Isis Hockenos 

The ongoing series The Labor of Her Body // The Work of Her Hands explores the philosophy of work and examines the difference between task and labor. I am looking at this in a literal sense (images of sheep shearers) as well as through a more abstract, often feminist lens. I explore the universality of repetitive task through image repetition and mirror images making the composition an abstracted reflection of the theme. Identically uniformed, workers’ hands move in sync, producing consistent, precise outcomes. In some cases, through color and shape, I evoke the female sensibility as applied to manual labor and traditionally masculine industries. Whether shearing sheep, breaking down duck or marching into war, uniformity is essential. Although the success of a worker's effort is defined by its precision and invariability, the spirit and desires of the worker remains unique. 

I see my native Bay Area strung between the ubiquitous technology sector and a revived interest in handwork. In the future, might “work” be performed only by machines while humans perform “labor” as a form of leisure? Will craftsmanship be valued only for its aesthetic qualities and not for its usefulness? These are questions that I want my work to ask and for the viewer to engage in answering. 

This selection of paintings also focuses on my growing awareness of the silent, unacknowledged, often incidental work that I’ve experienced and also witnessed the women in my life do, constantly. There is a female sense of urgency, of responsibility, of bondage that insists we maintain momentum and forward pressure no matter the context. There is no name for it, small concrete evidence of it. However, there is joy, ease, playfulness and efficiency that comes from women working together. By fostering instead of suppressing these instinctual approaches, in every facet of life, we can begin to rebuild the social construct that is currently bisected by a gender-normative chasm. 

I use my painting to realize the creative potential of the unconscious mind. My drawings act as a filter between my eye and my subconscious, bridging the gap between what I take in visually and what I later put down on the canvas. I simplify shape and form in an attempt for the viewer to, on one level, acknowledge the subject or idea that I am exploring but on another level the simplification adds importance to composition, plane, color and mood.

Isis is influenced by the wind and the salt and the craggy shores of her native Northern California coast, while being inspired too by the urban angles of the cities in which she has lived. Isis studied visual arts and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, NY and printmaking at Fondazione Il Bisonte in Florence, Italy. Isis is currently a Young Artist Fellow at Gallery Route One, Pt. Reyes Station, CA and a Resident Artist at The Midway Gallery, San Francisco, CA. Isis has exhibited locally and internationally, including at Vorres Gallery, San Francisco, Sandra Lee Gallery, San Francisco, Gallery Route One, Pt. Reyes Station, Sagan Piechota Architecture, San Francisco, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Ana, and at Galleri Oxholm, Copenhagen, DK. Isis has had curatorial experience at The Midway Gallery, San Francisco.


Tell us a little bit about your journey. When did you decide to become an artist?

My father is a painter and my mother was a photographer and fiber artist. In our family, art was never an extracurricular-- it was the fabric of our lives. To not be making, in some capacity, was never an option. That said, it was such an integral part of my life that my initial instinct when entering Sarah Lawrence College in 2005 was to pursue other subjects, most of all, creative writing. I did study painting while in school and lived in Florence, Italy for a year studying printmaking at Fondazione il Bisonte but it wasn’t until I moved home to the Bay Area several years after graduating that my other primary pursuits (writing and butchery) were absorbed into the sponge of my painting practice. While those things will always be a part of my identity and a vital aspect of my daily life and art practice, when I paint I feel an urgency and satisfaction that is, as of yet, unmatched. 

Hockenos_Bury the Body I (harvest).jpg

What inspired your current body of work? 

For the past five years I have been exploring task and labor; the physical, through the lens of work and industry; and the emotional, through interpersonal relationships and incidental gender dynamics. I often use mirror imagery and repetition to evoke the sensation of repetitive task. These interests are framed by a strong connection to my natural environment and to an affinity for humor, color and narrative. 

In this work, I respond to the constant, unacknowledged, often incidental work of women. There is a desperation, a female sense of urgency, of responsibility that, despite our bondage, we maintain momentum and forward pressure. There is no label for it, small conscious evidence of it. However, there is joy, ease, playfulness and efficiency derived from women in unity. By fostering instead of suppressing these instincts, we may rebuild the social construct bisected by a gender-normative chasm.

Additionally, I see my native Bay Area strung between the ubiquitous technology sector and a revived interest in handwork.  In the future, might “work” be performed only by machines while humans perform “labor” as a form of leisure? Will craftsmanship be valued only for its aesthetics, not for its usefulness?

Hockenos_Studio III.jpg

Where do the images of workers in your paintings come from? Do you collect references or paint from your imagination? 

In 2011 I began working at a butcher shop and charcuterie here in San Francisco. This ignited my first interest in task and labor, particularly as a woman working in such a male dominated industry. Amazingly, most of my coworkers at the butcher shop at that time were also women. This was highly unusual. This was when I first became fascinated with repetition- two workers standing side by side breaking down duck. They are in uniform, hands moving in synch. To do the task successfully their outcomes must also be uniform, each thigh perfectly shaped, each breast neatly trimmed. Yet the workers’ intentions remain unique- one hopes to eventually open her own butcher shop, another leaves after a long shift to bike to her painting studio to imbue her canvas with the experience of the day. This juxtaposition between the individuality of each person and the uniformity of task fascinated me. (See Shearers III

As the years went by I found myself running the shop- co-managing with two other incredible women. I began to compare our communication and management styles with the way I collaborated and managed with male colleagues. Around 2015 the subjects in my paintings moved away from the direct depictions of task and labor (ie breaking down duck, shearing sheep) and into the labor implicit in gender and relationship dynamics. This was a period when things were shifting in my personal life. There were adjustments in my relationship of 10 years, and my mother’s death was advancing. Systematic and almost invisible gender-normative behaviors began to make themselves more visible to me as I felt the consistency of my world begin to break apart and reform. Despite my best efforts at gender blindness, I began to see the women in my life as operating on an entirely different plane than the men. It was as though men passed through life atop the forest canopy while we women scurried about on its floor, storing nuts, tending roots, ensuring the ecology of the forest. While there is an absurdity to this scene that lends itself to the humor in my work, my paintings during this period took on an indignant tone. (See High Noon in the Wifery II) Over the last couple of years though, that indignation has evolved into a clearer sense of how to harness the power of a typically “female” approach. While I’ve always taken a lighthearted approach to my work but my recent paintings have been vibrant, lush and fertile and a new and opulent way.  (See Bury the Body II, diggers)

My immediate source material is typically an amalgamation of my own photos, old books and magazines and plenty of time down the Google Image rabbit hole. However, I surround myself with stimuli. My living space in Oakland (a built out warehouse), my painting studio in SF (a former brewery), and my childhood home on the coast (built as a boarding house when the railroad went through in the early 1900’s) are full of collections; textile, pottery, toys, books, fossils, seed pods etc. I’ve been called a bit of a hoarder but one never knows when that particular square of embossed foil saved from a Danish chocolate, whose taste has long been forgotten, will be reincarnated as the texture on a figure’s painted headdress or the stones along the edge of a painted road. 

Hockenos_Shearers III.jpg

What do you hope to convey to the viewers? Are there any new ideas or lessons you hope they walk away with after seeing your work?

The internal work I do as I develop a series (as discussed in the previous response) isn’t necessarily meant to be perfectly conveyed to the viewer. I am currently obsessed with the tactile nature of my paint and other materials and the way that the effects of the piece change depending on how I’ve manipulated the medium. Composition, color and texture excite me and have a lot to do, for me, with the success of a piece. In my most recent work I’ve been combining India ink with oils (on the larger pieces, either on canvas or wood) or with gouache and colored pencil (for smaller works on paper). I love that the ink can exhibit a diverse range of density while providing a true, intense black. Finishing a piece with oil stick chalk pastel or colored pencil adds a final layer of texture so that I can go, for instance, from watery ink to opaque oils to scumbling, over the course of a single painting. My subject matter and materials are symbiotic - one is a necessary vehicle for the other. Pleasure and humor are also very important for me. Even if there is darkness to the piece or a certain discomfort, the viewer is open to these thorns because of the painting’s inherent visual satisfaction. Of course I hope to provoke something in my viewers but I also want to delight. I also like the incongruity of pairing serious subject matter with lively colors and improbable titles. This allows for three separate access points for the viewer and the interpretations are limitless. 

Hockenos_Studio I.jpg

What interests you the most in the painting process? 

I never know why I set out to make a painting, at inception, my questions are not yet formulated, my intent is nebulous. As I work, I find answers. These answers lead to new questions and so on forever. Each piece is in dialogue with the work that came before, with those pieces that I am working on simultaneously, and with all the paintings that I will make in the future. I typically work on three or more oil paintings at a time, over the course of several months, with a series of ink and gouache works on paper popping up like wildflowers along the way. These are moments of meditation where the stakes feel low and I can take risks and get through blocks. I might make an impulsive parrot green mark along the edge of a ochre tree trunk in one of my ink on paper pieces and suddenly know just what my larger oil painting has been asking for. Slowly, each painting asks for less and less until eventually, making my rounds, I will bypass a piece all together. After a week or so I can be sure that the painting is self-sufficient and I consider my part to be complete. I can trust the painting to make its own way in the world. 


Name a few of your favorite artists and influences. 

As a child spent hours dividing my time between painstakingly copying the work of renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Botticelli and the whimsical illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem while being overseen by shelves full of books on modernist painting, black and white photography and fiber/textile art. I think that this tableau does much to illustrate my early influences. Of course my parents’ work too has always been hugely influential, especially when it comes to color and composition. Growing up, my mother read aloud to me every night and for many hours during the day as I drew or painted. Even after I moved away for college she would send me her own recorded books on tape for me to listen to in the studio. I’m sure that this has much to do with the narrative elements in my work.

Being from the Bay Area, Richard Diebenkorn was the first painter to speak the language of place to me in my own tongue. Carl Larsen’s narrative mastery resonated with my illustrative urges. Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, R.B. Kitaj and Francis Bacon have all been part of artistic conversations to which I feel my own work responds.

As for contemporary working artists, I am very excited by Dasha Shishkin, Peter Doig, Adam Lee, and Natalie Frank right now. 

How do you replenish your creativity?


I get a lot of inspiration from outside the studio/gallery world so when I’m feeling stuck it is important to examine my studio to life ratio. Sometimes all I need is to grant myself time doing other things that I love such as going to the farmers market and making a special meal or allowing myself time to read the New Yorker cover to cover. This allows me to miss being in the studio and makes space for ideas to pile up. Then I can’t wait to get back into gear. I also cherish the feedback and dialogue I have with friends who keep regular creative practices. A close friend from college and subsequent house and studio-mate here in sf now lives and paints in New York City. We’ll often exchange photos and ideas and trade feedback on how our work is going. There are several other people in my life, many of whom are women, who serve this role. Not all of these people are artists in the traditional sense. I have some writers, a couple musicians, some who work in design in building and in food. it’s fascinating that in any dedicated creative work the process is often reduced to similar blocks and surges. When I am close to people gaining satisfaction and success from something they love, I feel stimulated and buoyed, proud and driven. This shared momentum, support and joy is something that I hope my paintings contain.