Gregory Hodge, Golden Boy (2015). Collection Australian National University, Canberra. On display in 10 Years of Collecting at the ANU, Drill Hall Gallery, ANU, Canberra, until May 28. In early 2015, while Gregory Hodge was living in Rome, he often visited a nearby church where he spent hours looking up at the ceiling. He was entranced by the theatrical extravaganza of a 17th-century fresco with its celestial figures seemingly tumbling out of a hole in the ceiling, swirling stucco angels interwoven with clouds and drapery, explosive colours, gold architectural details and clever illusionistic tricks of distance and light.
This large fresco, Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli in the Church of the Gesu, is one of the most famous ceilings in Rome. Not far from the Forum and the Pantheon, it is a masterpiece of illusionism and shows how successfully the baroque used dramatic special effects to wow the faithful.
After Hodge’s research into Gaulli’s fresco, he returned to Australia and used it as a starting point for his painting Golden Boy, in which he aims to transform some of the elements of the fresco into an abstract composition.
“The ceilings are pretty wild and at times quite garish and over the top,” Hodge says about his work, “but the one I kept coming back to, and the one this painting relates more directly to, is the Church of the Gesu, which had this really amazing central vault. It is very outrageous in some ways, and the composition of Golden Boy comes directly from some of the aspects of the central nave of this Jesuit church.”
During his research at the church, Hodge made many notes and took photographs. He also visited at different times of day to see how the light changed. Hodge wasn’t so concerned with the subject matter of the fresco but more the composition and the playful illusionistic devices. “I wasn’t interested in directly taking motifs out of the painting,” he says. “I wasn’t making figurative paintings but I wanted to develop an abstract language which somehow encapsulated the essence of those things.”
Golden Boy is a recent acquisition of the Australian National University. It is on show in an exhibition, 10 Years of Collecting at the ANU, at the university’s Drill Hall Gallery.
Curator Tony Oates says the university bought Golden Boy because Hodge is a graduate of ANU’s school of art and taught there, but also because “he is a bit of a star”.
“You can see from his handling of the materials exactly how skilful he is, his dexterity with this medium,” Oates says. “His work is very interesting because he is looking at these interiors in Rome and is interpreting the colour, the movement and the different illusionary effects from visions of cherubs and angels and clouds from the ceilings. He has turned that into a very abstract mode that represents the emotive force of those ceilings.
“People think abstraction is something that is fresh and new, pretty much associated with modernism and the 20th century, but Greg is locating that within 17th-century ceilings and then revealing it in a very modern, current and contemporary way.”
Oates says it is a “magical moment” when you encounter Golden Boy. “There is a sense of trying to unravel the distance in the painting and trying to work out the depth. At one moment you are encapsulated by these swirls of paint and you are pushed both forward and backward. And then the moment of engagement is prolonged through the mechanisms that he employs to make these lovely movements within the paint.” Drill Hall Gallery director will give a free talk on the ANU collection, including Golden Boy, on May 12 at noon in the gallery.
Acrylic on paper mounted on PVC; 201cm x 154cm