The Front | Sacha Craddock

This extensive show, covering a span of the last eight years, makes a visual journey, a complex combination of deadpan denial, jokes, covered tracks, invention, discovery, reinvention, risk and a heightened familiarity. Roughly speaking, it starts with ‘Bread in Pocket’ 1990/91 and ends with very recent paintings. The slightest shifts allow the true nature of a complex painting language to emerge. But ideas of development and change are as much a matter of circling, reacting, going back over ground already rejected, passed or lost, as it is of striving forward in a series of moves. Of course any reference to personal situation, to biography, is beside the obvious point here but the time span is natural and sensible; in the early 90s Hopkins moved teaching work and changed studio.

‘Bread in Pocket’ 1990/91 brings in some familiar elements from the 1980s. A line is dropped and then found; it is both tentative and definite. Colour is translucent as well as opaque, the ground is absorbent and breathes and yet here separate elements start to emerge. It is important to remember that very much earlier painting made a diffuse sense around, a leafy watery sort of place. The total layered translucent play of veils across the canvas creates an imaginative space which is as much about the process of doing and making as it is about depth. ‘Market Gardening ‘ 1991 with its broken lines, trailed paint, dot-dot, dash-dash jostle and shift across the surface is similar to work that just pre-dates the show and carries a transitional relationship to the image. Somewhat like a map or overview, (within which lit runway or snail trail start to make up distinct areas) it manages to present a posed, fixed still order within a whole.

The painter makes rules, imagines them to be fast. Does not want to be all sorts of things. But he looks way back in a quiet separate process and allows fixed, associative smells to waft towards him. For the spectator any combination of colour, place, style, and effect can spark off a sense of place and time in time. Here the painter is both instigator and observer. Hopkins admits to “plundering memory” to “allowing it to happen”. “I think there are quite strong memories- from childhood; collecting cigarette cards”. A visual atmosphere is, of course, as potent as any thing else. But what comes first, in the process of painting is nobody’s business and of no matter, colour sets off and informs shape, and vice versa. So there is no real description, as such. While avoiding being trapped within a particularly potent patch of painterly recognition he makes a journey through association, basic element, device, decorative flow, covered tracks, apparent ease and contrary tension.

The very recent paintings have shifted in their relationship to the world (for they have become apparently quick to see and easy to understand) but the exhibition is, simplistically speaking, a matter of memory and tactic combined with the double-double reference to the past that painting already carries within it. This is not about a unified impression of time and place. Each place, or painting, is very different and it is necessary to enter, to jump in and engage, in order to find shifts and differences between pictures, remembering to bring the artist’s suspension of disbelief back to the work. They do, in fact, deny any true photo fit memory and never look exactly as imagined.

The long term effect of period, moment and style; the relationship between happening, actual moment and the long term residue of reference and filtered imagery plays a strange game. Other artists may be interested in ‘dealing’ with the past through a diffuse visionary mist or referring to the photograph, but Hopkins’ language is imbued, principally, with the manner of modern American and European painting. This mixture of reference lends itself to the impossibility of memory. Who remembers whether what they thought happened happened, or whether the old photograph and parental versions tell what really occurred? The power of wallpapered corner, cigarette card, South Coast stucco, design, graphic detail and light, assembles to register a backwards and forwards search through   50s Classical or 30s Purist reference and constructed permutations of a ‘look ‘ rather than a record of ‘happening’ or incident. Anyway, no painter is able to separate their own action, movement and touch from the tension, atmosphere and language that already exists in painting. This is no simple post modern characterisation; it is fact.

Hopkins ‘ much earlier work is diffuse; about creating a stay of execution, a place, a thin layered shallow space. Hopkins talks of feeling a desire for change, of having wanted at some point to suspend certain areas, patches or characters, like garments on a washing line. This led, ultimately, to a different reference to space and a subsequent change in the way the paintings were expected to work. The painting immediately becomes a vehicle for a number of diverse stares and shifts in a move towards a more ‘frontal’ image . By using the device of direct declaration, instead of the milder language of diffuse activity, ‘things’ became separate and a reason quite distinct. Language is positioned in place within demarcation zones; lines drawn across change from boundary or border, working in a negative stylistically ‘modern ‘ method. Atmosphere is replaced by exclamation and the observer is parked very firmly outside the frame looking not so much in, as across, an apparently complete constructed front .

In ‘Corporal Trim’ 1991/92, a central element loom s with actual real against a mineral or metallic yellow ground . ‘Zones’ are created by a negative and positive , mannered line that sways and twirls its way backwards and forwards to crowd towards the centre. At times the line sets up a semi ‘relaxed’ stance, at others it describes, or is, the edge of bulk. Hopkins shows a central image, albeit an image with no obvious meaning. His relation to the drawn line is obviously perverse. The age old distinction between the drawing and painting is positively caricatured in his work. There is a “general movement in and out of the drawing state”. The line, taken for a walk, becomes not just the trace of movement down a road but the dual carriageway itself. In the most recent works the direct drawn element is filled out to become descriptive form, it is then swabbed, soaked, pushed and even, at times, moved from one ground to another.

The ‘head’ (featured in so many titles) represents the accumulative, central, conceptual parking space for thought and vision. While instant associations with two dimensional language do spring up, it should be noted that Hopkins does not ‘quote’ here, or use the skid, swirl, positive/negative manner of reference to ‘comment ‘ on the nature of the contemporary world. This is no inherent judgment on the collective and accepted notion of a heightened, sophisticated visual plurality where no distinction is made between the role and function of different languages. These metaphorical paintings seem tO carry an unworried, independent and autonomous relation to the world but then Hopkins admits; “I have been with myself for a long time; I know what is happening inside”…”The mind wanders a bit projecting at the whole endeavour” …”Wondering what you are like in this world … did I do that?”

A trip to America in 1992 provided a paranoid bur nonetheless useful ‘breakthrough ‘, a sudden dose of clarity, albeit temporary, and a subsequent uncomplicated and guiltless phase of picture ­ making. Bur painting comes in cycles. The ease of ‘Gould and Fleming’ 1994 with its grand, decorative frontal simplicity, flat area abutting flat area, and chair ‘allowed’ to exist was, Hopkins says, an attempt at the rime to “make the thing at the same speed as the smaller paintings”. In fact the size of individual paintings is very much beside the point in terms of what they achieve. The “cheeky, cheap” ‘Egyptian Guitars in Space’ 1994/95 carries a different flavour. It is as impossible to clearly remember or picture the historical association it seems to release. But it is fine, ‘formal ‘, and strangely familiar with contrary associations, stripes, smattering of paint and egg shape suspended in smarmy outline that would be roundly criticised if done by a student.

‘Night Crossing’ 1996 has a strong sense of reference. Lines brought across and twirled around turn negative when going the other way; a sandy colour moves against the blue/red background. Red runs through and in between like a fissure, a shallow build up of area seems to suggest the pretence of paper thin sections, like cards stacked flat against each other. This has little to do, however, with early Modernist collage, with its particular principle of bringing together outside reference, and is now much more to do with a n already absorbed stylistic elegance. .Most images are already so integrated and absorbed into some kind of painting language that this assemblage is executed consciously much farther down the art-historical , post-modern food chain .

A strange relationship between intention and product dominates. Hopkins is led, is still led , in that he may start out with an idea and a sense of how it may look but still allows the passage of reference to grow organically (the organic free flowing line is highly cultivated , however, and trained like an espalier fruit tree along a metaphorical wall ). But then he ‘leads’ the viewer at the same time. Implications are allowed, “enjoyed; the complexity of a painting’s relation to the world is wholeheartedly embraced and becomes the whole point. Hopkins is aware that he may seem to speak in forma l terms but then moralistic discussions around form and meaning have passed on. Hopkins reacts, often, against a too quickly grasped understanding; against the correlation of such with such, of a cross over between different languages. As Bryan Robertson explained in an earlier essay, it is pointless to attempt to ‘read ‘ a painting too easily and there is nothing worse than a long range interpretation brought in, to run alongside, from out side.

The most recent work carries an even greater sense of remove, a distanced aura, brought about (formally speaking) by the unity of the painted surface. The sense of a filter, a scrap or swatch of transparent designer ‘s material, a patch of letraset sample, held up between the viewer and the surface of the picture. This allows a fictitious construction which is both pleasing and amusing but which also serves as a screen from behind which the artist can direct. Hopkins seems to relish the frontal quality of painting, the play between front of stage and behind the scenes, the opportunity to tactically reveal and deliberately hide. “It is easy to change things”; manipulate the gap between recognition and interpretation.

So while the paintings attract attention they also deflect contemplation. Paintings already capable of leading seem to lead even further now with more willful titles. In a world of jaunty denial and seaside drinks Untitled (‘Smoking Related’) 1995, for instance, brings together elements with as much and as little significance as objects in a still life. The painting process squeezes visual notions through the hoop s of recognition until they emerge as the essence of decorative ease. By covering tracks, widening faux -stumbled drawing and bringing it all in to heel, Hopkins allows the work to appear to take up a position until stillness and the settled flatness takes hold.

©Sacha Craddock