Jonathan Hochman: Standards

Christopher Hanrahan

pants x1_1880pxJonathan Hochman with Justin Miles, Don’t Get Too Close (to my fantasy) (2004), C-type photograph

I have been thinking endlessly about an astrophysicist named Dan Bauer, a convenient situation in that Bauer too has charted an endless course. He’s looking for Dark Matter two miles beneath Minnesota farming land. He’s down there because in a normal above-ground laboratory there would simply be too much matter. Bauer’s equipment is made from normal matter, his finely calibrated instruments would be overawed in the search for this elusive (and if the prevailing scientific consensus is correct) essential ingredient in the mix of how we came about and continue to exist. There is a problem for Bauer though, if said reckoning is correct then Dark Matter should not only be all around normal matter, but passing through it too. As of 2009 Bauer had been down in the hole for five years on this quest and while he hadn’t been successful, seemed hopeful that some recent activity would prove fruitful. Two years have since passed and still no Dark Matter.

I can think of nothing other than scientific standards for keeping Bauer down. The creation of a hypothesis, tested and verified by a majority of experts in the field, has sent an astrophysicist down a hole in the ground for seven years doing what is essentially data entry. The conclusion, that with the addition of Dark Matter and Dark Flow as foils to the inexplicable arising from the agreed understanding of the universe by cosmologists means that someone has to find it. I mean, it’s all so neat and perfect if Dark Flow and Dark Matter exist. I think Dan needs to come up for some air, you have to love the guy but, his multimillion dollar research facility is a fine piece of technology and engineering that logic states shouldn’t really work. Perhaps it’s his ad-hoc ingenuity that led him to hold parts of the apparatus together with little more than a G-clamp that also steels his resolve and petulance in the face of the intangible.


Jonathan Hochman, Untitled (Cover sketch 1 & 2) (2009), acrylic on paper

Jonathan Hochman is not a scientist but he is certainly someone who, in his life and work, applies a commitment to standards. Like Bauer, Hochman has a firm belief in his projects and a history of research and experience to draw on when executing them. Unlike Bauer, while working across highly critical fields, Hochman is not constrained by consensus, if anything it’s the opposite. Through his many collaborative and solo sound and visual art projects Hochman has managed to conversely be at once innovative, contraire and popular. This ability to work in a collaborative framework sees these many strands, bound by self-imposed standards pertaining to quality and separation from a ‘middle of the road’ standpoint. At once shifting and consistent, the ad-hoc and intuitive steps are taken on firm ground.

The first major project of Hochman’s that I encountered was the 2004 collaboration with Justin Miles Don’t Get Too Close (to my fantasy) exhibited and performed at Firstdraft. The wonderfully wry digital images depicting Hochman and Miles as invisible men or, potentially, as anthropologists going about obtuse field research are short circuited not only via their invisibility, but moreover, their idiosyncratic wardrobe choices. The dry pseudo-scientific research documentation alluding to the concrete pursuit of understanding, being carried out by fanciful characters dressed in charmingly ironic regalia subtly and amusingly poked fun at existing structures of belief and understanding. The virtuous technical execution and careful selection of once fashionable but now naff clothing from the recent past identifies and calls into question an insistence that all as it seems, is as it should be.

In one of the most compelling opening-night performances I can remember, Hochman and Miles assembled the band Spencer Cock of Dawn to perform in accompaniment to these images. What transpired was alike the invisible men, a throwback to fanciful characters, though these were the ghosts of prog rock styled psychedelia. An amusing and surprisingly well pitched accompaniment to the exhibition, the bands performance reached a crescendo once joined on stage by the Cocks of Dawn, two ‘singers’ dressed in shredded paper bird suits howling raucous and incoherent squawks. The sheer spectacle was matched by the building intensity of the band until the performers had exhausted themselves. The juxtaposition of no longer fashionable forms and contemporary experimentalism reaffirmed that skill and intuition need not be exclusive.


Jonathan Hochman, Untitled (Cover sketch 1 & 2) (2009), acrylic on paper

The success of Spencer Cock of Dawn also signalled Hochman’s shifting focus towards music and sound projects. While Hochman has continued producing artwork, his collaborations predominantly with other artist/musicians Matthew Hopkins (Hochman and Hopkins/Fourdoor) Justin Miles (Spencer Cock of Dawn/sometime Pagan Dawn) Shane Haseman and George Pizer (Stick Stick) and notably Anna John and Emma Ramsey (Holy Balm) have resulted in predominantly sound based projects. In addition, Hochman’s prodigious output also includes the solo projects Pagan Dawn and Hair Hochman. The longest continuously running group Holy Balm has morphed through several different incarnations: vague garage ramshackle noise outfit, proggy synth through to the present version, a psychedelic dance jam band. Indeed the present incarnation seems an unlikely synthesis of the previous elements, filtered through each collaborator and combining to create a strangely palatable, danceable whole. Here the obtuse and intangible has been structured (to a certain extent) into an atonal dance party.

What to make of all this? Keeping in mind my inability to forget Dan Bauer. Upon reflection, I realised there is another academic that Hochman shares a kinship with. Even more so than with Bauer, Hochman’s structured approach to creating output that is equally confounding as it is compelling could be said to owe something to Kurt Gödel. Gödel, the remarkable logician and mathematician whose incompleteness theorems ensured the suggestion that one could axiomatise mathematics, that is to say the belief that there is always a logical and correct answer to every problem, is untrue. It is here that the comparison bears fruit, Bauer and Gödel approach that which for the benefit of this article be termed ‘experimental’ or ‘hitherto unknown’ through a deeply logical set of strictures. Equally, Hochman, individually and with his collaborators exerts a similarly structural approach in creating an expanded field. Of course these projects have not specifically engaged either of these academics; they are the product of influence and the collective force of the collaborations—as are the outcomes of Bauer and Gödel’s research.

A long bow to draw perhaps, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge a debt to those engaged in exploration of intangible ideas. That I have chosen Bauer and Gödel is a convenient conceit—just as academics profit from the research of their peers, each of Hochman’s collaborators contribute his or her part to the greater whole. Positioning in this manner seems appropriate as this article is an engagement with Hochman’s output rather than a review of his various collaborations.

So here again, what is one to make of all this? In the spirit of this melange, let’s take a step away from the musical output that is substantially the core of his project, and move to Hochman’s recent drawing that I feel most comfortably confirms this hypothesis. Again, a project derived from formal concerns which deftly evocate another, intangible and unexpected outcome. Only sparingly exhibited, these drawings are made almost compulsively. Generally they feature food as still life and recently food in place of other matter. Executed simply in graphite and only occasionally in ink, marker or acrylic, these drawings, in keeping with much of his musical output, utilise innuendo and humour to achieve unexpected results.


Jonathan Hochman, Fruit Bowl (2011), graphite and ink on paper, 210 x 150mm graphite on paper


Jonathan Hochman, Untitled (Burger Comet) (2011), dimensions unknowable

Hochman’s main subjects are fruit bowls and, although quickly rendered carry an assured sense of their purpose. Governed by an unusual set of rules, the purpose in question floats. As would be expected of a practitioner apparently betrothed to standards, all aspects of composition such as line weight and general harmony are engaged. Yet again, unsurprisingly, it is the variable elements that Hochman seems most concerned with. Like the intangible and perhaps non-existent Dark Matter, Hochman seeks an imperceptible characteristic within these drawings. It should come as no surprise that Hochman’s favoured destination at the Art Gallery of NSW is in front of their small grouping of Giorgio Morandi’s still lives. I recall falling in love with Morandi when the AGNSW hosted a survey in 1997, afterwards seeking out all I could about the great painter. Interestingly, and I’m sure this has contributed to Hochman’s affection, it was the revelation that Morandi had chosen to primarily work and ,sleep in secondment. It was in this tiny room—separated from the world (and perhaps for just a little respite from his mother and three sisters with which he lived) Morandi was able to create a standard whereby he could evince emotion from subtle shifts of his prosaic props.

It is the lens of histories, specifically musical, but also visual, technical and academic that Jonathan Hochman has used to pursue a path of resistance. The lion’s share of his output has been collaborative and I must stress again that it is not my intention here to diminish this collaborative spirit or each individual contribution, moreover, such an undertaking requires substantially more column space. This remains a singular and separate engagement—an overview of Hochman’s wider output as an armature or structure from which he contributes and collaborates. His practice (albeit contrary to traditional modes of cultural production, however not without precedent) is borne of a desire for classicism and form. Importantly this craving of standards must not slip and court banal, populist repetition. It is here, that Morandi, Gödel and Bauer provide the perfect abstract for a practice that is exactly that.


Christopher Hanrahan Lives and works in New York City, USA. Hanrahan works across sculpture, photography, drawing and installation and has recently been the recipient of the...


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