Surreal magic

  • Greenfield artist Paul Hoffman at the Greenfield Gallery, where his show will hang through Jan. 18. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield artist Paul Hoffman. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Hoffman's “Fish Orchard” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • “Forest Stream” by Paul Hoffman. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Hoffman's “Wheeled Tree Boat” Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Paul Hoffman's “Land-Fish” painting. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZz

For the Recorder
Published: 12/16/2019 3:17:55 PM

There’s so much magic in Paul Hoffman’s paintings.
It might be two birds, meeting from either direction with an improbable fish on a limb. It might be a fish doubling as a sunrise or even an elephant or alligator in the foreground that makes you wonder how you could possibly have missed this detail.

The surreal playfulness in works by this newly minted 69-year-old painter is enchanting and wondrous. But the detailed artwork is built of his decades working as an illustrator.

Hoffman’s current exhibit, through Jan. 18 at Greenfield Gallery, is a deliberate collection of the latest works inspired by landscapes of Brazil, Connecticut and Egypt. They’re reflections of his own limitless vision that grew from those places.

Take “Table-Tree,” for example. It’s an acrylic painting on two panels completed for Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls earlier this year, with three trees in the foreground and one behind. A flying bird on the left may hold your attention long enough that the donkey on the opposite side may be occluded at first, along with two fish swimming in a giant clamshell, or the fact that one of the trees is planted and rising from a boat.

Each of the figures is iconic, symbolic — as unreal as the painting’s phantasmagorical premise.

“I paint the idea of tree, of ‘treeness,’ of ‘donkeyness,’ ” says Hoffman. “It’s really about how we experience the world of form. I do a boat, not for any picturesque reason, but because it has an impact. It’s right at the heart of why I draw and paint: an emotional response to form more than anything else. The notion of combining form, creating hybrids, tree-boat, table-tree, fish swimming around in a half shell, is just part of that. Except it has the element of how would these two go together?”

How, for that matter, do the experiences of a childhood in Brazil and Connecticut go together?

The first half of Hoffman’s childhood was lived in Rio de Janeiro, where his father worked for General Electric. There, he was “just kind of dazzled by the landscapes” as he developed a sense of landscape and form, sitting out looking at the bay with his father. At Jardin Botanical, a vast garden where Hoffman and his brother loved to roam, “the natural form became dramatic. There was so much of it, and everything was so huge and opulent, with a rush of fountains and royal palms. It kind of woke me up.”

At around age 9, his family moved to Cos Cob, Conn. (a neighborhood of Greenwich, Conn.), where he lived in the woods, near a river, “where I really became caught up in natural history. The trees, the animals, the plant forms: my propensity to express emotions through natural forms really started back then.”

Some of Hoffman’s earliest memories were of simply drawing, but his third-grade teacher gave him oil paints. The encouragement he received was accompanied by discovering his father’s old sketchbook in the attic.

“I realized he was always artistic, and without putting a pencil in my hand, his example encouraged me,” Hoffman recalls. “At that age you kind of understand, ‘I can do this, because my father did it.’ ”

When Greenwich High School alumni returned from Parsons, Pratt, Cooper Union and other art colleges to display their portfolios locally, “I was hooked, just like that. I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” He went off to study printmaking, first at Syracuse University and then at the Museum School of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Returning to Brazil after college, Hoffman tried his hand at drawing, photography and “beginning a sort of formation of language as a painter,” before becoming a production editor at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, where he illustrated books on archeology.

“I got to know a lot of archeologists and became fascinated with Egypt,” says Hoffman, who was invited to become an epigraphic artist at the university’s Expedition House at Luxor in the early 1980s.

He spent six months creating facsimiles of carvings from the limestone walls of temples and tombs by tracing on large photographic prints of wall scenes, then inking them and bleaching away the photographs to create accurate renderings.

Returning to Chicago, Hoffman spent the next 30 years as an illustrator for newspapers, designers and publishers, including The New York Times, Globe Pequot Press and Interlink Publishing. Most of the works were done in black and white on scratchboard, until publishers began demanding color illustrations. He responded by digitally colorizing his scratchboard with multiple color layers.

Hoffman moved back to Connecticut in the early 1990s to be closer to the New York market. In 1995, in search of a place to live where he could walk to the library, the post office and the grocery store, he moved to Greenfield. In the evenings, working at the kitchen table, he began painting.

“It was a great thing to do,” he says. “I didn’t have to sell anything, I didn’t have to show anything. It was a very wide open exploration.”

The paintings, in a style that can be seen in two intriguing, almost mosaic-like acrylic works, “Double Turtle” and “Double Frog,” at the current Greenfield Gallery exhibit, proved important, as The New York Times and other newspapers began substituting color photography and more digital work. The market for illustrations began drying up.

“It’s only when I was spending more time looking for jobs than doing jobs that I walked,” he recalls. “I realized that all my life I’d just jump in, and that’s what I did with painting, knowing I had the skill set and the ability but had no idea what I was going to paint.”

Those evening painting exercises ultimately gave him the confidence to walk into the Greenfield Gallery around 2015 and have his first show.

“That changed my life completely,” Hoffman recalls, looking around at the current exhibit.  

Each of Hoffman’s paintings at Greenfield Gallery was created specifically for this exhibit, with consideration for how it will become part of the whole. To speed the process like the one that allowed him to accomplish those eight very detailed paintings in six months, Hoffman switched from oils to acrylics.

 Waking at 5:30 each morning, Hoffman averages nine to 10 hours of painting a day, as he’s now begun doing for an upcoming show at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Most artists may put together exhibits from the continuum of their work, but Hoffman explains, “The way I approach this has a lot to do with the disciplines I established as an illustrator: the notion of deadline. Often as an illustrator, you’re talking about multiple pieces. I like this design of having an overall concept that’s almost thematic without compromising what I’m trying to do.”

Hoffman sometimes finds ideas for his paintings in collections of drawings he’s done. A preliminary composition lets him develop those ideas, “so the right elements come out and are expressed properly.”

 “I think that’s hugely important. … I designed this body of work so they kind of relate to each other in terms of their sense, their, color, their style. It’s exhausting at my age, but I love the idea that you spend six months putting these shows together, and it lets you grow so quickly. It keeps me wondering how I can manage to keep doing this, but I’ll do it while I can.”

Hoffman’s “hybrid landscapes” juxtapose forms “that seem to have their own life, their own existence. They’re just placed compositionally so there’s harmony.”

In another painting, “Wheeled Boat Tree,” a tree with fanciful shells rises from a boat form that itself rises from a seabed foreground of more shells and fish with two circus-like wheels — one of which suggests the sun. A pair of Magritte-inspired orange curtains, each with a white bird, seem pulled back to reveal the painting, which consists of two panels, split down the middle of the tree. And a pool of water, with fish forms, extends to merge with a sea in the background beyond a white wall.

“This painting really breaks through to its graphic elements,” Hoffman says, “so the tree masses are really close to black. I love the idea of just taking the palette to diminish the foreground the way that is, so it doesn’t interfere. It’s just there, it has meaning and allows the boat to float above it,” with a transparent sail formed by what is almost a pendulum connecting the wheels.

Another two-panel painting, “Land Fish,” combines several Escher-like structures — aqueducts and curved brick wall — with a translucent tree form, intricate leaf and grass patterns, waterways, birds, a menagerie of fish-hills and even a dog that all seem to appear out of nowhere and make the viewer want to keep inspecting the work.

“I hear that all the time,” says Hoffman, “and it always takes me by surprise, because when you paint them, you notice every last thing, all the mistakes as well. That’s taught me something about our perceptions. I’m glad there’s a kind of progression in terms of discovery.”

Hoffman’s talking about his own unfolding discoveries, as well as that wonders that keep unfolding for the viewer. The suggestions of walls that he sometimes places in his paintings, for example, not only provides a framework as you’re looking at the painting, but also windows through which you may find a vastly different reality.

“There are limitless possibilities to work with,” he says, just as he can play in nuanced ways with a seam between the two panels. In “Forest Stream,” for example, some elements are divided and others hang off the edge, even as the viewer is distracted by the dragonfly in an alligator’s gaze.

“I’m able to paint exactly what I want to,” says Hoffman, clearly delighted in the discoveries of his career as he approaches 70.

“That’s a huge benefit if I’m not caught up in what people think. If enough people think what I’m doing is fine, that’s the end of it,” he said.

Recently retired, Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His website is

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