For Hodgins, this process rarely yields immediate gratification. Often his paintings will languish for months or years before reaching completion. Still, one must be `alert all the time', for it is in the alertness that the excitement lies. `It's a bit like surfing,' says Hodgins. `You see those surf-boarders bobbing about on the ocean waiting for something to happen. And then because of this manipulation of paint and spilling it and scraping it, suddenly the painting gets a life and says, Now you've got to do such and such. To use an embarrassing term, that's very life-enhancing. You're not making a painting, you're actually living a painting, and who knows what's going to come out of it.'
Few artists yield so completely to the strictures of their craft as Hodgins - or describe so lucidly the processes and pleasures involved in the pursuit of excellence. At the source lie the visceral nature of paint, the counterpoint between transparency and density in a work, and the great adventure of colour.
In speaking of works such as Madhouse with view of Tyburn, Hodgins focuses upon the challenge of `getting the oranges right against those funny dense greens'. Of a work in progress, An Official Portrait, he speaks of `the mind-boggling and incredible colour of scarlet lake', of its `dragonfly iridescence... where it crosses over the black and turns green'. Hodgins goes on to speak of `dingy green' and `brass yellow', then moves to pinpoint the date when he fell in love with scarlet lake: 1953. `I've never recovered my virginity, as it were.' Of another favoured colour, cadmium red deep, Hodgins says, I spent five days getting this solid, sheer, absolutely implacable color.'
Given the nature of Hodgins's passion it is not surprising, therefore, that he should question the myopic emphasis on subject matter, or what he calls `show biz'. A caption to one of his works featured in Time magazine read, `the artist painted this picture as a protest against military brutality'. `Perfectly untrue,' says Hodgins. `I don't know who fished that out of what cavity of what mind.' The root of Hodgins's distress is the all too easy reduction of South African art to the political - the factory of resistance.
`We really are about fashion at the moment. Our music, our painting, everything.' The downside of this prominence is the undue importance attached to the discourse of liberation. `The emphasis in art has shifted to giving the audience what it is expecting, rather than addressing the audience.' It is only `once this hyped-up interest in South African affairs has got down to a level of normality - if there is such a thing - that people may start taking serious critical interest.'
Hodgins has at no point felt the need for direct protest. For him, the meaning of a work is always partial, suspect and inadvertent. To impose an absolute reading would be disastrous. And yet there are prevailing themes. In the realm of the political this is best seen in Hodgins's depiction of the `tyrant' - the flawed yet vulnerable figure of authority, the general, the dictator, the businessman. Direct indictments of power are avoided. The readings the viewer is compelled to give are as `accidental' as the `likenesses' which Hodgins paints.
`Men carry an awareness that the world is theirs,' says Hodgins. `But there's a pathos about arrogance because it's not unassailable really.' For Hodgins the dissimulation of power is best seen in the emblematic sign of `the suit'. The suit is a `straitjacket,' an `armour'; `with its stripes and folds it is as tailored as steel. If you draw or paint a suit, whatever you put on top immediately becomes interpreted as a head. And because it's on top of a suit it becomes interpreted as a powerful head. It doesn't matter if it's exploding or collapsing.'
If one were to dredge meaning from a Hodgins painting, then its site would be patriarchy and the complicitous arenas of the state, the military and commerce. But ultimately it is the act of painting which has Hodgins in its thrall. `Francis Bacon talks about painting going over the edge,' says Hodgins. `That's what I feel so strongly. The painting takes flight and you know that it's you that's taking flight because obviously paintings don't have a life of their own. And suddenly things you have forgotten you remember push themselves into a painting.' It is for this reason Hodgins can reflect and say, `I've wasted no part of my life. It is all there.'
Sue Williamson and Ashraf Jamal in Art in South Africa - the future present