James Hopkins Interview

Originally published in May 2010, Issue 1 of Spindle Magazine

"Wibbly Wobbly Boogle Woogle," 2005 (detail) by James Hopkins 160 x 150 x 140 cm

Imagine a world where you constantly have to re-evaluate your surroundings because your eyes cannot be trusted. You’re in it. If you’re looking for proof, it’s time tp become acqainted with the artwork of James Hopkins. His scultpures will shake up your complacent acceptance of the world and have you questioning your very eyesight.

Hopkins uses sculpture to expose flaws in our visual perception. Having established the limits of human vision he can play with our expectations and tease our brains into accepting an image that isn’t there. In the time it takes your brain to catch up with his wizardry the visual world before you has morphed back to ‘reality’. In that moment of unsettling exhilaration, you realise that the picture of the world you have been relying on, is in fact a construction of your mind, pieced together by some information; some memory; and some creative engineering.

James says: “Playing the role of the trickster is great. It is very similar to playing the magician’s slight of hand. Experiencing an illusion in a gallery or a magic show often leaves the viewer with similar epistemological questions.”

Hopkins did his sculpture degree in Brighton back in 1998. Since then he has completed an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths and has exhibited across the globe, from Paris to Moscow, Hamburg to New York, promoting disbelief along the way.

“I want to explore the role of judgment in connection to the process of vision and investigate different ways of looking that embrace perceptual effects. The work is not just about an illusion or effect but more importantly a way into discovering that sight (our most relied upon sense when looking at art) can be untrustworthy.”

James is part of a long tradition of trompe l’oeil in art, literally translated as ‘trick the eye’. Beginning with paintings that were so ‘real’ people were forgiven for reaching forth to pluck the fruit from the canvas. This pursuit prevailed in the 17th Century Dutch vanitas paintings that inspired James’ work. The paintings depicted the finery of the day – vases, books and fruit, musical and scientific instruments – arranged alongside skulls, to remind people of the temporary and frivolous nature of such niceties.

‘Wasted Youth’, 2006 by James Hopkins. Mixed media, 190x160x30cm

“I read this genre of still life painting as being a celebration of life and wanted to convey that in my own work, but in a more contemporary manner. When we die we lose all our indulgences and possessions, so the skull works are saying enjoy life, celebrate it while it lasts,” said James.

His own skull works have seen lutes substituted for guitars, with skulls’ teeth mapped out in beer bottles, clearly relics from his own life, as he tells me most of his days begin with a hangover now that he has quite smoking and substituted cigarettes for alcohol. His favourite memory from his career so far tells a similar tale:

“When I had my debut solo show in New York at Rivington Arms Gallery. I was introduced to the painter Brice Marden the night before my opening as he had previously purchased a piece of my work. He told me how he had just given up smoking dope and that he was thinking of going through a ritualistic process of flushing his gear down the toilet. I jokingly suggested he should give it to some one who would really appreciate it, like me. The next evening he came to my private view and handed me over this big envelope…”

James’ references from contemporary life range from The Simpsons to Jimi Hendrix, as he manipulates images and objects, not only to question visual perception but to draw out meaning that comments on their function or purpose:

Purple Haze is a perspective sculpture of an electric guitar. It has been rendered in a specific manner in order to relate with expressing a visual interpretation of sound, whilst also referencing an optimum glamour saturation associated with fame and the spectacle of performance.”

‘Purple Haze’, 2005 by James Hopkins. Wood, paint, metal and plastic, 65x240x5cm

Like the vibration of a guitar string, James’ work wavers between opposite states, evoking a series of simultaneously present contradictions. His art both protrudes and recedes and at times is as flat as it is three-dimensional. Acting as a commentary to his own practice, his series of balancing artworks reflect the fine line he treads between definite outcomes, leaving the viewer clutching onto their memories of stability. James admits: “There is something psychologically unnerving about being presented with a balanced object. Although they appear fixed or visually static they also seem to create statements of how we imagine tripping up or falling over.”

‘Rocking Chair (balanced)’, 2007 by James Hopkins. Chair, 100x130x60cm

James talked about the first of Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, when discussing his role as a trickster: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” In a world where things seem to gravitate towards a definite answer, we could all do with facing a few of James’ philosophical questions. While it’s not practical to question the presence of the pavement with each step forward, it’s exciting to realise that there is more to explore in this world than the construction we think we can see.

To see more of James Hopkins’ work and for news on his up coming shows visit:



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