BERLIN — Setting cliches aside as much as possible, the common link between art and life is choice. Success is learning from the affects of the choices, how what a person planned relates to what actually happened and, in the very best cases, how they can improve both their choices and outcomes as they get older. In art, choices range from decisions about color, medium, brush stroke and the million other tiny decisions that result in a finish piece that, setting aside aesthetic considerations, is either an example of a goal accomplished or one missed.
But, like life, art is full of second chances and the development of an artist’s career is best traced by linking together which opportunities they seized as second chances and what they made of the chances they happened to get.
Taking a second bite at the apple has become something of a specialty for Randy Hofman over the nearly 40 years he has been creating or producing art on the Eastern Shore. To say he is known primarily as the man who does the religious sand sculpture on the Boardwalk, or as a a representational renderer of landscapes, or even as a woodworker undermines “primarily” which has been a challenge as much for Hofman as for anyone else.
He started helping the previous sand sculptor, Mark Altamarc, in the early 1970s learning not only the craft but transforming his belief system along the way and separating that part of his life into more ministry than art.
On the other hand, he earned his living producing beachy signs “Welcome” and “Our Beach House” and similar home decor works from salvaged wood. When Hurricane Gloria forced a complete Boardwalk renovation, Hofman took that wood for his use, making the souvenirs that more in touch with the area they were meant to recall.
At night he fed the pure art side of his disposition painting alongside Kevin Fitzgerald on Assateague Island and other places. The plein air work, especially his iconic painting of the Assateague horses backgrounded by the Ocean City Boardwalk, helped him establish himself as much a painter as a craftsman.
When he sold his sign production business, he chose to focus on the landscapes as his primary job and the sand sculpture as his primary vocation. And so it became that, contrary to simple logic, he had success serving two masters. Anyone familiar with Hofman’s work, either in sand or in oil, will recognize that, for the most part, the work was exclusive.
To be sure there was an ethereal aspect to his paintings and a pointed sense of design in his sculptures, but those were incidental rather than central.
What Hofman didn’t understand until recently was that his career choices had been false ones. False, not in the sense that the choices weren’t real but rather in the sense that where he thought there were choices to be made there really weren’t any. His newest show is a surrender to that fact.
When Hofman reached the fork in the road, one requiring a continued religious ministry though art and the other a continued ministry of art he believed he could continue along the path without choosing a single direction. What he has come to understand is that there was always a single direction and yielding to it has allowed him to make the kinds of choices that resulted in literally inspiring work.
It began, in a way, with compact disks. Hofman decided to set aside landscapes for awhile and to produce religious art. Formarly a self-described oil snob — he joked that he’s considered acrylic paint a fad since the 1960s — he elected to try not only acrylics but also other add ons that never would have made it in his earlier work. He gave in to gold and brass gilt on the canvass rather than just on the frame and started cutting up CDs and affixing them to parts of his work to give a sense of reflective mosaic.
The result was different than he’d expected but the pieces he created marked a turning point. The text of the work was overtly religious and the medium radically different than anything he’d been known for. He was beginning to find a new voice, but still had some traveling to do.
His studio still housed the woodworking equipment that he had not really used much in decades. Hofman had always built his own frames and some of them were a little ornate but none were, strictly speaking, works of art in themselves. Once he got to using them as tools of art production rather than as tools for displaying art, he had a clue to the next step in his new style.
In some Russian Orthodox houses — and this is a function of art history, really, more than religion for Hofman — there is a krasny ugol, or beautiful corner. It is where the family places its religious icon, usually a painting of a saint, designating that part of the room as the place for religious meditation.
Borrowing both from the school of art as well as the design aspect, Hofman began creating these altar pieces. He painted the portraits directly on the wood and framed them in different ornate patterns. Some he finished with smooth paint, others with another new tool to his kit, crackle paste, which gives the work an ancient look.
Beyond portraits of saints, Hofman returned in some to landscapes and in others to representational scenes, but the change in tone and in character of the work is noticeably and radically different from his Assateague horses.
Upon completion of the work he expected to show at his opening this weekend, Hofman discovered a new wrinkle from the earliest parts of his work.
He liked the reflective aspect the CDs supplied to the earliest painting for the show and realized in a flash that a similar — and more archivally sound — effect could be accomplished with glass. He took up one of the altar pieces and began gluing small squares of glass on top of the work, achieving what he calls “13th Century television”.
Part mosaic and part portrait, the final version of many of the pieces has a transforming and transformative quality. Depending upon the angle, the viewer sees anything from a multi-colored but indistinct shape to details within the painting what would be hidden at any other angle.
For his part, Hofman sees the new works as an opportunity to start a conversation about what could be interpreted as the lesson of any particular piece.The chance for an ecumenical moment between viewers.
More than that, though, the new works stand alone in the power of the medium suggesting plenty of “little ‘t’” truths worth appreciating in service of Truth. It is a choice that, through his work, Hofman has taken himself out of.