The Independent Collector: The reality of working with children and animals

John Windsor's Guide To Buying Affordable Contemporary Art
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The Independent Culture
PORTRAITS OF these five Shar-Pei puppies, going from their kennels to Nicky Hoberman's studio near King's Cross, will soon be appearing in her paintings, alongside her sugar-sweet but disturbing little girls.

The discovery of Hoberman, a 30- year-old South African, by Charles Saatchi, was the art world's equivalent of a touch with the fairy godmother's wand - he telephoned her when she was ill in bed and she thought it was a joke.

Her paintings of children and pets are to appear next year in his exhibition of post-Sensation artists, The New Neurotic Realism, and her solo show opens at Cork Street's Entwistle Gallery next month.

Critics, gobsmacked by Hoberman's pouting, smirking little horrors (the kids, not the pets), have blurted "paedophilia" and "kitsch". Both are there, but Hoberman's confections contain more than that.

Her doggies, bunnies and pussy-cats are painted in the kitschy way that adults see both pets and children. But the little girls are painted as little girls see themselves. Aged five to seven, and the daughters of artist friends, they are invited to dress up and be snapped by Hoberman's Polaroid camera, before she puts them on canvas.

The result is that they show off appallingly. Some put on make-up and nail varnish. They strike poses and pull faces to manipulate the photographer's attention. You probably recognise that wink with mouth agape from pin- up photographs. But did you realise that little girls pull that face long before puberty?

The faces are distorted, as if through a prism, and are viewed from above. These are young egos struggling to grow up, to break out of the adult- made jelly-mould. "I love the distortions," says Hoberman. "I want them to emanate disquiet. The little girls are half adult. Their eyes are quite old and there is something anxious about them. When they're coy, they're more overtly coy than we're used to seeing. There is a knowingness in their look. But it's just human nature. Girls are more manipulative than boys."

The dresses look flat, like cardboard dolls' dresses with slot-in tabs, hung on the little girls by adults to impress other adults. The acidic colours are borrowed from sweets and products such as Ribena and My Little Pony, bought by adults for children.

Hoberman uses recently-invented, super-saturated pigments that resemble Cibachrome colours. The brushwork is suppressed so that the images look like computerised photographic montages from magazines. That way, she says, people relate to them more easily, and the emotion behind the controlled gestures makes more impact.

The more precocious among her little girls already know how to make an impact. She told one who flashed her underwear: "No, I don't want to photograph your knickers." Whereupon the child removed them. "I was terrified her mother might walk in," the artist says.

Hoberman graduated in modern history at Oxford, took a BA at Parsons School of Design, Paris, and an MA at Chelsea College of Art and Design. She was shortlisted for this year's NatWest Art Prize. Her solo exhibitions, recently in Milan, London and Boston, tend to sell out.

According to current prices for her work, her 3ft square portrait of the three little daughters of the vicar of the Nigerian Spiritualist Church next door, who drop in to her studio with their friends, would sell for pounds 2,500. The vicar thanked her for giving it to him, but told her that what he really wanted was an 8ft tall painting of Christ. Her standard large size, 7ft by 9ft, costs about pounds 10,000. Mrs Jackie Smith of Croydon, breeder of the Chinese Shar-Peis, will also receive a portrait gratis - presumably of the most manipulative bitch.

Hoberman's solo exhibition: Entwistle Gallery, 6 Cork Street, London W1, 17 September - 24 October (0171-734 6440). Saatchi Collection (0171- 624 8299)