation of a two-part exhibition that will take place at the gallery in 1999.

The oil paintings on view are derived from Polaroids the artist has taken of the children of family and friends. For these photo-portrait sessions, her young sitters are apparently allowed to choose their own clothes and poses. In executing the oil paintings, Hoberman extracts her subjects from their photographic backgrounds and floats them over abstract fields of garish color. In previous work, these fields were a cloudy duotone, but in more recent canvases the backgrounds are monochrome and uninflected—slabs of black, pink, orange, blue, or yellow.

Hoberman’s subject is a sort of prepubescent decadence. She distorts the children’s proportions so that they all have outsize, quasi-adult heads that loom up theatrically, and the girls eye us slyly, sometimes even snakily. A painting that appeared in the catalogue to the show was entitled Mermaid, 1997, which suggests that Hoberman thinks of her subjects as exotic hybrid creatures who cruise around in a life-size goldfish bowl. Art historically speaking, though, the hyperrealist colors and waxy surfaces, together with the fact that so many of the children seem to twist and unfurl with unending elasticity, recall the highly individualized blooms of Dutch flower painting. Indeed, the striped top worn by the girl in Mermaid is eminently tuliplike, while many of the other girls in the paintings wear frocks with a floral pattern.

Hoberman seems to have a taste for titles that refer to food in general and desserts in particular: Prune Whip, Truly Scrumptious, Peppermint Dreams, Angel Creams. The little girls in these works are being presented—and presenting themselves—for adult consumption. The bright candy colors are allowed to melt and soak into each other, suggesting a sort of “licked” surface. Is this what Dali meant by “edible beauty”?

Any young British painter who specializes in girls is bound to experience an “anxiety of influence” in relation to Paula Rego, who may well be the finest painter of children since Balthus. Charles Saatchi happens to have the best Rego collection in the world (presumably she is a purveyor of old neurotic realism), including her greatest work, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987, whose title alone is a world away from Hoberman’s more privileged milieu. Rego is interested in the relationship of children to an often gratuitously cruel adult world; her works are genre scenes rather than still lifes. In her paintings, for better or worse, the children are placed in their familial context. By contrast, you can’t really imagine Hoberman’s children being anyone’s daughter or sister. In the more recent works, pet dogs sometimes appear, or the occasional piece of furniture, but no meaningful interactions occur. For all the outward variety of Hoberman’s protagonists, there is an underlying sameness to them. They lack nothing: They are simply and solipsistically themselves. No doubt this sense of gilded self-containment is precisely what is disturbing about them. But like Dutch flower painting, these impossibly glamorous confections can leave one feeling rather cold.

James Hall