A Tour of Jonathan Hobin’s Haunting Exhibition

As a collage artist who draws on very personal issues in her work, I’m always excited to see other artists doing the same. Seeing the work of other artists is also vital to keeping my creative capacities sharp and inspired. One of my favourite art coaches Alyson Stanfield (Art Biz Blog) recently noted how important it is to keep the work of artists alive in the public’s imagination as well, so here’s a recollection of an amazing show I visited this spring…

It’s a sunny April day and I’m on my way to the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery to see photographer Jonathan Hobin’s Show “Little Lady/Little Man”.  Sitting on the bus, I spy a woman and her baby and a song springs into my head … I hear my mother’s voice… she’s singing a song with nonsense words she used to sing to my younger siblings. The sound of this happy, silly tune always made them smile, feel safe and loved.  Its funny how, decades later, I can still hear it so clearly.  It’s amazing how a simple tune sung to you at a most vulnerable age can have such powerful long-lasting effects on your being…

A Journey through Time…

Before I know it, I’ve walked into Hobin’s exhibition.  The gallery’s a little darker than usual, I wonder if I’ve missed the show until I’m greeted by three gleaming, haunting life size photographs of an old man hanging before me.  Relieved I haven’t missed the show, I walk along the left wall of the gallery where I sense the story begins.  Here I’m greeted by a series of vintage photo portraits of Hobin’s grandmother that transport through time to various stages of her life: as a young girl; with her sister; as a bride and as a mother with a small child.  I think how quickly life goes by…

Beneath a Glass Case…

From there, I reach the far wall of the gallery.  In front of me, beneath a coffin-like glass case, is a life-size portrait of Hobin’s dying grandmother lying in a fetal position in bed.  The photograph, as with all the photographs in the show (excluding the first series I mentioned), is printed on aluminum so her image shimmers under the spotlights above it.  Under glass, she is transformed into an aging fairy tale princess or the ancient remains of a far-off ancestor frozen in time.  Her image is troubling, beautiful and poignant.  Hobin’s monochromatic image takes me back to the time when Victorians had photographic portraits taken of their dead loved ones as keepsakes.  For the average person then this was not a morbid image but cherished photo; also perhaps the only record of a loved one they owned: a precious memento mori. As I dwell on this, I become aware of the sound of heavy breathing. It’s not my imagination.  It’s a recording Hobin has made of the last dying breaths of his grandmother. Solemnly, I proceed to the next space…

A Sacred Chamber…

This area is enclosed by two walls on either side.  In this darkened tomb-like, womb-like room hangs a large portrait of Hobin’s grandmother’s face; she appears to be sleeping or perhaps near death.  For me this sacred blackened chamber is like a nether world; a place where life ends and death begins.  My mind flashes back to my late father dying of cancer and I feel as though I’m at Hobin’s grandmother’s bedside hearing her take her last breaths.  It’s hard for me to tear myself away from this space because I know I’ve been here before; sitting beside a loved one’s bed; agonizing for minutes, hours, days, months and years. Wondering which will be the moment they draw their last breath. It’s difficult to leave, but somehow I manage to tear myself away…

One Last Goodbye…

I walk around the wall and encounter the three hanging life-size portraits I saw upon entering the gallery.  The first is of Hobin’s elderly grandfather in pants naked from the waist up; his pacemaker protruding from his chest. The next is an image of him in full suit. The last, he’s in formal attire with Hobin’s grandmother who’s sporting a beautiful fur coat.  They’re posing in the same style my parents and grandparents did in their old photos: heads up, a bit stout, standing proud… like they’re saying one final grand goodbye to life.  These aluminum prints sparkle in the spotlights making his grandparents seem like angels, even sentinels.  They make me think of the reredos (altarpieces) in Catholic churches that reveal the mysteries of heavenly deities.  In the form of a triptych, as a fallen Catholic, I see these images as sacred, as spiritual.  I love the way this series commands power and reverence and gives a great dignity to the couple.

Like a Gilded Statue of a Saint…

Alongside the left wall, the exhibit is completed by another series of three close-up life-size portraits of Hobin’s grandfather focusing on his heart, legs and head.  They’re based on a phrase Hobin’s grandfather told him as a child.  I don’t have to scrutinize these images too much to see the wear and tear on the elderly man’s body.  On aluminum his skin takes on the immortal patina of the gilded statues of saints I’ve seen in churches.  As I contemplate these pieces, Hobin’s grandfather’s voice beckons me and compels me to take a seat in the gallery and listen to what he has to say… expanding the scope of my reverie… perhaps too, unraveling the mystery of his life…

A Gift of Song…

I’m all ears as Hobin’s grandfather sings songs to his daughters and granddaughters; to his sons and grandsons.  Their titles* beginning with the name of the exhibition: “Little Lady/Little Man”.  I discover that these are the songs he grew up with and are the legacy he wants to leave to future generations of his family.  Hobin found secret recordings of them left by his grandfather and decided to use them in his show.  For me they are the glue that binds the whole show together along with its beautiful intimate lighting effects.  As I listen to the old man singing, I feel I have to leave before I completely break down.  I’m also hearing my father’s own melodic voice singing songs to me as a child.  I’m a sensitive soul and Hobin’s thoughtfully laid out installation has worked its magic on me.  To me this is art at its best: when you’re left with not only the images the artist has conjured up, but also the ghosts of your own life.

Exploitation or Loving Memorial?

Hobin has been criticized for exploiting his grandparents in this installation; for photographing his grandmother in a most vulnerable state, but in fairness it’s important to note that the couple whole-heartedly supported his photographic career during life and his grandfather sanctioned the use of some of the photos in the show.  For me, Hobin’s installation therefore becomes a touching private/public memorial to them… reminding viewers of the nearness of our own death and of those we love as well as the importance of legacy.  Hobin’s grandfather has left him a song. As I leave, I can’t but help recall a song my grandmother Sophie sang to me before she died: “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”.  I can still hear her singing its final lyrics: “But you can’t take your dough, when you go, go, go!” When she died she left me two miniature books of quotations of great philosophers and saints and a box of old buttons.  Long ago I decided my legacy would be my art.  And you my dear readers, what will you leave behind? 

To see some of the images and learn more about Jonathan Hobin’s exhibition see the Ottawa Citizen’s Blog as well as Hobin’s website.

*Note: The song titles are: “Little Lady Make Believe” and “Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day”.

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