Blue Drift, mixed media, 2014


“A Wilderness of Monkeys”: New Work by Rodney Hatfield aka Art Snake

Review by Keith Waits

Art photographed by Geoff Carr

Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Rodney Hatfield is an artist of no small reputation, yet he remains grounded as an artist in a fundamental lack of presumption. Also known as an extremely talented musician (Metropolitan Blues All-Stars, Tin Can Buddha), his visual art identity is “Art Snake”, a moniker derived from his response to why he creates art – “for art’s sake” – and it is indicative of the earthy and elemental nature of his approach. In his most recent work, currently on view at Swanson Contemporary, there are several strains available for the viewer to follow: different from each other in their formal components enough to illustrate breadth and still similar enough to be evidence of the same artist’s hand.

In several large-to-medium scale paintings, Hatfield is entirely abstract, building textured layers of found materials and medium that form geometrical compositions of line and shape made less rigid by the rough edges of his technique. The relationship between artist and material is palpable and delivers a forceful sense of the creator’s presence, as if we had entered the space only moments after the last swipe of a loaded palette knife had swept across the surface. Abstraction may not always illuminate the artist’s mind, but the visceral action of creativity is communicated to the viewer in no uncertain terms. Two sizable paintings of multi-tiered buildings that connote exotic locales are anomalous in their subject, even though the visual constructions follow patterns similar to the abstract work.

Four sculptures dot the space as well; totems constructed of driftwood and other organic detritus culled from the Falls of the Ohio that stand as tall as a human figure. The human scale forces an engagement with what are, again, primarily abstract forms, although some mask elements are incorporated that clinch the identification. The placement of the largest sculpture in the center of the gallery serves to formalize the overall presentation of the work and establishes a subtle spiritual subtext to the exhibit.

For the most part, the subject matter is cryptic enough to avoid certainty of interpretation, but when imagery is introduced, it tends to reinforce Hatfield’s humble roots in a rural heritage that we can easily imagine included exposure to rustic and primitive religious iconography that is characteristic of hard shell Bible-belt churches. Human figures are rendered as simple, near-childlike line figures that conjure up the past in a vague yet emotionally resonant fashion. One such character floats in the ocean, the top of their head poking above the surface to form a deserted island in an image of pure fantasy. It is a whimsical notion worthy of a young imagination and triggers the viewer’s memory and imagination in a search for association that is arguably more meaningful than certainty.

Then, in a small section on the far side of one of the gallery walls, there is to be found a small family of paintings that explore something apart from the larger pieces. A more concentrated use of color to convey atmosphere within very basic compositions. In “Listen to the Lion”, an enigmatic figure is positioned in a landscape occupied by a lone tree. Specifics of this character, such as age and gender are indistinct, and the almost spectral presence seems connected to the earth much in the way the tree would be. Although the lower limbs of the figure are not visible, one imagines roots planting the solitary soul into terra firma. It speaks to the human connection to the land in a quasi-religious manner that is reinforced by the overall tone of the show.

The thematic currents in Hatfield’s work run deeper than one first realizes. Long after I had left the gallery, the images would intrude upon my conscious thoughts, prodding me to reconsider what I had witnessed. Elemental in the way that the best “folk art” (and I am not at all certain that Mr. Hatfield would agree with that designation for his work) always is, it touches something in the core of the viewer that can be difficult to articulate. Where darkness dwells. This is art that gets under your skin.


“A Wilderness of Monkeys”: New Work by Rodney Hatfield aka Art Snake

April 4 – May 10, 2014

Wednesday-Saturday, 12-6pm

Swanson Contemporary
638 East Market Street
Louisville, KY 40202