In this post-digital, pandemic-ridden, upside-down world, what does it mean to be human anymore? What remains? These are questions that Cathrin Hoffmann, a self-taught artist from Hamburg, poses and plays with in her debut solo exhibition, It Still Smells of Nothing, showing at London’s Public Gallery. She tells us, “There is a quotation from the existentialist Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that I could not get out of my head while I was working on my current show. This is where the title comes from: ‘I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing.’”
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This series of grotesque and glorious bodies was born out of the isolation and surrealism of this year, a reflection on the artist’s experience of “bored decadence.” She divulges, “BLM, Trump idiocy, right-wing extremism, conspiracy theories, big fires, climate change, and so on, make it feel like our divided society is about to explode while we are sitting at home watching Netflix. It's like an overload from which one tries to escape. Trying to ignore reality, swiping through your Instagram feed bubble, watching series, listening to podcasts and getting bored. I caught myself doing this and got angry. Cosiness in existence is not what we should be aiming for, and that creates a conflict within myself.”

Cathrin quit her job as a graphic designer to pursue art. “I always wanted to become an artist but my environment advised me to learn something ‘useful’ and to live my creativity on a second level. So, I first studied graphic design but after working as an Art Director for several years, I realised this is not what I wanted.”

Her paintings are mapped out digitally, then recreated manually with oil paint, charcoal and gel. The creative process itself reflects the artist’s simultaneous engagement with and rejection of technology. It speaks to the new levels of both isolation and connection that we are all experiencing this year. Painting the bodies back onto canvas is “like bringing life into them where dirt, brush hairs and parts of myself stick to them. After all, reality leaves its mark.”

The results are captivating; a collection of contorted shapes and body parts, uncomfortably bringing together of the familiar and the alien. Isolated forms with only their own looming shadows for company. That sounds like an accurate description being a human during lockdown, right? “Digitalisation is changing us, and I mean that without any judgement…” Cathrin says. “It is great how much digital possibilities help us to stay in touch and to be able to look into every part of the world. But Zoom, FaceTime or Skype won’t ever beat reality.”

As well as paintings, Cathrin is presenting sculptures for the first time as part of this exhibition, which she says is strange because she “never felt like a painter, although I started painting first.” Her painting process feels like a form of sculpting anyway. She describes her bodies as “sculptures located in a painted, in-between world with only themselves and their own shadows” and adds, “I enjoyed that process a lot and I’m currently experimenting with more ways to transition these bodies over both worlds – digital and analogue.” Watch this space!
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