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Face Value

The Sydney Morning Herald 21 - 23 March 2008

Janet Hawley

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It's the eyesthat grab you - enormous, potent pools, gazing out from compellingly beautiful young faces.  At first glimpse, the children appear to be sweet angels;  but look deeper and you see sadness, brooding, vulnerability, knowing.  And then you realise that those gorgeous andrynous faces all belong to boys.

For the past decade Archibald Prize winner Cherry Hood has been known as "that woman artist who paints those huge pictures of boys".

"It's an obsession," Hood admits.  "I can't stop painting beautiful boys;  I don't want to paint anything else."  (Although for a new exhibtion opening at Sydney's Tim Olsen Gallery on April 2, she's painted one sublimely beautiful girl, shown in the background at left, "to show I can do it".)

Hood is not, she stresses, some weirdo with a fettish for adolescent boys.  She likes to say that she has plenty of real men in her life: three brothers, three sons, three husbands.  She is simply a painter with a passion for a subject.  "I feel a sensual love for these faces, but it's a pure, platonic love.  I think many people feel this kind of love for children, but they are afraid to admit it.  It's only in sick people that it plunges over into actual sexuality and pedophilia."

Curator Alison Kubler says Hood paints on such a scale "that we become voyeurs, we cannot look away.  Her wet-eyed, soulful faces are loaded with tension.  The more you stare, the more you read into the faces; they start to look bruised and damaged at some level.  It's as though the boys have had thier one brief glorious moment in youth, then it's gone.  "It's symptomatic of today's fearful society, used to tales of broken and misguided youth, and the sexualisation of children, that instead of thinking pure, happy thoughts on seeing a beautiful young face, concerns about pedophilia immediately rush into many viewers' brains."

Old Lloyd Rees used to say that while the public may be reticent about giving an opinion on art, everyone will voice an opinion on a portrait.

"I get the full basket of reactions from the public," Hood remarks, "because everyone brings their own baggage into interpreting other people's faces.  Some people react like a mother would with a beautiful child - dark, uncomfortable thoughts nevr enter their heads.  Others tell me they start thinking about their own childhood, children they've known, abandoned children, children in danger.  So many reactions are sad.  It's made me realise how many people hold deeply unhappy childhood memories.

"A good friend, a broad-minded artist, says that she feels so overwhelmed with grief and melancholylooking at my paintings that she can't bear to be in the same room.  She says, 'I can't understand why you keep painting those faces, I hate them.'"

Cherry Hood lives in the Southern Highlands, two hours south of Sydney, in circunstances many artists might envy.  Indeed, eminent painter John Olsen, who also lives in the region, declares that "after visiting Cherry's painting palace, my studio feels like a humpy".

Hood resides in a splendid cathedral-like stone and timber house, set in a forrest of slender white gums on 75 hectares.  A stroll away from the house, past raised vegetable gardens, chook pens and fruit trees, is her mammouth, superbly equipped studio, complete with heated floor.  A further stroll away, magnificent timber horse stables are being built.

 In person, Hood is warm, kindly, quiet natured and self contained.  She seems like one of those ladies you might imagine leading gracious lives planting tulips in their Southern Highlands gardens.  Instead she paints compulsively day and night all week while her husband works in the city, only easing up when he joins her at the farm on weekends.  Her third husband of 20 years, "my rock and great supporter", is Graham Jones, a numbers wizard who's been a senior financial consultant for major companies including Qantas and for tycoons like Harrods' Mohamed Al Fayed.

Hood's life has been a series of peak and valley experiences:  from being a struggling young single mother, to her early art shows being raided by police, to criticisms that, like photographer Bill Henson, her portrayal of children and adolescents verges on pedophilia, to a five-year stint in Europe studying art, and flying to the Paris Ritz on Mohamed Al Fayed's private jet.  (Jones knew Dodi and Diana well.)

Her friend David Bromley, who's had much success painting more joyous, Boy's Own Annual - style children, says: "Chery presents as this wonderfully placid, rather closed person, quite unlike your usual neurotic artist.  When i'm with her, I often fin myself thinking, 'I sthis really the person who paints these powerful paintings, and has lived her often amazing life?'

"Driving with her at dusk around her property, with those ghotly gums reflecting in the dams, to me there's a dark and surreal side to the landscape, and I see that in some of her paintings.

"To me, the faces she paints are like landscapes to travel your eyes over.  I keep staring at the ones I own, but they always out-stare me."

Hood whips up a lunchtime omelet with her saffron-yoked free-range eggs, and explains that her passion for painting boys began as a feminist statement when she enrolled at the National Art School as a mature-age student.  "I was struck that in contemporary art, the nude means the female nude," she says.  "Everyone paints female nudes.  I understand men wanting to, but why do women artists paint women too?

"At art school we only had female models for life-drawing classes, and when I asked for a male model, for balance, I was ridiculed.  Months later, the teacher hired one and presented him to the class as 'Cherry's male model'.

"It's quite acceptable for a male executive to have a female nude hanging in his office, but if a female executive had a male nude on her wall we'd never hear the end of it.

"I decided to redress the imbalance."

In the early 90's, Hood held a student exhibition where she copied paintings of naked, prepubescent girls from books and added a penis, transforming them into boys.  The police closed the exhibition and ordered her to cover the penises with brown paper.  "Next they raided my flat, as they thought I was some perve who collected photographs of penises.  I showed them the cource pictures of girls, that was okay.  Then they demanded, 'What about the penises?' I told them I'd had three brothers, so I knew how to paint a penis.  It was so rediculous.  After all that fuss, I decided I didn't want to make politics, I wanted to make art, so I'd just paint boys' faces."

Hood chooses to make the faces large, "so they stare at the viewers staring at them.  They confront, and ask, 'Why are you thinking what you're thinking?" she explains.  "I'm setting up a psychological drama, between the examiner and the examined.  What interests me most is how viewers are affected."

Cherry Hood's art career was a long time coming.  Born with a gift to draw, she won numerous school art prizes but was in her 30s before she decided what she'd been making was "just stuff, not art".

She grew up in a creative environment.  Her father was an engineer and inventor; her mother had excellent drawing and sewing skills.  "I literally drew on everything I owned," Hood recalls.

At high school, she virtually lived in the art room.  "We had an inspiring bohemian art teacher and all I ever wanted to be was an artist with a big studio."  She began studying art at technical college, but hated the way it was taught, so opted out.

At 19 she was married and pregant with her son.  "The marriage was brief; we were both too young," she says.  The next year she took off to Italy, baby son Mark in tow, and lived very cheaply with a local family in Perugie, studying art, sculpture and the language.

Running out of money, she came home, kept painting and having small shows, "but I never found a recognisably Cherry Hood style".

Another brief, unsuccessful marriage followed, then she met Graham Jones, who had two sons.  In 1986, the five of them went to London, where they lived for four years.  Then, back in Sydney, she started nine years of formal art study, completing honours and master's degrees.

When she began her master's, Jones was working for Olympic airlines in Greece, and Hood travelled to and fro.  "Greece was perfect for me, because I'd already decided I had this passion to paint boys, and everywhere you lokk in Greece, there are glorious sculptures of the male figure."

She experienced an epiphany, she says, when she saw the famous Charioteer of Delphi statue: "I was brought to tears by his utter exquisiteness."

Graham Jones comes up the driveway.  He and Hood have been following the Princess Diana inquest with special interest.  Jones worked for Mohamed Al Fayed for 2 1/2 years as chief financial officer of the House of Fraser, whose assets include Harrods and the Britsh bespoke tailor Turnbull & Asser's CEO.

"Mohamed was a great schemer and dreamer, a fantastic bullshitter," recalls Jones.  "He was a control freak - everyone's phone was bugged, including mine.  He didn't trust anyone.

"personally he was a crude man.  His favourite greeting to other men was, 'How's your balls?'"

Hood adds: "When I first met him, he asked me why I didn't have more children, then remarked, 'I've got plenty of sperm, would you like some?' He was quite ashocker."

And the son?  "Dodi was a really nice boy, but totally dominated by his father, and in business as thick as two planks," Jones says.  "He'd tried  to produce movies in America and failed, so he'd been given a job at Harrods, and I was trying to teach him.  He had no money of his own, Mohamed drip-fed him.

"Dodi was a speed freak.  When I was in a car with him, he'd literally scream at the driver to go faster.  He absolutely refused to wear a seatbelt.  I have no doubt Dodi was screaming at the driver to go faster that fatal night in Paris, and that he influenced Diana not to wear a seatbelt."

The Dodi-Diana Liaison began after Jones finished working for Al Fayed.  His reaction to it? "I couldn't believe it was serious; she couldn't be so stupid.  It wouldn't have lasted long if she'd have lived.  I don't believe the ccident was a conspiracy, but rather one of life's tragic stuff-ups."

Cherry Hood won the 2002 Archibald Prize with her portrait of pianist Simon Tedeschi.  Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon says the portrait was "extraordinarily sensual, and the public loved it.  That's the thing with Cherry.  The capital 'A' art-world pundits in the main regard her work as a slight and superficial, but the public responds to it strongly."

Capon suggests that the pundits should reconsider "because Hood has created an unusual visual language, where she is extremely successful at setting up an interaction between her paintings and the viewer.  There's a subterfuge in her work that gives it a real edge."

Where does Hood find her subjects? The paintings start with a camera and a real person - a boy she knows or spots somewhere.  She then meets the boy's parents and asks permission to photograph and paint their son.

"I ask the boys not to smile as I photograph them, and it's amazing the range of facial expressions you get.  I never paint smiling children.  That fixes a meaning and I want my work to be more complex than that."

She takes about 50 digital photographs, then selects one or two images that really interest her.  The photographs then inspire a painting.  Though startlingly real, the child has a new identity, never a personal likeness as in a portrait.

Hood's unerring fascination with the face dictates that she'll happily go on painting her treasured boys forever.

"There are millions of people in the world," she says, "but even more faces, because every face has a hundred different expressions.  I'll never run out of material." 

OLSEN IRWIN 63 Jersey Road Woollahra NSW Sydney Australia T +61 2 9327 3922   Hours: Monday 12 - 5pm, Tuesday - Friday 10am - 6pm, Saturday 10am - 5pm and Sunday 12 noon - 5pm