We've long been admirers of the work of Stephen Hobbs. His art spills out of the studio and his imprint is found across the city. Even if you don't recognise the name you have probably seen his hand at work. The metal trees in Braamfontein that were amongst the city's first public art installations, the Orchards Project that commissioned graffiti artists to leave their mark on Louis Botha's dangerous S-bend. With his collaborator Marcus Neustetter, their company The Trinity Session continues to work on art projects that focus on the people who inhabit Joburg's neighbourhoods, and walk this city's streets, to create points of interest and interaction in what can be a landscape of alienation.
And so it seemed a little strange when Stephen Hobbs announced his move to Ireland. Hobbs had decided to go rural. That was a short time before BC, the era we almost scarcely remember Before Covid. Together with his family – his wife and two children – he moved into a bungalow somewhere near County Cork.
A Short Life with Bungalow Bliss is the title of his exhibition at David Krut Projects in Parkwood (Sep 2022), while Shallow Sleep (Sep 2022) is the name of his exhibition at his Maboneng Studio. From the titles it doesn't take much effort to apprehend that something went awry. The Hobbs family now lives in Joburg.
The family's hopes and dreams for a rural idyll in Ireland were locked down into a bungalow from a picture book of housing typologies first signed off by the local council in 1971.The woodview that was promised had been cleared to make way for a housing estate.
Monitored by your car’s number plate, the government's Covid regulations trapped the Hobbs family within a two kilometre radius. For the family it was like being under house arrest. There are no misty-eyed stories of cultivating a sourdough starter or baking that first banana bread. The days stretched into weeks and bungalow bliss started to give way.
Of course that time for many people was one of deep introspection, as we all searched, yearned, and wrestled with global uncertainty. As Hobbs plunged deeper into that bungalow, he began an almost frenzied and forensic exploration of where he was. His enduring obsession with all things military, with camouflage, deception, concealment, subterfuge and the architecture of spaces – in this case a bungalow in Ireland – led him to Jack Fitzsimons' 13th edition of the number one bestseller Bungalow Bliss (260 designs), and then into a comparative study on the defensive architecture of Irish stone castles.
Holed up in a small space he took to measuring out every inch of the bungalow with his iPhone, and converted this into drawings of the floor plan. The floor plan and its containment of the family and their future became an obsession, and the fertile ground for a series of artworks that, while inextricably tied, couldn’t be more different.
You could visit the studio exhibition in Maboneng (and you should – by appointment) or David Krut Projects in Parkwood and be satisfied, but in seeing both you start to delineate the themes of these works in more detail and to truly appreciate Hobbs’ craft.
The studio is a rebuilding of the floor plan of the bungalow and a thinking through of entrapment probably best symbolised by a looping video shot by a GoPro tied to the family’s robotic vacuum cleaner. The works on paper and cardboard at David Krut Projects are delicate, almost dainty in some ways, a different kind of reckoning. The use of colour in the studio is bold and “garish” as he puts it, and as sharp as a military order, while in his print works there is a sense of something blossoming, of colour unlocking Hobbs’ characteristic monochrome world.
Taken together these exhibitions represent the complexity of the time we have just lived through – a great mind and a great talent locked into a few square metres finds endless rabbit holes in which to travel to escape that confinement. These works are enduring in that they reckon with the great puzzle of what happened to the world from the time that the first news bulletin announced a virus in late-2019 to the new world we are adapting to now. They raise many questions, and probably these are questions only an artist can pose, but they are also almost poetic in their composition of answers.
Ireland's loss is Joburg's gain – and we're looking forward to seeing Hobbs resituate his work and identity in this city.
As for the two exhibitions – nothing left to do but see them for yourself.
A Short Life with Bungalow Bliss is on show at David Krut Projects, Parkwood until Sep 24.
Visits to Hobbs' studio in Maboneng to see Shallow Sleep can be made by appointment until Sep 11.