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Billy Hoff’s inscrutable images

by Gwyn McAllister, The MV Times

“I’m kind of an escapist,” said artist Billy Hoff. “I usually try to keep as far away from reality as possible.” Of course, he’s speaking of his approach to painting, but Hoff also admits, laughingly, that his art might be somewhat influenced by his inability to make decisions. “I try to just vaguely allude to things,” he said. “I like the conceal/reveal — not being too obvious.”

The artist’s work, currently the focus of a solo show at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, and also on view at A Gallery in West Tisbury, shows this tendency toward a dreamlike effect of implied narrative. People, sometimes with distorted features or proportions, tend to populate odd, mystical landscapes. There’s often a sense of timelessness, with figures dressed in what appear to be old-fashioned clothes. There’s generally some sort of action taking place, though exactly what is up to the viewer. “In the past, I’ve talked about how they remind me of short stories,” says Hoff. “I love fiction.”

“I’ve always liked that fine line between representational and abstract,” explained the artist. “I’m more interested in a kind of psychodynamic. My images are very universal — male and female relationships, class relationships, loss, desire.”

The paintings on display at the Playhouse include a handful of very large images. Although Hoff prefers not to explain the implied narratives, there is a sense of allegory in many of his paintings. In one long (12- by 40-inch) painting titled “Bookworms,” two top-hatted figures and a dog walk away from a red building that has a Greek Revival look to it. Another, much larger figure, in a full-skirted dress, appears to beckon to them. The very large (42- by 42-inch) painting “Donkey” features the titular character in the background, along with a couple of hazy figures and some indistinct buildings, with a bleary-faced mystery man in the foreground.

Some of the small paintings on exhibit at A Gallery seem a bit more obvious in their references. There are people playing baseball, rowing a boat, lighting a potbellied stove. Yet even in these tiny scenes, there’s an indefinable oddness and a sense of mystery.

The artist’s style incorporates bold, defining lines in some areas, combined with broad brushstrokes and blurred borders in others. He sometimes uses scratch marks to add texture and further obscure the images. Sometimes he works in strong colors, other times his palette tends more to softer hues and earth tones. Sometimes he combines both in one image. The results are always striking and unusual.

Many of Hoff’s images seem to have drawn inspiration from the work of Renaissance landscape painters like Bruegel the Elder and, to a lesser extent, Hieronymus Bosch. Perspective and proportion are often skewed, items in the background are mysterious, and century-defining elements are mixed. One can’t help but try to decipher the larger meaning but, the images prove inscrutable — ambiguous and dreamlike.

For the Playhouse show, Hoff included works that feature a curtain framing the action. He specifically chose this theme for its connection to the theater. In a clear departure from his usual style, Hoff also painted one image specifically for the show: “The Bowling Trophy,” a black-and-white painting depicting a scene from the film of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The image is titled, and is far more straightforward than the rest of the work in the show.

“That was just kind of as a gesture for the Playhouse,” says Hoff. “I wanted to do something kind of playful.”

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