Gerard Hemsworth Obituary
by John Chilver
published in Art Monthly #445, April 2021, ISSN 01426702, p28
Had you been a patron of a certain Soho strip club around 1966, you might have been disappointed to hear the young MC announce that the evening’s show was cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, but that for a further fee, you could be ushered into an alternative venue down the street. The handsome south Londoner fronting this lucrative scam was St Martins sculpture student Gerard Hemsworth, then studying with Anthony Caro. Hemsworth always knew how to dodge and dive, but as he emerged in the burgeoning conceptual art world of the 1970s, his deep natural intelligence, wit and empathy qualified him as an artist of rare insight and agility. Those qualities would also equip him to become one of the most influential art educators of his generation. Working first at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham and then at Goldsmiths between the early 1970s and 2011, Hemsworth taught far too many noteworthy artists to list. As director of the MA course at Goldsmiths, alongside colleague Nick de Ville, he pioneered a new kind of art teaching, based less on respect for the intent of the artist and more on catalysing the sceptical scrutiny of an engaged audience of peers. If there is such a thing as a virtuoso art educator, Hemsworth certainly was one, combining analytic precision and nuanced provocation with caustic humour and personal warmth.
The force of his teaching was grounded in the breadth of his own artistic experience. If pushed to cherrypick from Hemsworth’s long career, I would point to three outstanding moments in his art. The first would be the text pieces of 1972-75. Hovering between description and meta-description (though of what is rarely spelt out), these furtive phrasings constantly threaten to evaporate their own frame of meaning. The second I associate with the figurative paintings of the 1980s, repeatedly shown at Anthony Reynolds Gallery and Matt’s Gallery, and in particular the iconic self-portrait ‘Act of Contrition’ included in his 1981 Orchard Gallery, Derry and Kettle’s Yard shows [and featured on the cover of AM51, November 1981]. Hemsworth depicts himself naked and stooped, leering at the viewer, feet lodged in vases, hands shielding bollocks. It beautifully exaggerates the blend of provocation and vulnerability common to many of his best works, with their undertone of etiquette under threat. The third moment came in the paintings of the mid-2000s, after years spent developing an abbreviated linear figuration. Here giant teddy bears appear dismayed in the wake of abrupt, fraught, obliquely erotic encounters.
That Hemsworth’s work is not better known is due largely to his restlessness and incessant shifts of approach and style. In addition, for all his wit and charisma, Hemsworth was reluctant to expound loud claims for his own work, as I found when, in 2018, I began conversations with him about revisiting the early text pieces. The resulting Works from the 70s at Palfrey, London, would be Gerard’s final solo show.
In the 2010s Gerard and his wife, the artist Susan Ormerod, designed and built a remarkable house with studios in Sussex, where they continued to work and welcome a constant stream of visitors, whom they never failed to entertain.
© Copyright 2021