It is a warm world, agreeable and intense; a world of gorgeous colour populated by sponges, mushrooms and pods flowering with youthful vigour from reassuring fibres, into which a viewer can cautiously venture on his or her own terms. And yet the world of Hopkins’ new paintings is not all that reassuring, it seems to me. One might be well advised to trace the steps by which the paintings were made. Their shoots and leaves, for instance, their watery inlets and sprouting vegetation, hover rather precisely between flat pictorial effect and icons of what the mind already knows. It seems that they are all drawn carefully so as to remain just outside the reach of normal classification, horticultural or otherwise. But this is as it should be; for these are paintings, after all, which implies that all growth and form must be defined in the calibrated language of line, edge, tone, and mutual adjustment inside the tautly organised rectangle of the work. And here, the viewer will first uncover the painterly nature of Hopkins’ simultaneously gratifying and threatening world. First, the warm Indian yellow that covers the whole. Then the brown and purple madder that supplies the hard-wood inner armature. And then the careful drawing of mostly quadrilateral shapes, some dotted, some sprouting, that lie both flat and upright on the picture surface, ready to be inspected from a frontal position of, I would guess, about three feet. Standing at somewhere near that distance, we see that everything is in sharp focus, but also that nothing has finished growing. Organic forms appear wherever there is space for them, wobbling into life to occupy the exact space that nature, or the rules of picture-making, have created for them. We seem to know that the forms that will prosper are those that will crowd their competitors out, in this dense, almost tropical container.
Those versed in the conventions of contemporary painting will know that this language has its own special origins and destiny. In the form-world of the 1980s, that roughly defined by an axis running between Julian Schnabel in America and Antoni Tapies in Spain, it was adventurous to engage in large anarchic drawing, with spillage and accident governing the organisation of the whole. Hopkins, at that time one of the leading exponents of anarchist painting in London, was approaching the end of the decade in a state of painterly doubt; and in a couple of new paintings from around 1990, Bread in Pocket and Corporal Trim, he found that very flat over–painting of one shape by another gave rise to a new visual vocabulary; especially interlocked planes and the sharpened edge – and by that token a set of ambiguities of a very different kind. Large brushes were set aside in favour of smaller ones. Drips were replaced by dots, or the gauze-effect. Indefinition was replaced by the sharpness of focus that I mentioned earlier.
A kind of coastal Cubism would have been one direction to follow. But Hopkins uncovered a very different nature then, one of America and Spain together- of gates and iron-work, light and sharp-edged shadow, bright colours and lush Mediterranean growth; in short a universe where Cubism and Surrealism meet. And so we see in the new paintings, those like Go West and Go East- which in their titles already imply travel away from home- but supremely in European Gothic in the present show, surely a minor masterpiece in its own right, the flowering of a vocabulary that, for all its strangeness, is rich in deference as well as reference to other artists of merit that belong squarely to the European scene. Near the top of this list would be Patrick Heron, whose wobbly natural shapes, virtually Mediterranean ones, so neatly abut the edges of his elegant works, and Robert Motherwell, whose many Surrealist elegies to Spanish culture Hopkins always recognised in his bones were relevant to him. In both artists, abstraction was mixed up with the evocation of a marvellous world through form. Heron, for his part, always insisted that his paintings should not be seen as landscape,.but as vivid colour-space. Motherwell’s obsession with Spain was governed by his search for what he (like the rest of his generation) called authentic feeling; for a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed colour) and the unconscious (short lines, obscured shapes) resolved into a synthesis’.
Whatever lessons they once conveyed, it is clear from those two artists why we cannot use their kind of language any more. In any case, it is quite obvious that Hopkins’ relation to his world is both more sceptical and more anxious than either of theirs. For one thing, we can see that he is not averse to painting what appears to be ersatz rustic patterning, or exploiting the graphic abbreviations found in cartoons – as if we any longer doubted that the ersatz and the authentic are virtually one and the same. Further, it is clear from several of his titles that these warm, imaginary spaces are primarily ones given in delirium. Hopkins himself has written of the combination of stiff breezes and paranoia that permeate the mental posture of his work . And so we begin to pick out eyes, upside-down faces, fists, swarms, even some very beautifully painted leaves that make up an image, not of a pastoral world, but of a hallucinated one. Did I or did I not see in one of Hopkins’ prints the same clenched fist that occurs in Dalf’s 1936 painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War –‘a strangulation of auto delirium’, as Dalf once called that work? And who is the Bucolic Hippy who haunts the titles of several of Hopkins’ paintings; one who seems to have eaten unusual mushrooms and now lies down on his back to stare at the shapes in the sky? And who scribbled that intestinal line with the wrong end of the brush, inside the body-centre of the work?
One of the great qualities of Hopkins’ new paintings, as I see them, is to have abandoned the particularly English problem of whether abstract art needs to be in some painterly relation to landscape. He has decide• d that it would be better to avoid the term entirely. On the contrary, it is through recollections of Dalf, Miro, even Picasso, that the artist has remembered how the sun can sharpen the shadows, heat the landscape, and probably addle the brains. Are we madder or saner now? It makes no difference. In Hopkins’ new world, it is advisable to try for both.
©Brandon Taylor 2012