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Shifting States

Esme Hodsoll on light, loneliness, and her lifestyle


Photography CLARA SEGUI

Esme Hodsoll likes to people-watch from her window.

When we spoke on a particularly dreary December afternoon, she told me about one of the subjects of her gaze. In an apartment across from her window, she noticed a man in his forties with “an interesting aura about him” who played video games incessantly, day and night. Hodsoll became so enthralled by this man that she borrowed a pair of binoculars to get a closer look. “I often wondered how long he’d been in this withdrawn state, and what had caused him to retreat from life so extremely,” said Hodsoll.

Air Con & Figs, 2018 - 2021. Oil on wood panel. 16 1/8 x 13 1/8 in. Courtesy the Artist and PATERSON ZEVI.

At 4:30 p.m. in her Paris studio, Hodsoll’s face was shrouded in darkness as she contemplated the odd gamer. After a few moments, she said, “I sort of admired him, his resistance to conform to what’s acceptable in our society.” 

Hodsoll is a British painter fascinated by the “auras” of other people, by those who exist in peculiar bubbles of reality adjacent to her own. She primarily paints scenes of daily life: small-scale still lifes and delicately rendered portraits of friends. But her subjects, even when mundane, often have a distinctly otherworldly quality—as if Hodsoll is peering through a set of binoculars at an off-kilter parallel universe. That uneasy, slightly alien sensibility unifies her work: a disembodied hand cleans up an unnaturally blue stain, a group of figs deteriorates atop an air conditioning unit, a bouquet lies in front of a black garbage bag. And her compositions are sparse—the empty spaces between each object vibrate with the vacant sound of an echo chamber, desolate and lonesome.

The strange collection of objects Hodsoll depicts could be the possessions of a reclusive gamer across the street or a lonely freelance writer who never leaves her apartment— individuals who are isolated enough to exist within their personal universes. In some ways, Hodsoll is a documentarian, someone with a keen observational eye that records and catalogs loneliness and other discomforting sensations associated with our contemporary moment.

Portrait / Wild Flowers, 2021. Oil on copper plate, 4 3/4 x 6 1/4 in. Courtesy of the Artist and PATERSON ZEVI.
Blue Eggs, 2022. Oil on board. 5 1/2 x 7 1/8 in. Courtesy the Artist and PATERSON ZEVI.

Despite the chaos of the past two years, Hodsoll had her first solo show at Paterson Zevi in Venice last September. When we virtually met in December, Hodsoll was getting back into the rhythm of her daily routine at her small studio in Paris. She was working on a small painting of a group of eggs. “There’s something about ovals. I can’t stop until the shape is completely true,” remarked Hodsoll. “But recently, I’ve been overindulging.” Hodsoll’s works have the ethereal appearance of Persian miniature paintings, constructed in thin, delicate layers of paint. Often these small works take many months to complete. Illuminated by the daylight coming through her little studio window, Hodsoll paints her scenes from the life and uses only natural light. This process becomes even more prolonged when daylight hours are limited in the winter months. She finds the darkness of wintertime to be quite oppressive in general. “I panic slightly as it gets dark, but I’ve recently invented a trick to get around it,” asserted Hodsoll. ”I leave my studio at sunset and go for a walk. Before it gets fully dark, I drop into the cinema to see a film. When you come out, you feel you gained a couple of hours of light.” 

Hodsoll values taking these sorts of breaks from her work. She will often stop painting in the middle of the day to see an old movie at the cinema or go to a museum, then return to work on another painting in the afternoon. However, sometimes she enters a state of extreme focus while working. This was the case for a recent still life, Rear Mirror. She dedicated months solely focused on painting, sometimes not leaving the studio for long periods. Of the experience, Hodsoll recalled, “When you haven’t left the house in a while, and you’re alone, things can seem quite extreme.” But in her opinion, this acute state of solitude is not necessarily negative. Existing in this state “heightens our senses, our capacity to see and feel. It makes us more sensitive to life and art.”

In these periods of deep concentration, Hodsoll’s lifestyle mirrors the isolation and fervor of the gamer across the way. I asked her if she felt she could relate to the hermit she admired so much, to which she confidently replied that good things could come from isolation, from closing yourself off from the world: ”Society doesn’t encourage you to think or listen to yourself. You’re not taught to at school or college, at it doesn’t usually go down well work … When you close yourself off a little bit, ideas surface up inside you —your own ideas. You develop an inner life and find you need it as much as it needs you. It’s to do with fidelity and where you stand, if only momentarily.”

She also remarked that the sensation of painting is not dissimilar from gaming—in both cases, being ferocious pays off, and if it’s paying off, you want to keep going. “When it’s going well, it drives you on. And when it’s going badly, leaving is unbearable.” “But,” Hodsoll added, “maybe what’s different and dangerous about gaming is that there isn’t the vital need for real-life experience. There’s no reason to leave.”

Hodsoll doesn’t exclusively operate in a state of intense isolation. Unlike a gamer, she changes between states of being. She deliberately oscillates between periods of seclusion and periods of extroversion, as she finds that she needs to look out into the world to get fresh material for her paintings—to find the perfect object for her next still life, to peer through her binoculars at the stranger across the way, to observe and conjure the mood of our current moment.

Of this duality of existence, Hodsoll said, “By moving through the world, one gains new and vital experiences, and by retreating, one is forced to reckon with the sensations that these experiences have stirred within. I translate this into paint. This is how I carry on.”

This unique, change-driven process lends Hodsoll’s work its simultaneously alien and grounded character. Through being open, Hodsoll becomes attuned to the “aura” of the world around her, and in concentrating on her inner life, she learns precisely where to point her binoculars to record it.

This duplicity is reflected exceptionally well in her work Rear Mirror, which illustrates a series of quaint objects pushed against a wall—some fractured rocks, a decaying stick, a spider, two upside-down flowers, and a rearview mirror. The scene appears as a barren, alien landscape, and each subject is sequestered uncomfortably in its own carefully painted bit of space. The components of that awkward, discomforting composition amass to conjure a resonant and broadly-felt mood: a sense of isolation. 

The most interesting feature of Rear Mirror is the palpable sense of warmth and beauty embedded in Hodsoll’s vivid depiction of isolation. Each object is rendered like human skin, with a glowing translucence that hints at a complex inner life barely visible beneath the surface. 

In peering into Hodsoll’s pictorial world, I am reminded that there is beauty in isolation, and that beautiful things can be gleaned from seclusion. In Hodsoll’s words, “Life’s often perceived misfortunes, such as loneliness, are not necessarily unfortunate. After all, if you find gold when your alone, it’s yours for the taking”

This story is from Issue Four.