Art Essays

Paul Hopmeier

Published March 1, 2011

“When we have said that sculpture is not sculptural, not an object, not a game, demonstration, machine, architecture or theatre – what is it? It is a figuration with a presence, a thing of modern lineage, learned about always from previous sculpture, and the idea so passed on to anyone who can get it.”
Sidney Geist, ‘Sculpture and Other Trouble’, 1961
It seems paradoxical to say, with the New York critic and artist, Sidney Geist, that sculpture is not sculptural. He assigns the adjective to things that are like sculpture or aspire to the condition of sculpture, but remain part of a distinctly different class of objects. A car or a building may be described as “sculptural”, but it would be sheer affectation to say these things were sculptures.
Alas, in the twilight of the Modernist era that affectation has become such a habit that almost anything with three dimensions (and occasionally two) might be called a sculpture. Art and Language showed two identical canvases painted a silvery grey, one labelled “painting”, the other, “sculpture”. Richard Long saw his walks as a form of sculpture. More recently, Damien Hirst has said that his canvases covered in coloured dots “are like sculptures of paintings” – whatever that means.
In his writings, Sidney Geist fought a rearguard action against the increasingly fashionable idea of “sculpture in the expanded field”, to refer to the title of Rosalind Krauss’s well-known essay of 1979. Today one would have to pronounce Geist’s action a failure. The expanded field is an orthodoxy in a contemporary art scene dominated by audio-visual work, and recently by so-called “relational aesthetics”, in which the work of art grows out of a specific social context, staging a critical commentary or intervention.
The problem is that so much of this art comes across as an exercise in sociological theory, with little appeal to the senses. Everything that one traditionally associates with the idea of “art” – most notably the quality of beauty – is jettisoned in favour of an ideological program. Even the most ingenious pieces lack that sense of presence Geist sees as fundamental to the experience of sculpture.
That sense is all-important to the work of Paul Hopmeier, who studied with Sidney Geist at the New York Studio School in 1978. Each of Hopmeier’s pieces, from the largest to the smallest, has a distinct presence. Each work inculcates fundamental and quite traditional qualities of sculpture. Mass is set against transparency, stasis is matched by implied movement. Hopmeier pays particular attention to the way a work addresses the ground – how it conforms to the dictates of gravity or seeks to break free. His choice of materials is never incidental to subject matter, his craftsmanship always immaculate.
Like many mature artists who have lived through periods of aesthetic dogmatism, Hopmeier is largely indifferent to any distinction between abstraction and figuration. He recognises that all art comes from somewhere, be it an epiphany met on a city street, or a considered evaluation of an artefact spied a museum. There is a figurative element in the most abstract of Hopmeier’s sculptures. Occasionally this will evolve into directly representational pieces such as Still Life, or the Cézanne-inspired, Apples and Biscuits (both 2010).
For the most part we can sense the figurative roots of a sculpture without being able to clearly identify the forms. Family (2002) gives the impression of two figures leaning against each other, while Learning to Walk (1999) suggests a child taking a few faltering steps supported by a parent. Both pieces would be highly evocative even if we never knew the titles.
We have become accustomed to certain shapes having been repeated so many times they just feel right. This is the case with Hopmeier’s Madonna (2001?), which echoes the form of a standing figure with long flowing robes and a head covering. It is a Madonna that has been stripped of its sentimental, religious associations and reduced to a series of simple schematic lines. Yet within this sparse configuration it retains an undeniable elegance. It is as though Hopmeier is trying to find out how much one may pare away from an iconic form before it loses its identity. His Madonna still has a commanding presence, but remove another line or two and it would begin to dissolve.
Although Hopmeier is not frightened to make sculptures that are completely figurative – and in the case of his Postmodern Madonna, even driveable – he has a particular fascination with thresholds of meaning and perception. It may be virtually impossible to make a sculpture with no figurative associations whatsoever, but it is hardly desirable. The nagging interest of so many modern sculptures lies at that point where they separate themselves from everyday reality. This is true even for such famous abstractions as Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning (1962), which includes a form that resembles a rectangular canvas propped on an easel. This element makes one think of the artist’s studio, and to see the work as reflection of that working environment, a function of its place of manufacture.
Hopmeier extends this idea in such a manner that he will borrow motifs from art history and turn them into quasi-industrial artefacts. The outstanding example, apart from Postmodern Madonna, is Fortress Commander (2010), based on a photograph of an Egyptian tomb sculpture. This standing figure, which has a hieratic, religious significance in its original incarnation, is transformed into a product of the industrial age: a collection of angular steel planes hammered and welded together in a workshop. Although viewers may still recognise the associations with an Egyptian tomb, the piece belongs the age of metal no less than any abstract work of the sixties. It could be a robot ready to spring to life when danger threatens.
Fortress Commander has a commanding presence, partly achieved by the sacrifice of one dimension. Unlike the majority of Hopmeier’s works, which are meant to be viewed in the round, this standing figure has an uncompromising frontality. It is the guardian of a threshold, a keeper of secrets. In ancient times such figures were intended to offer protection to the Pharoahs in the after life. In a more secular age, we worship the Gods of science, industry and technology that have shown a limitless capacity to improve or degrade the planet. Hopmeier’s steel soldier, rigid and faceless, stands at the midpoint between utopia and disaster; between a forgotten past and an unknown future.
Catalogue essay for Paul Hopmeier, Defiance Gallery II.
24 March – 7 May 2011