The real-estate developers, football players, bureaucrats and politicians who populate Ron Hoover’s paintings and drawings offer a rogue’s gallery of American greed, violence and conformism. Hoover, who died in 2008 at the age of 64, was a social satirist with an eye as sharp and relentless as George Grosz’s. What first struck one in this posthumous survey, however, was not the artist’s moral outrage but his technique: a labor-intensive variant of pointillism that, in its density and optical shimmer, is more concerned with the perceptual than the political. In some cases, the technique nearly obscures the ostensible subjects of the paintings. Without the title Republican (Newt’s) Gift for the Poor AKA A Bloody Boot (1997), for instance, one would be hard pressed to identify the glowing shape in the center of the painting as a blood-dripping boot, much less catch the allusion to onerous provisions in the “Contract with America” authored by, among others, Congressman Newt Gingrich.
Even in works where the main figures are boldly depicted, Hoover regularly includes small images so deeply imbedded in his fields of dabs and dots that only patient viewers will find them. Take, for instance, Home Builders (1985), a 5-by-10-foot portrait of a businessman whose potatolike head emerges from an impossibly wide-shouldered jacket. Behind this bleached-blond colossus, his face emblazoned with a dollar sign, rises a suburban house built up in layers of violet and green cross-hatching. While it’s easy to spot some geometric eyes that make the house seem like a developer’s malevolent spawn, the skulls and body parts floating in the pointillist sky behind emerge much more slowly. Some register only as slight variations in the patterning of multicolored dots, as elusive as fading afterimages.
In his quest for dense surfaces, Hoover improvised new means of getting paint onto his canvases, sometimes flicking it from toothbrushes or the tips of his fingers, other times spinning it from electric drills. (He also used conventional brushes.) After an interesting excursion into allover abstraction in the late 1970s, Hoover stayed with figuration, although his faceless functionaries and pointy-headed salesmen are sometimes barely legible.
For all Hoover’s fascination with crypto-images, two compelling late series on paper mostly dispense with hidden content. Each 6-by-5-inch drawing in the “Truculent” series (2004) depicts a head-on view of a different SUV model surmounted by a grotesque nose and pair of eyes. One would swear that these grainy ink renderings were done in graphite. Larger and more colorful is “Everything’s Included” (watercolor, graphite and acrylic, 2004-05), a catalogue of cadaverous Houston homebuilders, each flanked by a single-family house and labyrinthine floor plan; assorted weapons sprout from their grotesque heads. Weirdly heraldic, these portraits prophesy the impending real-estate crash. It’s hard to think of any painter who better chronicled the heartless debacle of post-Reagan America.
Photo: Ron Hoover: Republican’s (Newt’s) Gift for the Poor AKA A Bloody Boot, 1997, oil and pastel on board, 6 by 4 inches; at the Art Car Museum.