"Humility is the antidote to hubris. Hopkins' work punctures pomposity, pricks the bubble of self-importance" Derek Horton

Walnut Shadow Hoar Frost Satin Heart Retreat Gloss Room Room.
The Drawings of Phill Hopkins.
Derek Horton February 2014

Although he spends much of his time making things that are two-dimensional, or at least where the third dimension is negligible, Phill Hopkins is still above all a sculptor. If he uses paint he draws with it, and when he draws he does so in a fundamentally sculptural way. His drawings are made more than drawn: they are built up, constructed, accrued, incised and scraped away.

They are made from things that already exist in the world. As such they have a history and a meaning already inscribed within them that is obscured, revealed and then remade in Hopkins' hands.

His drawings have a devotional quality. Drawing on the humble, mundane materials and images that dominate our everyday experience (and I deliberately use the expression "drawing on" in both its literal and metaphorical sense), they worry away at them, pull them back and forth, reflect on them repeatedly, compulsively, until their physicality and their meaning is transformed. Like rosary beads worn down by a lifetime of prayer, or a totem constantly made and remade, through the very act of repetition their quotidian ordinariness is transcended.

Humility is the antidote to hubris. Hopkins' work punctures pomposity, pricks the bubble of self-importance. The kitsch poetry of paint-colour names on DIY store colour charts carry the pathos of suburban aspiration, and catalogues of furniture or consumer goods reveal the ways in which we strive to assert our individuality within the limitations of commodified options. These are carefully chosen surfaces on which to draw, and their sheen of advertised sophistication is erased when Hopkins works with these materials. The erasure takes place not decisively, not cleanly, but partially, hesitantly, by means of a roughly scumbled layer of paint reminiscent of the white-smeared surface of windows behind which redecoration work is taking place.

The schematic image of the house, and the narrow line of the garden path, ubiquitous in Hopkins' work over many years, remind us simultaneously of a place of refuge and a place of confinement. They signify both the private home of the 'nuclear family' and the social space of the housing estate, embodying both the separateness of the individual and the uniformity of the mass.

On to all this is superimposed a poetry, ironically created by a scraping back to reveal it rather than a writing on to add it. Buried truths, coded messages, accidental collisions of meaning, are selectively revealed. The text that results, sometimes used as titles, invokes a kind of recitation that mirrors in language the almost ritualistic repetition of Hopkins' imagery and the means if its manufacture.

Si Smith’s interview with Phill Hopkins for X a ten year retrospective at Left Bank, Leeds, UK February 2018

Si Smith: …so when you were young did you watch a lot of telly? Bagpuss, the Wombles - all that beautiful Oliver Postgate stuff? Or were you a more outdoors-y kind of a kid?

Hopkins: This is a lovely question for me. I was outdoors a lot, but I also watched a lot of telly, there were no restrictions on how much I could watch. Summer holidays consisted of Champion the Wonder Horse, Robinson Crusoe, Casey Jones, Fireball Xl5, Flashing Blade, White Horses, Banana Splits, etc. My favourite program was Blue Peter. I love Oliver Postgate programmes - Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, Pogles Wood… I relied on Jackanory for my stories at home and really loved that programme. I loved wildlife programmes, Jaques Cousteau, World Around Us, Animal Magic. Telly is a big influence on me I think - the scale of the things I make comes with watching telly. If you need someone on your team for a pub quiz for childrens tv of the 60’s and 70’s then I’m the one…

We were encouraged to make things, lead by the tv - not just Blue Peter, more importantly Vision On. My play included lots of making - weapons, dens, digging holes, dams in streams, pigeon huts (there was always wood and nails around), trolleys… I also drew a lot. My dad would bring headed note paper home from work for us to draw on. I remember making aeroplanes from cereal box card, using glue made from flour and water…  

“…I came across Robert Rauschenberg when I was at school. I had brilliant and generous art teachers. With Rauschenberg I found an immediate connection with his work. As I am someone who has always struggled with written language, perhaps he offers something which is purely pictorial and visual, and that I found very easy to ‘read’? I first saw a lot of his work in the early 1980’s in a retrospective at the Tate. I went with a former teacher on the coach from Bristol… There’s a piece by him called ‘Factum I & II’ - it’s two paintings together side by side, and he made them at the same time. I was immediately drawn to the idea of making something in a series. There is one particular area that is significant for me, it’s an off-yellow shape with drips. Something chimed with me when I saw that... I bought the catalogue, which I still have, and studied every picture very carefully. Rauschenberg’s work stuns me and it seems that he has always been with me.”

“…I came across Robert Rauschenberg when I was at school. I had brilliant and generous art teachers. With Rauschenberg I found an immediate connection with his work. As I am someone who has always struggled with written language, perhaps he offers something which is purely pictorial and visual, and that I found very easy to ‘read’? I first saw a lot of his work in the early 1980’s in a retrospective at the Tate. I went with a former teacher on the coach from Bristol… There’s a piece by him called ‘Factum I & II’ - it’s two paintings together side by side, and he made them at the same time. I was immediately drawn to the idea of making something in a series. There is one particular area that is significant for me, it’s an off-yellow shape with drips. Something chimed with me when I saw that... I bought the catalogue, which I still have, and studied every picture very carefully. Rauschenberg’s work stuns me and it seems that he has always been with me.”

“When I was a boy, my dad made me a tool box, I can still remember waking up and seeing it, still being able to recall the excitement of it. Now I like to please myself by making things or growing veg or making jam etc. and I am amazed at how clever that boy has become...”

“With all the bad politics of late I found myself looking more and more into myself, into the things around me, my garden, the birds that I invite in by feeding them, the butterflies I attract with the plants I nurture. There is a desire for some kind of equalibrium in these works, getting things in balance for myself, grounding myself. I like the simple act of juxtaposing an image of a butterfly in my garden with one of Trump. That’s a funny thing to do…”  

“…I do think about honouring the simple materials I use. I remember when I was at Goldsmiths and asking Richard Wentworth (one of my tutors, very posh, Eton.) why he used working class materials in his sculptures. Obviously I was very naive and very working class. But it was a good question as it could be said that there was a class to the objects he used. It’s about using things that readily come to hand.”

“…I spent a very large part of my childhood and teens being very thick, not to mention whilst I was at Goldsmiths. There was a real disconnect between my bright ideas in my head and my ability to translate them onto paper, never mind spelling or reading. I am so thankful for my laptop which gives me an opportunity to type madly and then go back and correct and move things around…” 

Si Smith: …just thinking a bit more about archaeology…
in the past, when trying to describe your work, I’ve talked about you obsessively mining the seam of an idea - it’s interesting that there’s a ‘digging’ metaphor going on there too…

Hopkins: I think at heart I am someone who is very physical when I make. You might say a ‘sculptor’. I have always ‘made’ things. The way I paint or draw is very physical, I’m not just trying to form an image, I am also making a surface, a texture, a skin. I am aware that I am trying to form something out of matter/something else, to make something into something else…

There’s a Seamus Heaney poem called ‘Digging’…

“…I had had some paintings of seascapes by Lowry in my mind for a long time. The loneliness in his seascapes really resonated with me. I can easily find sadness within myself, and so those pictures of his of the North Sea chimed with things in me. To give my recent work context, you have to remember that Brexit and Trump had happened and I was really devastated with those political outcomes. I was filled with sorrow and anger about how self-centred and stupid people can be. I tried for a time just to make very simple pictures, trying to get lost in the making. I made a lot of paintings (when have I not!) and took a lot of photographs of the sea. I was using a lot of pink, which connects to the colour I painted my daughters bedroom when she was a small girl, and I found some hi-vis clothing, a jacket and two vests. So I had the idea of painting on the fabric, and I did. I think of the hi-vis like Ii do about painting with white gloss paint of white gloss melamine, it sets up an interesting tension or conflict, like oil and water. These works were very much about resolving personal conflict.”

“In my late teens I was definitely going to change the world. I had helped Tony Benn - who was the MP in the constituency next to ours - during an election. My family were strong trade union members and my uncle was an area officer for a print union. My family were all Labour voters. I joined the Labour party Young Socialists and even got Michael Foot to sponsor me for a fundraiser. I dabbled a bit with the militant tendency and even stood on the street and sold the ‘Militant’ newspaper. At that time I was listening to The Clash and making work about Ronald Reagan and Nicaragua. I think we all calm down a bit as we get older. I’ve gathered some wisdom over the years, but I still try to honour how I was brought up and I would still say that I am a socialist; it makes complete sense to me.”

“…maybe the image isn’t what I’m reaching for and it’s possibly a vehicle or something to draw or paint. The image may not be the subject. The pictures with the house motif aren’t about houses, perhaps it’s what they are made of, what homes are made of or not… and there are so many as I like collecting things. My paintings in the ‘Post Truth’ series are missing one painting as I sold it; I still grieve for that work as there is a hole in my arrangement. That’s when collecting or making in series makes links to loss…”

“I’ve always made drawings. There was a 10-year gap of not making anything outside of my notebooks. Divorce had a heavy impact on me. For a time I designed and built gardens, when I made a lot of drawings or plans even. I enjoyed making those drawings. There was no pressure as it wasn’t ‘Art’…”

Si Smith: When did you first hear Bob Dylan?

Phill Hopkins: I was 14. My cousin had bought the album ‘Desire’ and my older brother had borrowed it. The first song I consciously heard was ‘Hurricane’. This started an ongoing love affair. I first saw him live when I was 16, I saw him at Earls Court in London and then ‘open-air’ at Blackbush. I’ve seen him live lots of times, sometime being just feet away from him…

“…In my house growing up, the radio was on all the time, all I heard was pop music. I remember hearing some classical music during ‘movement’ sessions at school. In my teens my peer group shared lps of The Planets and Bach organ works, it was a kind of rebellion away from pop music. There was a ‘poshness’ around classical music. In the 1990’s I watched a tv programme about Tim Rollins and Kos. They had made a piece using Schuberts Winterreise. I was stunned by the music. I’d never really heard ‘posh’ music, sung in german, that resonated with me. The sound of the words and the rhythm of the piano was beautiful. I took Schubert as my lover. After that I discovered other ‘classical’ music. I saw ‘Peter Grimes’ performed in Leeds and began to explore Britten. Through Britten I found Rostapovich. I discovered that Britten had written Noye's Fludde and putting memories together realised that I had been a lion on Noah’s ark at school when I was 11. It was Britten’s piece re-titled for a housing estate. How wonderfully progressive for children who lived in council houses…” 

“…I like the idea of uncovering things in a work. As I’m a person who worries a lot, or I did up until recently, its good to try to uncover the thing I’m worried about. I like to analogy of worrying about something being like the story of the Princess and the Pea - often, after digging, realising that the thing you were worrying about - or the pea - is very small. I relish the process of exposing the things I worry about/could worry about, and realising that they are indeed very small and very un-powerful. So in works like the houses on the paint charts, you might say that every drawing is a mini dig, rather than using a trowel to remove earth, I am using a paint brush and white paint to ‘remove’ what ever is on the surface of the substrate. The process may in fact be very simple and possibly primitive (to apply paint) but the process that goes on in my mind and more importantly in my heart is extremely powerful and has the potential to be life changing. From the outside, what we know of the simple process is one thing, but what goes on under the surface of the drawing - and under the surface of my skin - is something else…”

“…with the drips etc. there may be something going on to do with ownership and identifying something as my own… I think its also connected with drawing on book pages …the written word didn’t have much use for me as a dyslexic whilst I was growing up, in fact they were quite tortuous as I couldn’t read them very well. So to cover words with white paint and then draw on the surface makes a book page very useful to me….”

Working from Home | Si Smith
Published on the occasion of X a ten year retrospective exhibition, Left Bank Leeds, UK

Whole books have been written about British men and their relationships to their outbuildings.
Does any other nation have a ‘Shed of the Year’ competition (and if they do, are they as hotly contested as ours?)

And, of course, there’s an established tradition of creatives striding purposefully down the garden path to make beautiful stuff - the magic of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s small films was all conjured up in a converted cattle shed; for a while Stanley Spencer painted in a Cookham outhouse; Roald Dahl retreated to his writing hut to conjure up all those remarkable tales...

Phill Hopkins sits neatly within this tradition - his studio is a large, comfortable shed in the garden of the suburban north-of-the-ringroad Leeds home.

From the outside, it’s pleasant and unassuming - painted a gentle blue and strung with fairy lights, it nestles comfortably into a busy and wildlife-friendly garden. Inside though, it’s a glorious space, the floor is dappled with paint drips and the outlined paint-ghosts of works previously sprayed, painted and spattered into life; the heady whiff of drying paints and ink lingers in the atmosphere. There’s something TARDIS-like about it - there’s room in there: to breathe and to think and to make things. It’s as if some of Hopkins’ creative urgency has seeped into the fabric of the place...

Back in 2009 when he built the shed with his son Sam, Hopkins and his wife Susie had imagined it as a ‘poustinia’ - an ascetic space where they could retreat to explore a spiritual practice of daily monastic prayer and devotion.

At this point, the artist was emerging from a turbulent time in his personal life - a painful divorce, a new relationship, a second marriage and the resultant merging of two families - which had resulted in almost a decade of creative stagnation. But a retreat into the fresh securities of settled domesticity seems to have suited him well - and maybe even saved him: he began to make art again.

And so, ironically, the poustinia-shed soon became less a place of shared spousal reflection and more the singular home of Hopkins’ art-making: these days the building is very definitely an artist’s studio space.

Followers of Hopkins’ Facebook and Instagram feeds will be familiar with its interior - he regularly posts work-in-progress photos of paintings as they drip-dry on-and-down the walls, or spread gently out across the floor. Alongside these snapshots he diligently records the weather outside, and the sounds that he’s hearing; birdsong (as a boy he was a keen ornithologist); radio news programmes; music - there’s usually some Dylan or a classical lp on the turntable that he keeps in there. And hoarded around the margins is the stuff that Hopkins make his art from - materials discarded and found, scavenged and rescued from skips, donated and unearthed.

In the tradition of Celtic spirituality there is the concept of ‘thin places’ - sacred locales where the barrier between heaven and earth has been worn thin by years of prayerful devotions. Hopkins’ shed is not a grand cathedral or a venerable oft-and-long-visited place of pilgrimage. But it’s not too fanciful to observe that some of his original intent has rubbed off - that desire for a place of commitment and spiritual practice which saw him build the shed in the first place lives on in the work that he is making in there now. Because Hopkins takes the abandoned detritus and humble stuff of the everyday and he redeems it and resurrects it - whether consciously or not, he’s in the business of celebrating and elevating the ordinary and the left-behind, reimagining it and re-making it as Art. Giving it a new life. It’s art-making as a generous, holy pursuit, entirely in keeping with the original purpose of that family shed.

At this point it would be easy to portray Hopkins’ shed as a wholly uplifting, positive place. But as the artist himself acknowledges, that would be inaccurate - spend any time in conversation with him about the studio and it’s clear that the shed is also a place where he can shut himself away from other people, on occasion simply to spare them from his own dark moods. It’s the poustinia thing again - a mystic’s cell is not just a place for wonderful revelation and enlightenment, it’s also where they go to wrestle with their demons. Solitude can be magnificent, and it can also be desperate.

During the past decade Hopkins has not worked only and solely from his studio - in 2016 for example he undertook a short residency at &model in Leeds city centre. But closeness to home, and the secure domestic base that family life provides are key to his practice; and his shed studio - constant and familiar - provides the safe, nurturing space from which he can view the world and make sense of the things that he observes out there.

Context is King | Bruce Davies
Published on the occasion of X a ten year retrospective exhibition, Left Bank Leeds, UK

“When ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed.”
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

In a world saturated by media and vested interests we must ultimately be careful of that which is presented to us as factual reality. The story ‘In A Bamboo Grove’ (1922) by Ry?nosuke Akutagawa is a single story told to us from several different viewpoints, each account of the story differs from one character to the next and reflects the conflicting interests of the protagonists. Ninety-six years on from Akutagawa’s story and we can no longer confine our mistrust to the verbal accounts of brigands, a handful of self-serving witnesses and the ghost of a dead husband told via a medium, things have become much more involved.   

In 2013, BasementArtsProject presented a group exhibition, four artists across three floors, in a Georgian townhouse on Wellington Street in central Leeds. In the basement of this building we presented the work of Phill Hopkins. Having met Hopkins in 2008, we struck up a working relation in 2012 producing group exhibitions involving his work for the Stockholm Independent Art Fair Supermarket (Feb) and Liverpool Independents Biennial (Oct). After becoming familiar with the style of Hopkins’ artwork and his somewhat restless rate of production, the 2013 exhibition ‘Das Wandern’ came as something of a surprise. Accompanied by a quote from Schubert’s song cycle ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ the exhibition appeared as something of a full stop, an emptying out of sorts and an opportunity to wander. A sparse trail of everyday objects across the floor salvaged from backstreets and hedgerows, splattered with paint and varnish and ending in the middle of the room. On the other side of the room a small sequence of colourful splashy drawings of lighthouses. A far cry from anything that had gone before. Here we were at the edge of something, nothing but the sea stretching out to the horizon.

Having been asked to write a text to accompany Hopkins’ 2018 exhibition ‘X’ which looks back at the last decade of a career that began in the 1980’s, I am struck by the synchronicity of the dates. Having met ten years ago, the aforementioned exhibition took place almost exactly five years ago. Upon reflection it feels like I bore witness to an event in which, whilst the subject matter remained the same, the style altered significantly leading Hopkins as an artist from the arena of sculpture into the domain of drawing and painting. The ‘X’ exhibition also coincides with Hopkins presence on Facebook, a presence that in the years since has extended across Twitter and Instagram. This too is a significant anniversary as Hopkins has always drawn his material from the many news media sources vying for our attention, sympathies and support, not just on a daily basis, but now also in the continuous torrential downpour that is the world of social media.  

Over the years Hopkins and I have discussed the many different aspects of his practice as an artist and the nature of his decision making, how he chooses subject matter and how he then presents it. Of course reading a story from the point of view of The Telegraph is much different to the telling that the same story will receive through The Guardian, or The Independent, or The Spectator or Wall Street Journal. In fact the variations no longer stop there but are now filtered through the interconnected lives of social media friends, and they are in their thousands. All of course have their own opinions, ideas, sympathies and vested interests. In an increasingly unreliable world of information Hopkins has become a filter of sorts, acting as a membrane through which images are filtered and context is left behind. There is no indication as to where Hopkins has taken his images from and no indicator as to the stories behind them. In fact it is impossible to know if some of the images have any basis in reality at all.  

Objet Trouvé 
At a material level Hopkins work also relies on the found object in the same way as the concepts rely on found media sources. Pages from discarded catalogues are painted and collaged to create semi-abstract works in which recurring motifs appear against ever changing backdrops, old kitchen cabinet doors that now display the likeness of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, a large piece of plastic insulated door paneling possibility depicting a crossing lady in a hi-vis burka; scraps, notebook paper, postcards all left lying around the studio gathering drips, being used as tools in creating works whilst simultaneously becoming works themselves. There is no such thing as waste, no hierarchy of material, no weighting of one thing in favour of another, all things equal in value. 

News outlets create context for the world around us and try to explain it in terms that their audience can understand, and, more sinisterly, sympathise with. In these terms then the use of media images in an unmediated way can be problematic. Remove the context and people begin to question not the image but the intention behind it. So what if the only intention behind the creation of the image is to encourage people to think solely about the content of the image itself. 
In the work ‘Woman from above’ (2016) we see a woman with a head covering, walking the streets of an unidentified town or city carrying bags. Her purpose we cannot tell, but the vertiginous angle of the image immediately makes us feel like we are surveilling her, tracking her progress around a public place with CCTV. The purpose of the work is unclear if we start to make assumptions about the provenance of the image. When we try understanding things from a perspective to which we do not really have sufficient access, we run the risk of jumping to conclusions and complete misreadings of artworks. Elsewhere on the same gallery page of Hopkins website we see a stark, almost monochromatic, image of a body under a sheet outside of a building entitled ‘Bataclan Theatre, Paris’ (2016); here the situation is clear even if we did not know the details of the circumstances. Elsewhere on the same page ‘Golden Train’ (2016) depicts a distracted woman holding a child that is staring out of the window in our general direction. The image is full of intense colours, gold and glitter, yet instead we are drawn to focus our attention on facial expression, the clothing of the child and other factors that lead us to conclusions, right or wrong, about what we think is actually happening in the picture. 

It takes courage to look at an image, devoid of the contextual content of others, and react to it from a completely personal point of view, both viscerally and intellectually; At such point that we do we may start learning things about ourselves and our own point of view, rather than those given to us by other people.

Is it ever possible to create artworks that do not betray anything of the creators feelings towards the subject matter? Possibly not. It could be seen in the case of Phill Hopkins, that the messy violence in the application of material to surface gives some kind of indication as to his feelings toward the subject matter, in the end though it would be wrong to expect an artist to make work that they had no feelings towards, why would they want to make it, and why would we want to look at it? In saying this Hopkins work is probably the closest that an artist can get to saying - I’m just going to leave this here for you to look at, make of it what you will?  

And now the news . . .  

Walk Amongst The Ruins | Bruce Davies
Taken from the book 'Hypogeal', published by BasementArtsProject, Leeds 2017

The work of Phill Hopkins has been a regular fixture in the programme of exhibitions and activities at BasementArtsProject since it's inception in April 2011. In fact I recall encountering Hopkins work a few years earlier in 2007 during my time as Arts Administrator at Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane in Leeds. Not long after setting the programme in motion at BasementArtsProject did I receive the first proposal of work by Hopkins for a small group show at the Stockholm Independent Art Fair Supermarket (Feb 2012), ever since this point Hopkins has remained a permanent presence. As an artist whose work resides in collections around the world including the Leeds Collection, the Imperial War Museum and the Hungarian Museum of Photography to name but a few Hopkins, a graduate of Goldsmiths, is keen to maintain connections and exhibit with emergent groups of artists the emphasis seemingly on a shared ethos rather than status.

Going back to my first encounter with the work of Phill Hopkins there has always been a preoccupation with current affairs. The first piece to be exhibited by BasementArtsProject was a small scale, rarely does he work on a large scale, sculpture entitled 'Fukushima' a reference to the catastrophic melt down of the Japanese nuclear reactor in 2012. Over the next two years we exhibited a number of other pieces along similar lines before Hopkins made a shift into the world of two dimensions. With this shift came an increase in output with social media playing a large part in the dissemination of images. In a media saturated world it can be hard to discern the voice of an individual amongst a continually streaming torrent of disasters, tragedies and amusing cat GIF’s and it is here that Hopkins’ work sits; rubbing shoulders with posts from friends and the aforementioned media tropes that assault our continually changing timelines. Social media is a format that works well in terms of an artist whose work is, and always has been, driven by the moment. Hopkins work takes an expanded view of the universe and applies a powerful and unmediated macro lens, focussing our gaze on the detail, that place where the devil resides, and asks us to look inward, question our values, question the values of the world around us, but without judgement. The painted world of Phill Hopkins is one that stands in opposition to the party political broadcasting of mainstream media in which we are asked, expected, emotionally blackmailed to accept the point of view of the authors, in this world there is no political outcome. As the moral crusades of the numerous political, religious and societal factions continue in our highly mediated world the work of Hopkins suggests an ethical response, a response generated by what we as individuals bring to it. It is with this in mind that the ‘Daily’ newspaper came into being, here images are deployed in a seemingly un-targeted fashion, there is no way that the creator of the work could be seen as being 'on message' as all images are given equal weight and attention.

The ‘Daily’ exhibition and newspaper provided BasementArtsProject with an opportunity to take a slice through Hopkins body of work at that particular moment in time and bring it into the real world, as opposed to that of social media. Although Hopkins is as prolific in terms of exhibitions as he is in the production of material, the continual stream of new work means that whilst themes remain each exhibition is dominated by the presence of new work. On the opening night BasementArtsProject feels like a dilapidated refuge, one wall has remnants of blue and yellow paint on it from many years ago, long before our occupancy, that provides an expansion of the Syrian landscape in Hopkins paintings; buildings collapsing under the weight of shelling are echoed by the crumbling wall pock marked by craters in the painted plaster. Explosions, checkpoints, heavy artillery and scenes from an execution provide a sobering view of life as lived by people struggling to survive the dangers of political unrest on a huge scale. Elsewhere the continually recurring motif of Cameron and Merkel in a boat makes an appearance, a mounted policeman at the Battle of Orgreave, Angela Merkel on the phone, Vladimir Putin on a kitchen cupboard door next to Kim Jong Un on another. The use of discarded items as canvases for these images adds to the feeling of uncertainty, it also gives rise to the feeling that these paintings could have been created here, in situ, amongst the general detritus often found in regular domestic basements. But this is no regular domestic basement, the atmosphere here is one of sombre reflection; St Matthew’s Passion plays over a set of speakers, incense burns in a small receptacle behind a painting propped against a wall filling the entire space with a sweet smelling smoke. Despite the feeling of oppression there is also a sense of hope, the sense that amidst the ruins, below ground in bunkers and cellars, out of range of the cross-hairs and the mortar bombardment all is not despair.

Moving forward in time I find myself on a cold February morning sat in Hopkins studio at the bottom of his Leeds garden, sifting through piles of paintings and drawings old and new. The seemingly benign nature of a new work depicting a woman and child staring out from a train window takes on a different significance when viewed in close proximity to an image of a woman crawling between peoples legs, trying to scramble beneath coils of barbed wire, presumably to freedom; or, maybe unwittingly, into a different type of captivity. Here we are surrounded by the tools of Hopkins trade, paint, glitter, nail varnish and scraps of wood, melamine and cardboard that will form the basis for future works. Outside birds come and go at the feeder and in the house life goes on. We discuss Hopkins’ next exhibition at 108 Fine Art in Harrogate, and the nature of the work that he has been producing in the months since ‘Daily’, in doing so plans are formed and the potential for a continuation of the ‘Daily’ project is mooted . . .

To obtain paper copies of ‘Daily’ or a digital download visit

Monday evening, 26. 10. 15
Exhibition review: 'Daily' by Phill Hopkins at Basement Arts Project
Garry Barker Friday 23 October 2015

St. Augustine1 suggests that we can either live in the city of God or the city of man. He asks do we live to foster the forces of charity, kindness, and love or act only in our own self-interest and prey on our neighbours. Dante’s Hell was in turn modeled as a phantasmagoric, supernatural representation of Augustine’s ‘city of man’; this duality of course continues, our daily media diet of small acts of charity and human kindness, soured by tales of self-interest and cruelty to others.
“Daily’ the Basement Arts exhibition of the work of Phill Hopkins, is entered through a lively domestic kitchen, you open an unassuming paneled door and descend steep stone steps into another world. Above that door there should be a warning, “THROUGH ME YOU ENTER INTO THE CITY OF WOES.” 2

You descend the stairs alongside images of guns, paint spatter and torn collage, pictures that you brush against as you make your way down. Too close to see easily but resonant of what you will find when you emerge into a very smoky cellar.

Hopkins’ work derives from his daily response to media portrayals of the current World crises. In particular, images that flood our collective psyche from Syria and the middle east; images of war and its aftermath, the refugee situation and the hypocritical political handwringing that has come with it.

Hopkins asks us to descend into his imagined ‘city of men’ via another art, music, an art-form that has often been called ‘the language of the spirit’ 3, in this case, the language of the city of God.

I entered into the cave of Hopkins’ images to a soaring choral from Bach’s St Matthews Passion, a reminder of my first experience of the power of music to give spiritual uplift, Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, a musical healing balm first performed in the new Coventry cathedral in the early 1960s, a performance, which alongside Graham Sutherland’s colossal tapestry, at the time seemed to symbolise art’s ability to reconcile a nation’s grief with a need to move on and draw a line through an evil period of history. I was taken to Coventry Cathedral in 1962 as if on a pilgrimage, a young west midland grammar school boy, who had grown up playing on bomb sites, taken to a place where art and spiritual re-growth seemed to have been fused together. That experience still lives with me, but those days of optimism seem far distant now and Hopkins’ vision was for me not of spiritual healing, but one of a daily confrontation with evil and an acceptance of the fact that this is now our reality.

We enter a world of domestic paint on domestic surfaces, drips and blobs and blots of paint, on scraps of MDF and surface laminates, of faces now faceless liquefying as their features drip into the gravity driven spaces of images that I recognise from their classical past. Images of the river Acheron, that circles the border of Hell, now rechristened as the Mediterranean, the ‘sea in the middle of the earth’; newly dead souls awaiting the old man, Charon, ready to sail towards a fresh minted oblivion.
These are the landscapes of a diary of daily oblivion. Liquefied people and politics, a consequence of liquid modernity, of the immoral processes of Capitalism and unequal distribution of wealth and the world’s resources.
Dates begin to flicker by, sequences of images, each pinned down by its own moment in time, (the time of the image’s making, not the moment of their reality), each image arriving as if a film still from a lost war documentary, a storyboard for a new ‘apocalypse now’, a tale of bombed cities, murdered children, drowned refugees, beheaded heretics, mourning mothers and frightened fathers. What could appear to be ‘normal’ moments, a parked lorry, or a tree-lined road, are somehow injected with a drug serum composed of our collective media knowledge. Is this a drawing of a parked lorry on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people lying inside? As this is Hell, well yes it probably is. But because it’s a drawing we slow down our descent into it. Drawings take time to make, one mark follows another, the hand traces its way across the surface, we can unpick the order of its making, it is fashioned with care, constructed with intelligence and thus open to a moral questioning more forceful than the fast distancing of the photograph. Its very human engagement forcing us to meditate on life and death and why we do the things we do.
In St Augustine’s time, the main visual product of the Christian church was the illuminated manuscript. Images produced by monks meditating on their faith, images that often saw devils and monsters appear entwined amongst their elaborate decorative surfaces. We are still beset by monsters, these images of paint-blood, mark-smoke, fingertip dirt smudge and felt-tip bleed, a 21st century meditation on what it is to be a moral human, the artist’s notebook sitting open on a chair speaking of burnt and nailed flags, contested nationalities engendering contested territories, in a time when people are still crucified for their crimes. This is a contemporary book of hours.
In the basement of a family house, we are reminded that children never escape our adult carnage. Today we bring them up in a world of media news, of computer war games, and children’s guns like Johnny Seven’s one-man army. In my time it was bows and arrows, and cowboy guns, the colt 45 and the Winchester, but no one ever told us of the ethnic cleansing that had been perpetrated on the redskin Indian nations.
Forwards and backwards, history repeating itself over and over, my time, your time, past times evoked as Nimrod is erased again, the bomb craters of my boyhood made again in someone else’s town, craters that may well return one day to haunt us all.

It’s hard to escape this nightmare, the work sits besides old screw-holes in walls, exposed wiring, bare plaster, many traces of former lives, in a cellar operating as a repository of the unconscious. A place that is, “first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces… in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.” 4

Of course, Hopkins didn’t set out with these thoughts, far from it, he responds to the media feed without comment, he does not want to shape the way his images are perceived, however the selection made does inevitably trigger associations in the mind of the beholder, in particular each of us will bring to the work experiences and associations unique to ourselves; the real issue is whether or not the processing of constantly distressing news, the slowing of the image read by hand shaping and crafting, allows us to be able to mediate between what is our everyday media fed reality and the possibility of a workable moral conscience. When immersed in this body of work, private soul searching seems the most appropriate response.

I look up again confronted by liquefying people in their boat, returning to their sea womb, look back across the temporal stickiness of paint on shiny tin, pooling with surface disaffection and realise no one else is here, everyone has returned to the safe warm kitchen above. The basement is now a meditative space, my momentary monk’s cell and before I leave I need to find a way to deal with my thoughts. As the music of Bach swells around me I’m reminded of a very different tune, the atheist’s hymn as song by Chris Wood, the city of God has perhaps much to be accountable for, not least the state of the city of man, and as the song goes;

Devil come up from your fiery furnace
Come up and show us your face
There’s nothing you can teach us of evil and hatred
That we don’t have right here in this place
There is nothing so evil as man and his mischief
Nothing so lost or insane
And bring your demons up too
So we’ll know its not you
But it’s us who must carry the blame
It’s us who must live with the shame 5

(1) Saint Augustine (1972) The City of God. Translation by Henry Bettenson: London, Penguin Books
(2) Dante Alighieri (1969) The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine: Cantica I - Hell (L'Inferno) translated by Dorothy L Sayers, London: Penguin Books
(3) Gibran, K (2009) The Prophet London: BN Publishing
(4) Gaston Bachelard (1992) The Poetics of Space London: Beacon Press
(5) Chris Wood (2008) ‘Trespasser’ Track 8: Come Down Jehovah R.U.F Records

The World Spins
"The daily papers tell of everything except the daily"[1]
Bruce Davies 2015

What is it that marks the passage of time for us as individuals? Turning on the radio in the morning, as we ready ourselves to confront the day, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the litany of disasters, violence, corruption, injustice and general despicable behaviour. It seems that this defines our society in the early twenty-first century, if, that is, the media is to be believed. Having been forced into consideration of the world's problems over Cornflakes most of us are then required to change our perspective as we consider our own position within the world. It is at this point we remove the telephoto lens and replace it with the macro, pulling the focus further and further in until we are dwelling on the minutiae of our own existence. The rest of the world is still out there but for now we must pay strictest attention to our immediate environment.

In an age of social media most of us experience this kind of macroscopic world view on a fairly regular basis. From the Instagrammed meal and observational updates of Facebook and Twitter, through to the six second video snapshots of life through Vine, it is now virtually impossible to leave anything to the imagination. "Believe nothing that you hear and only half that you see."[2] It is in this shift between an expansive panoramic view of the universe and the narrow view of our own lives that confusion, doubt and disbelief reign supreme; any kind of truth in a situation is hard to pinpoint let alone uphold as a point of view. But of course all of media is presented through a lens that is biased in one way or another, so we should probably be unsurprised that, for example, Maya Angelou never said "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." The quote itself is likely to have originated with Joan Walsh Anglund, an author of children's stories in the 1960's, yet it has ended up on a U.S postal stamp attributed to Angelou.[3] Says Ralph Keyes "Famous quotes need famous mouths" and for this very reason we ought to be careful of how we read into stories presented as either media fact or motivational meme.

At this point we enter the world of Phill Hopkins, or if we are talking about social media it is more likely that the world of Phill Hopkins enters us. Since the early days of BasementArtsProject Hopkins' work has been a fairly constant presence and whilst the medium may have changed in recent years the message never has. Hopkins, originally a native of Bristol, educated at Goldsmith's and for a long time an established artist that has chosen to locate himself in Leeds, has a voracious appetite for world news and the situations that we as human beings find ourselves subject to. Hopkins is an extremely prolific artist whose past work has involved predominantly drawings and small scale sculptural constructions. When we first exhibited his work as part of a group exhibition in early 2012, it was a single work consisting of a house frame made of matches and presented in a box of sand, a year later he exhibited a similar piece only this time presented atop a single speaker that blasted passages from Mahler, shaking the house to it's very foundations, of which of course there were none. These two pieces were part of a large ongoing series entitled 'Fukushima', a reference to the Japanese nuclear reactor meltdown following the 2011 Tsunami. Running alongside this was another series entitled 'Occupy', again a long running pictorial evocation of events depicted by the media after the banking crisis of 2008.

"Be just and if you can't be just, be arbitrary."[4]

Since late 2012 Hopkins' practice has come to encompass the discipline of painting whilst utilising the chronological possibilities of social media as a vehicle for the communication of ideas. As national media and social media output have led to a form of atomisation within society, with marginal voices, good and bad, suddenly gaining traction with their opinions due to what has become known as the 'echo chamber' effect, it is interesting then to reflect on the possibilities for art within this. The hyperactivity of the national media can, with dizzying speed, take us from the heights of elation to the depths of despair quick enough to give us the emotional bends. In reality news does not happen that quick, returning to the news at various points during the day and late on into the night, the pace of change is glacial. They say a week is a long time in politics well it is even longer when refracted through the lens of national media, it is just designed not to seem that way.

"Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one"[5]

And so how does social media fit into the scheme of things. On the face of it, it would appear to operate in a similar manner to national media as we are fed a continual torrent of information, slightly altered each time it appears. Here though all biases are presented side by side and we begin to see how naturally the world spins, an indicator that nothing should ever be taken at face value. It is also at this point that the world focus starts to align with the personal and we see information from our friends, neighbours, acquaintances past and present drip fed between the headlines. When this starts to happen suddenly the problems of the world seem very close indeed. With an ever-quickening eye the people working behind the scenes on an array of memes, gif's and spoofs can spin a story into complete abstraction with the twisting of a few words and the weaving of a few faux pie charts. Truth, so they say, is stranger than fiction and for this reason it becomes even harder to tell what is real and what is fake? Amidst this scrolling downpour of activity enters the images created by Hopkins, often several a day, some finished, others -works in progress, sometimes titled, sometimes not, other times just headings that mix the news from which the image has been culled with things that indicate a more localised viewpoint, a life in the studio - 'Studio, Drawing detail, Mozart's Clarinet, Robin and bluetit'. Here news media is ripped from its context, re-presented in paint or Indian ink, uploaded to the internet in varying states' of completion and placed alongside other indicators of Daily life. Mozart, Robin's, Blue Tit's, do you take tea or coffee, biscuit with that, what is being talked about on Women's Hour - no hierarchy, no differential focussing to foreground one specific thing just pure information to make of what you will.

'Time and memory are True Artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart's desire'[6]

The quotidian is important, it allows us to rebalance our efforts and take a less biased look at the world. Remove the media desire to sway emotion in one direction or the other and the pace is immediately slowed down, allowing us a more reasonable aspect ratio, one that our 'fatigued' vision can cope with. The images are generally fairly small and this is intentional, for a start this is how many of us, Hopkins' included, view news media in the twenty-first century, through laptop, tablet and phone. Interpreting these images presented in such a highly stylised manner one starts to remove elements of scale, grandeur, despair and other such emotions. No attempt at explanation, none needed, for an explanation we must instead reach inside ourselves to start finding some answers. It matters not whether it is studies of gun types, 'Cameron and Merkel in a Boat', a 'Roadblock', 'Three Women' or a 'Studio On Fire', the intention here is to convey content without interpretation allowing us, the viewer, to react according to our own feelings. Rather interestingly a recent work entitled 'The Good Shepherd' that reproduced the image of a soldier carrying the body of Aylan Kurdi across a beach, provoked the only negative reaction I've ever seen to a piece of Phill's work on social media. Apparently the echo chamber is not infallible. So what is it that makes certain images acceptable in a media context but unsuitable in others? Is it content, length of time between event and the reproduction of images, the presence of a child or is it something external to the work itself? Will certain images unmediated always be off limits? If so, why? Is it that our own emotions and experiences are being brought to the fore, forcing us to confront our own deepest feelings about such situations unmediated by the sensibilities of the masses. Perhaps it is in these moments that we encounter the world at large on a more personal level and see things for what they really are.

[1] Georges Perec

[2] Edgar Allen Poe 'The System Of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether'


[3] http://blogs.umb.edu/quoteunquote/2015/04/06/neither-snow-nor-rain-nor-heat-nor-gloom-of-night-stays-this-misattributed-quote-from-its-appointed-rounds/

[4] 'Naked Lunch' William S Burroughs

[5] From an epigraph by John Berger for 'The God Of Small Things' Arundhati Roy

[6] John Dewey