What is this world of ours? A complex entity subject to sudden changes which all indicate a tendency to destruction; a swift succession of beings which follow one another, assert themselves and disappear; a fleeting symmetry; a momentary order.
—Denis Diderot, Letter on the Blind (1749)
British artist James Hopkins slyly transforms everyday objects, imbuing them with the power of self-reflexive commentary, converting them into altogether different items, and nudging them toward an "impossible" state that produces an astonished incredulity in those who behold them. Hopkins's sophisticated visual illusions are engaging, but his best works also hint at the epistemological uprooting that follows from the discovery that sight, our most relied-upon sense in the gallery, can be untrustworthy. Few contemporary artworks consciously remind us of this fact; Hopkins links it to an examination of his objects' intrinsic characteristics, and, occasionally, to a meditation on the emotional fallout of this and other fundamental instabilities.
Many of Hopkins's precisely crafted sculptures achieve a literal precarious balance. From Center of Attention, Impossible Stool (both 2002), and Suspended Study (2003) to Wibbly Wobbly Boogle Woogle (2006), the artist has taken chairs, stools, tables, ladders, and even a piano and rendered them dysfunctional via slight alterations. Typically, he will meticulously sand one or more legs to the precise angle that allows the object to maintain its improbable, delicate equilibrium. Hopkins purposefully adds humor when naming the works: Brink (2003) lists dangerously far to the right; Slacker (2002) leans lazily on its back legs. It's precisely the point that one doubts one's (perfectly functioning) eyes when encountering these works; conversely, more recent sculptures thematize impaired perception. Spirit Level (2005) comprises eight vodka bottles cut on a bias so that their liquid contents remain level while resting on a "drunkenly" tilted shelf (itself perhaps a comment on getting drunk's downward slide). Eye-glass (2005) consists of a brandy bottle set sideways on a wooden tripod, like a telescope; mirrors and a glass sphere have been inserted into its body so that when one peeks inside one is confronted with a green-hued kaleidoscope, an irreverent take on Oscar Wilde's witticism about lying in the gutter yet looking at the stars.
Hopkins has also made a considerable number of anamorphic sculptures. Some, like those based on the opening credit sequence from The Simpsons, hover between abstraction and representation: At one specific point the brightly colored mass of rounded forms becomes the infamous television family seated on their dark sofa. Most, however, are recognizable even in their distorted form. The Band (2001–02), made while the artist was still attending Goldsmiths College in London, features a guitar, a compacted drum kit, and a dramatically foreshortened quadrilateral keyboard. Each item's distortions intentionally mimic its own traits: the expanded guitar imitates the reverberating amplified note (or the band leader's larger-than-life persona); the compressed drums mirror the abrupt rap of the snare. These objects recast the phenomenological impulse of modern sculpture as a coy game of hide-and-seek, forcing self-consciousness upon the viewer not simply by the mute encouragement of one's awareness of the exhibition space, but by requiring the viewer to actively seek the "sweet spot" from which all the elements visually coheren into a three-dimensional image. Of course, no matter the viewer's contortions, the three sculptures in The Band are arranged such that there is no point from which all can be seen at their proper aspect ratio.
Beauty is ever to the lonely mind
A shadow fleeting; she is never plain.
She is a visitor who leaves behind
The gift of grief, the souvenir of pain.
—Robert Nathan, Portrait of Jennie (1940)
Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors (1533), now in the collection of London's National Gallery, is frequently invoked in discussions of Hopkins's work. The canvas is a portrait of two young men flanking a display of objects then considered luxuries; centered between their feet is an amorphous grey blob that, when viewed from a precise position to the right of the canvas, resolves into the image of a skull. Many of Hopkins's recent sculptures hark back to this vanitas tradition quite literally. Unlike contemporaries making stylistically similar art — such as the American sculptor Robert Lazzarini, who is known for anamorphic skulls, violins, and telephone booths, or the Canadian artist Evan Penny, both of whom appear content with virtuosic craftsmanship — Hopkins seems uniquely attuned to the fact that time renders everything ephemeral.
This cognizance is manifested directly in a recent series of large-scale sculptures. For Shelf Life and Le Visage de Vanitas (both 2005), Hopkins gathered accoutrements typically found in teenage bedrooms and arranged them on unadorned bookshelves. By cutting into and removing elements from the surfaces of books, LPs, globes, cardboard boxes, and musical instruments, Hopkins rendered oversize Death's heads. These works are poetically succinct meditations on longed-for pasts and inevitable futures, the impermanence of objects and their persistence in memory. Prosperity and Decay (2006) operates similarly, but aligns itself more closely with Holbein's precedent, substituting middle-age, middle-class extravagances — a wine rack, bottles, and glasses; antique maps, clocks, mirrors, and a chess board; leather-bound literature and a violin — for the adolescent possessions used earlier. It is likewise a more subtle composition; whereas the earlier sculptures relied on tonal differences to outline the memento mori, this piece forces the viewer to navigate a complicated interplay of positive and negative space. Perhaps unwittingly, Hopkins has, by thinning out the arrangement, formally echoed his thematic concern; in the end, there will be nothing left to position on these shelves. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Having firmly claimed the visual puzzle as his primary field of operation, Hopkins is busily channeling the twin spirits of Charles Ray and David Copperfield to make increasingly sophisticated, ever more allusive sculptures. His most recent works, large sculptures made from interlocking found doors, are based on thousand-year-old Japanese puzzles and possess an immediate dream-logic in which every surface is both entry and exit. Sol Lewitt's first "sentence on conceptual art" reads: "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach." James Hopkins has it both ways, using eminently rational processes to create art confounds viewers' logical expectations.