Approaching a work by James Hopkins could induce the kind of contemporary art-related panic we all fear — that moment when an art work seems so alien or impenetrable that we are left dumbfounded and defeated by some hidden meaning we can’t quite perceive.
Yet, all is revealed if you look closely enough at the series of shelving pieces that Hopkins has been making for about a year, including two works commissioned by Wallpaper* (opposite and previous page). ‘Nothing is quite what it seems in my work because I often use perspective and illusions, so depending on which viewpoint you adopt, you see different things,’ he says. For example, amid the mirrors, chopping boards and wastepaper baskets, a ghostly skull slowly appears across the shelves. Hopkins realises that design, like everything else, soon meets its maker. ‘I see these shelves as tombstones to the current, ephemeral era in design because, while they look quite luxurious and modern now, next year they will already begin to look dated’.
In addition to the back issue of Wallpaper*, furniture catalogues and design brochures that he scoured to source the items for his shelves, Hopkins has made a rich vein of historical art for this series. Dutch painters of the 17th century began sneaking symbolically loaded objects into their still-life paintings, which became known as vanitas or memento mori (literally, reminders of death’s inevitable approach). ‘I think of vanity when I see my image in the mirror, of knowledge when I read a book, and of indulgence when I drink wine or play music; but all of these things are lost in acknowledgment of seeing the skull reveal itself.’ Another recent set of skull shelves, Wasted Youth (2006), is less regimented and consists of beer bottles, disco lights, smashed speakers and the detritus of a ‘party gone wrong or of time killed by an adolescent’. However, says Hopkins, ‘I don’t want people to think of these works as being negative or morbid — in fact, they should be read as a celebration of life.’
All the objects in these arrangements — the fruit, the globe, the white flowers, the wine, the books even the guitars with one broken string — derive from vanitas paintings, especially from Hans Holbein the younger’s The Ambassadors (1533), with its smudged skull that’s visible only when viewed at an oblique angle. Hopkins has also borrowed this age-old trick of rotating perspective, known as anamorphosis, for his sculptures of abstract, colourful plastic forms that, only when seen from the front, suddenly reveal cartoon characters such as Kenny and Cartman from South Park, Marge and Homer from the Simpsons, or Mickey Mouse himself.
As well as hide-and-seek, it seems Hopkins is partial to drinking games, as seen in his 2002 work, Balancing Beer Table, a precipitous pub bench with pint glasses teetering on the edge, and in Spirit Level (2005), the slightly cocked cocktail shelves where there is just enough liquid in each of eight vodka bottles to create a perfectly horizontal line. Remember that disorientation can be enlightening.