Peter Hopkins 
by Jan Hoet


    With their seductive beauty and metallic gleam, shimmering iridescently, Peter Hopkin's works immediately enchant the viewer. Yet their beauty is treacherous, leading deep down into the abysses of human existence. States of crisis and decay are the themes of the artist, who lives and works in Brooklyn. Also, the materials he employs are not colors in the actual sense. He uses polluted water, aggressive detergents, toxic waste, or perfumed oils. Surprisingly, in doing so, he produces almost baroque, highly artificial compositions and objects.

I encountered the first works created by Peter Hopkins in the late 80ies, while visiting the American Fine Arts gallery in New York. In the gallery space large pictorial objects, which at first recalled informal painting, were hanging on the walls. But that was not the point, and it wasn't even painting in the narrow sense. Hopkins had picked up discarded bed sheets off the street, possibly at the Bowery or some other slum area inhabited by homeless people.  

These bed sheets, marked by rips and stains, dirt, and signs of wear, were coated by a thick layer of varnish. This gave the everyday objects an almost pastoral aura, maintaining all due respect for the anonymous dignity of their former users. Removed from their original context, the found objects reworked in this manner had rightfully gained entry to the sphere of art. In consequence, they demanded a different way of dealing with life on a semantic and formal level. This had impressed me so much that in 1992 I then invited Peter Hopkins to participate in the documenta in Kassel. 

The celebration of vulnerability appears to me to be a central focus in his work. In the course of this, Hopkins operates in the intermediate zone extending between production and destruction. He reflects the conditions of life by letting the layers and residues thereof conflate, expand, and disappear. One can envisage this in a metaphorical sense as a vivisection, an operation observed on living material.  

In his experimental arrangements the artist retains control over the contaminated materials attacking each other. In the most fortunate cases he ignites an apocalyptic flash of light at the brink of the chasm - without question, and not unintentionally, touching on the verge of kitsch. Sometimes things simply go wrong, and the voracious ingredients eliminate each other.  

Repeatedly, the artist has also worked with fragrances and perfumes, particularly volatile substances. At the documenta IX in Kassel for the duration of a hundred days an enticing scent issued from a near to invisible tiny hole in the wall of the Neue Galerie. Its effect, however, could only unfold itself in an intimate proximity to the viewer. Only those who followed the intelligently devised trail of the artist were able to catch on to the clever game and let themselves be seduced. 

As Marcel Proust demonstrated, a whole chain of associations can be triggered by a scent. A perfumed card or a handbag opened after years can conjure up memories or plunge a person into despair if the fragrance has faded, become flat, or has changed entirely. In 2002 a forked glass fountain evoked controversy at the Art Basel fair. The Perfume Room Hopkins presented here did not smell of Chanel, but on the contrary, the olfactory experience was instead rather unpleasant, literally vicious, if not possibly even damaging to the health. The beautiful and the putrid, the delightful and the repulsive are the humus on which Peter Hopkins cultivates his flowers of evil.

Hopkin's works might deal with chance, and yet they are far from being arbitrary. The artist is indeed taking a high risk in his combining materials that react together, which might - under extreme circumstances - even lead to the corrosion of the picture plane or the destruction of delicately composed fragrances. However, since his interest does not lie in carrying out an academic or purely chemical experiment, he must keep hold of the reins and arrest the elements at a particular point. He brings the toxic, alchemical processes to a standstill when in his view they have generated a picture. As if shock-frozen, they are then condemned to lasting beauty. 

The work process often begins with the cleaning of the canvas that has been industrially impregnated or grounded for the application of paint. The bleaching agent divests the pictorial medium of its protection, unclothing it down to its skin. This procedure makes it susceptible and vulnerable to the interactions of the partially contaminated and aggressive components used, which in their interplay or also mutual attacks explode to glittering abstract icons or lyrically embrace in pink or bilious green, gold or cobalt blue. 

The preparatory cleansing process with bleaching agents is basically the "fatal" (Hopkins) enemy of all durable, archivable surfaces - and still somehow also a point which the artist continues to challenge anew and seeks to endure again and again. Hopkins uses the term "cleansing" in contrast to merely "cleaning." This implies two things: the canvas offers itself as a pure vehicle serving only its intended purpose, while simultaneously opening up into a field of symbolic meaning. 

A few years ago, the gallery American Fine Arts returned to the artist a series of bleach paintings. After the basement of the gallery had been flooded, he had long written off these works from the 80ies. Now he unpacked them almost twenty years later. Peter Hopkins described his surprise in a text from 2006, writing that they still had the same immediacy they had had at the time of their creation. His re-encounter with the works he had believed to be lost lead him to reappraise and reexamine his strategies and methods. 

The new works were supposed to render an answer to the question that the artist had posed to himself two decades before: how was it possible to generate an "'emptied' space showing where a painting could go, a 'site' where it could occur?" In a sense, Peter Hopkins is still active on this - in a figurative sense - open construction site. Here he picks up the trails of life, looking back and into the future, and particularly into life's unfathomable depths, dealing with his corrosive materials and dedicating himself to a pictorial language, which despite all of its brooding pensiveness conveys something magical.