Pat Hoffie on charting the terrain of chaos

Speaking about her exhibition, This Mess We’re In, Queensland artist Pat Hoffie says her work is about “the long look.” Looking back on history with the perspective of time, the gravity of what has come before and its impact on the present hits harder. “I’m always drawing from art history and popular culture, but my position has always been that you’ve gotta know your past, and you’ve gotta know the world you’re living in,” she explains.

Comprised of three large collections of work drawn from across Hoffie’s lengthy career and prolific output, a similar thread runs through them all despite being completed at different times. For Hoffie, that thread is mess—the unpredictable nature of life and all it contains.

“The exhibition opened in October 2023 when the news was detailing the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Voice Referendum had also recently been rejected in Australia, so people were pretty triggered as several aspects of the show related directly to grief,” Hoffie says. “It may be true that the work I’ve done can be seen as political but I’m a person in all that too. I always go back to what Nina Simone said, ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.’ It’s the artist’s responsibility to talk back to the world, so for me, my work is first and foremost about having a conversation with myself.”

Installation view of Pat Hoffie: This Mess We’re In, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 17 October 2023 – 10 March 2024. Photo by Louis Lim.

The title of the show is a direct reference to PJ Harvey’s song, This Mess We’re In, from her 2000 album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. The song was running through Hoffie’s head when she was in New York City in early 2020 caring for her daughter who had been in a life-altering subway accident. It was the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and Hoffie describes the experience in her catalogue essay. “Caught in the eye of the storm, we shared hospital wards with prisoners released from Rikers, with street sleepers, with the brain-injured, the broken, with strays like us. For long months, we all looked down from our wards onto the eerie abandoned freeways beside the East River.”

In the lead up to her time in New York, Hoffie had been working on the Clusterfkk series, 2018-2020, multiple large watercolours painted on tracing paper, a delicate and difficult material to work on and preserve once complete. Included in This Mess We’re In, each image from Clusterfkk is filled with human figures embroiled in a hurricane of action and conflict. There are multiple references to Henry Darger’s blonde-haired Vivian Girls, a fictional tale of seven princesses who lived within a mythological Christian state. Through the composition of these works, Hoffie also refers to the Battle of San Romano c. 1435-1460 by Paolo Uccello, an epic painting peppered with spears and lances, and Colin McCahon’s I Am Scared text-based paintings from the 1970s.

Installation view of Pat Hoffie: This Mess We’re In, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 17 October 2023 – 10 March 2024. Photo by Louis Lim.

The Smoke and Mirrors series, 2016, is another major part of the exhibition. Many of the images here depict refugee boats painted in charcoal and ink. Allowing sweeping brushstrokes of ink to flow down the paper, Hoffie’s boats appear pursued by dark clouds of foreboding—a storm approaching or the heavy weight of history bearing down? “People get very moved by those works and I think the reason is we feel at sea ourselves,” Hoffie says. “We’re not connected, we’re floating out there.”

In the earliest series of works, Ready to Assemble, 2003, Hoffie relies on a slightly brighter palette. Cryptically illustrating wins and losses, both personal and global, many of these paintings are overlaid with assembly instructions like those found in an IKEA flat pack. Scattered throughout the visuals are illustrations of whales, children, flying machines and fleas. “Even then it was looking like the world was going to need fixing,” Hoffie recalls.

Installation view of Pat Hoffie: This Mess We’re In, QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 17 October 2023 – 10 March 2024. Photo by Louis Lim.

Embracing “the long look” Hoffie describes, This Mess We’re In charts the uncomfortable terrain of chaos by reflecting on the past while acknowledging the present moment and imagining an uncertain future. As Hoffie puts it, “It’s a lament in a lot of ways, as I’ve lived through some cataclysmic things. Twenty years of works on paper gives a sense of how I’ve been dealing with these issues. It’s not just a reaction to what’s happening today, there’s always chaos somewhere, the world has never been perfect. It’s something I’ve persisted with as long as I’ve been working as an artist. Often you look back on your own work and it can surprise you to see the extent to which you stick with something.”

This Mess We’re In
Pat Hoffie
QUT Art Museum
17 October 2023—10 March 2024

Feature Words by Briony Downes