Wednesday 10 February 2016

Kate Hopkins - a solo show

To the Browse and Darby gallery in Cork Street last night, for the opening of a solo show by the artist Kate Hopkins. I last wrote about her work on this blog in August 2013 and may have said then that while I think I know a lot about art, I don't know what I like

I do know, though, that I like Kate Hopkins' paintings very much. You can see some of her recent work in the online catalogue here. twenty five images, each perfectly lovely: a glazed pot-bellied earthenware water jug, musty grapes, some of which are rotting quietly; cut flowers in a podgy orange vase and - wow! - a madly extravagant architectural  confection (Chinese cake, oil on board, 30cm x 30cm - see below). My first reaction to this was that of a pop-eyed schoolboy presented with his first knickerbocker glory. I smiled, almost laughed. I can't think of many contemporary images that are so immediately and delightfully pleasing. We look down, as imminent consumers, at this side-lit marvel: nine layers of fluffy sponge - mint green, bright custard yellow and raspberry pink alternating with creamy cloud-white seams and topped off with jelly hearts, smarties, what looks like a sugar mouse, chocolate flake logs - a muffled explosion of form and colour. It looks good enough to eat but is, at the same time, doubly artificial, being an artistic representation of a man-made object - and an extraordinarily elaborate one at that. Having sourced the cake in a Charing Cross Road Chinese bakery (now closed) it took her two months to paint.

I'm reminded of some lines by Auden in 'The Truest Poetry is the Most Feigning'. He's writing about poetry, but might as well be thinking about pictorial art:

Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever,
And do not listen to those critics ever
Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books
Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks.

This Chinese cake is certainly 'subtle, various, ornamental, clever' - it's fantasy patisserie, a literally fabulous confection and one can almost hear it subside under the gentle pressure of an approaching fork - it has mass, but little weight or substance. Compositionally off-centre, it casts an improbable shadow (part of a complex rhythmic arrangement of counterpointed curves and lines) and rests lightly on a thin circle of silvered card, all set against a subtle background of multiple shades of icy blue and green - as alluring as it is unnutritious. Has anyone ever looked so closely and carefully at a cake?  Has any cake, Chinese or otherwise, made such a claim on our attention? This one looks as if it should have a label attached saying 'Eat Me' - in that mildly sinister Lewis Carroll way.

As I said in my earlier blog:

In a rowdy market-place Kate Hopkins' paintings create their own space. Here are two more pictures - of grapes (below) and cherries (below the grapes). She must have looked very closely and for a long time at these two modest clusters of fruit, and has captured perfectly, and permanently, the mustiness of the grapes and the enamelled glamour of the cherries. They are small images but have monumental presence. These pictures have something of temps mort about them - something essential salvaged from the wreck of time. They are not loud or pushy or overbearing or sentimental or gauchely confessional - they're the sound of the wind in the trees. 

I'm reminded of the (presumably fictitious) Braque still life (brilliantly described by Gabriel Josipovici in his novel Only Joking) that the artist painted food when he (and the population of occupied Paris) were hungry. And then I'm reminded of Hemingway's observation that one should look at Gauguin paintings on an empty stomach because the artist was hungry when he painted them - not because he was poor but simply because, wholly absorbed in the act of painting, he forgot to eat. 

Kate Hopkins' scrutiny is cool and cerebral. It's a Chinese cake - the kind of thing one picks up in Soho, perhaps on the way home after a few drinks. It hasn't the finesse of its French equivalent - it's rough and ready, elaborate yet unsophisticated and uncommodified (as it would be if made and sold in a branch of Patisserie Valerie, say). It's also cheaper than its French equivalent, and its appeal is more to the eye than the palate. (My own experience is that Chinese cakes taste of nothing much, not even monosodium glutamate) Is the artist making a cultural point here, about Eastern and Western tastes and values? About luxury and self-indulgence? Is being a painter today (as opposed to a conceptual artist) as incongruous as a Chinese cake in an era of high-protein diets and locally-sourced Hipster-friendly groceries? But I'm rambling.

There's what you might call a confident tentativeness in the painting, in the application of small decisive brushstrokes. Extraordinary effects are achieved in that covetable image of grapes, for instance: get up close and the colours and shapes are wildly improbable; step back and everything works - the illusion is complete. I could look at and enjoy any one of her pictures every day for a year (and on a purely literal level that represents astonishingly good value, as the cost of buying such a cake or bunch of grapes daily would very soon outstrip the investment in a picture). Five of the paintings were snapped up on the night - including the Chinese cake, a wonderful blue Wedgewoody pitcher and some flowers in a squat jug that looks like the kind of thing a child would bring home from a school pottery class. The bunch of grapes - my favourite - remained inexplicably unsold when I left (but  I had to leave early).

Walking home northwards along Cork Street (much of which has been demolished as part of the continuing predatory destruction of the capital) I reflected, as one does, on mutability - the way painters (more than any other artists) salvage something from the wreck of time. These tough little images remain while whole streets are reduced to rubble.

Click here for details of the show, which runs until 26th February.

Images © Kate Hoplins 

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