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Perspective on a life's work

By BRANDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


Robert Hodgell, a Florida artist who died last March, had a personal art collection of his own works that spanned a multitude of mediums, including clay, oil, acrylic, watercolor and linoleum-cut prints. More than 50 of these pieces are on display at the Arts Center.

The show "is not a retrospective per se, but spans 60 years of his artistic life," said curator Eric Lang Peterson. "The Arts Center body of work exemplified his determined attitude, taste and integrity."

Hodgell was one of Florida's finest, most diverse artists. During the 1950s, Hodgell was resident artist and instructor at Des Moines Art Center, illustrator of the children's encyclopedia Our Wonderful World and art director at the University of Wisconsin.

He later settled in St. Petersburg and became artist in residence and an associate professor of art at Eckerd College from 1961-77. He left the college to focus on his artwork full time and exhibited extensively in Florida, including at his own Hodgell Gallery in Sarasota. His works have also been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Library of Congress.

The Art Center show offers a glimpse into the mind of the artist. Through the artist's eyes the world is an intense and varied place. His self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes are streaked with surprisingly vivacious colors that seem to radiate with a living energy. The colors create a dynamic force in even the most peaceful scene, yet are so skillfully managed that they do not overwhelm the observer nor detract from the painting's setting.

In contrast, Hodgell's use of black and gray tones in his portrayal of industrial cities shows his understanding of the darker side of life. One painting in this grouping, Industrial Scene, shows a world consumed by darkness, muted in oppressive tones of black and gray. Even the street lamps, which should offer illumination, are merely gray silhouettes against a cold, dark city.

Several of his pieces reveal his sense of humor, such as the Monahopper, a grasshopper with the face of the Mona Lisa. Hodgell's self-portraits, ranging from 1951 to 1995, show the artist -- and his honest self-portrayal -- as he ages.

Throughout the show are several of his clay sculptures, many of them nudes. One figure, of a woman with her shoulders straight, head back, stands tall upon a pedestal that elevates her above the viewer. Another curls tightly into a ball, clenched within herself. A third, Male Torso, shows a male figure embracing himself.

"Over three decades of knowing him and collecting his fascinating artworks, I came to believe that behind this swarthy, beared hulk was a kindly gentleman of spiritual and valiant fiber. He offered us a mirror in which to see ourselves in a better state," Peterson said. "This eight-month project since his death has been an inspiration."

ART REVIEW

Robert Hodgell (1922-2000) Estate Artworks at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through Dec. 28. Free admission. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat. (open until 7 p.m. Thur.); noon to 4 p.m. Sun. Call (727) 822-7872.

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