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December 14-20, 2005

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Serious Fun

Robert Hudson and the joy of art

By Gretchen Giles

Why every child who was ever born on this good, green earth does not set his or her sights firmly on growing up to be a professional artist remains a mystery. If he became a painter, he could spend his time dedicated to the business of pigment, shape, line and composition. As a metal sculptor, she could don heat-protective helmets and special gloves, and use fire and steel and saws and pulleys, and climb high ladders and drive industrial equipment around hangar-sized studios. Working with clay, each of them could feel the wet, easy slick of slip as it embraces a ready-made shape, or work against the dense give of mud as it grudges itself into shape.

Of course, even those children on this good, green earth who don't have to wonder about the next meal or a safe home or a dry night may lack something else: talent. Oh, but to have talent, food, home and warmth—shouldn't it then be a mandate to have fun?

Yep, fun. Not angst or worry or death visions or dire warnings or prophetic imaginings or ornate metaphoric imagery that remains clear to only one soul. Fun.

Cotati artist Robert Hudson can paint and sculpt and work with clay and, man, can he have fun. With a 28-year retrospective of his work on exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum through April 2 and a new show on exhibit at the Perimeter Gallery in Chicago, Hudson is perhaps—even if it's not fair—having even more fun than ever.

A tall man in his early 60s, with a full shock of whitening hair, Hudson is soft-spoken and hale with the ready smile of someone who expects that the next moment will hold pleasure. Hailed by the collector Rene di Rosa as "the world's greatest living artist" and collected by institutions as various as the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the MOMA and Whitney in New York, and in fine art museums all over California—with di Rosa himself owning a cool 28 pieces—Hudson is in his prime.

Married to the author Mavis Jukes, Hudson is fortunate in many things, among them his friends. Growing up in Washington state, he was close chums with William T. Wiley and William Allan. All three were fortunate enough to be influenced by Jim McGrath, a legendary high school art teacher whose protÈgÈs eventually went on to help found the Bay Area funk movement (a moniker they soon came to despise).

McGrath took his students on retreat and immersed them in the native cultures of the Pacific Northwest, a legacy that is particularly still vibrant in Hudson's sculpture. And perhaps most fortunately for Wiley, Allan and Hudson, McGrath imbued the young men with the crazy odd notion that they could be professional artists when they grew up. And so they did: Wiley went to his witty, word-laced work; Allan to his narrative watercolors, heavy with sea-lore; and Hudson to bright, pop-tinged re-imaginings of found objects, always based in the fluid act of drawing.

Wiley and Hudson remain particularly close, often collaborating on work together and in conjunction with West Marin trompe l'oeil sculptor Richard Shaw.

Curated by Sonoma State University professor Michael Schwager, the SCM show is generous in its exhibition of such collaborations, works that two or three of the men contributed to at once, often just to have something different to do, often to literally get out of the home studio—and have some fun.

On a recent black, rainy afternoon, Hudson walked the museum exhibit with a reporter. He stopped in front of one such collaboration, titled Working the Wheat, that he, Wiley and Allan created in 1993. Featuring a mostly yellow background with small drawings and lettering upon it, Wheat has an inset drawing of a beached ship at one corner and a found Kewpie doll image collaged onto another. "We spent about six months going to each other's studios, working on canvas and paper," he says. "Sometimes we're all working on it, other times we're just sitting there talking.

"Richard and my collaboration is different in a way because we make [ceramic] molds, which is totally boring, but we have a blast doing it because we're doing it together," Hudson chuckles. "Then we both can use those molds; you can kind of build a junk pile, take whatever you want and put it together. I also like being in different places.

"One group of work we did was back in Andover [prep school]. The Addison Gallery [of American Art] is there—a beautiful gallery, huge. They gave us a studio and all the materials we needed; they brought in a dump truck with commercial molds and dumped it. We made molds; we worked with the students. We went back and forth over there through all of the seasons—be there two weeks, come back to California for a month. We had a great, far-out apartment." He grins broadly in remembrance.

Explaining the slip technique, Hudson says, "it's pretty much like drawing, truthfully, because it's so light and fast, you just—psssht!—put it together. It's kind of a blast."

Hung across from Wheat is a large work on paper, Shadow, that Hudson and Jukes have kept from sale. Hanging a plastic human skeleton to cast its image on the page, Hudson drew it with a nautilus figure in the background, the shadings done in graphite, the white contrast heightened with acrylic that he spread with a palette knife.

Wiley is known for his Zen-influenced meditations; is Shadow perhaps Hudson's riff on mortality? "I don't see it like death. It's just a skeleton," he explains merrily. "Even when I was in school, I was bonkers over them."

While Hudson admits that he's "always getting razzed about red, blue and yellow," favorite colors that appear consistently in his work and lend a distinct air of cheer when seen gathered in long retrospective, he is also very interested in shapes. Cubes appear in steel and in paint, slipped over the head of a collaged figure or welded on to the foot of an abstract sculpture. While the SCM's upstairs is given over to the results of his ceramic slip mold work and rangy, free-flowing sculpture, the downstairs is more stately and again, a skeleton appears.

Standing before Balance, which features a tall steel structure with a skeleton seated upon it, its hand lightly balancing what curator Schwager terms "the business end" of a bomb, its ribs painted near the heart, Hudson is willing to admit that the piece is a reflection on the Cold War. When the reporter presses further, looking for gloom and death and hinting that the steel frame is in fact a gallows, Hudson just grins.

"Well, it could be that," he says, willing to find humor in humoring. He lowers his voice conspiratorially. "But not really. It's really just a big rectangle."

Which truly is a lot more fun.

'Robert Hudson: The Sonoma County Years, 1977-2005,' exhibits at the Sonoma County Museum through April 2. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 11am to 5pm. 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. $2-$5. 707.579.1500.

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