On my Practise - Phill Hopkins January 2017

I find it hard to remember a time when the work I made wasn’t influenced by current news stories and world events around me. I have been aware for some time now that the work I make is filled with a similar energy as the work I made as a teenager, for example, when I was stirred-up by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
I am interested in the unraveling and processing of news stories, often depicting conflict, in my domestic setting and the attempt to somehow make sense of the encounter, question myself and then to make a response of some kind.

I have made a great deal of work about the ongoing conflict in Syria. I made reference to the devastating destruction and the fleeing of people from their homeland. My response as always was one of utter unbelievable horror, destruction completely beyond my understanding. With the flow of news I turned my attention towards people in refugee camps. This wasn’t an overtly conscious decision, but a case of my continued following of the narrative provided by the media.

I was in despair after the UK voted to leave the European Community, dramatically increased on hearing the result of the American presidential election . Consequently my current work has undergone a major shift.

After the turmoil of the Brexit vote, during the build-up to the American election and in the mist of a family struggle, in October 2016 I spent some time on the coast in Pembrokeshire, Wales. I took hundreds of photographs of the empty sea. In an attempt to straighten my mind I edited these down to 65 black and white images. Returning to my studio I started to make paintings based on the photographs. The images and my application of paint became more and more turbulent, increasingly so after the presidential election result.

These new paintings are called the ‘Post Truth’ series, currently numbering over 35 works. They are made on thick Fabriano paper that I was given, using household paints and varnishes, spray paint and what comes to hand. The surfaces that I make work on and the materials that I choose are as important as the subject matter. I am interested in materials that come from the time that I am living in now. I use very ordinary things; my supplies come from hardware shops, things that I find as I'm going about or items that have been put aside and then passed onto me. Pieces of melamine discarded from old kitchens, offcuts of plywood with the penciled workings-out of a joiner, household paints and varnish, water-based gloss conflicting with part-used tubes of oil paint…these materials resonate with me, I know and recognise this stuff. I understand it as a kind of archaeology of the present. However ordinary these materials are I feel passionate about them.

In tandem with the new paintings, I am using prints of the original 65 black and white photographs, placing them underneath the wet paintings, catching drips and other studio debris. The paintings and photographs are intrinsically bound together.

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'


[4] 'Naked Lunch' William S Burroughs

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

[6] John Dewey

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