When she was just 15-years-old, Charlotte Hopkins Hall’s mother sat her down to discuss her future choices - a conversation that will be familiar to many. Hopkins Hall’s reply, unlike that of many 15-year-olds however, was pretty emphatic. She told her mother she wanted to be an artist.
“I was fortunate enough to have an innate ability to draw and a strong sensibility and sense of justice,” she tells Artspace. “I also believed that artists are essential as witnesses, to positively or negatively mirror society. I believe we hold a real responsibility.”
Over the course of her artistic career Hopkins Hall has developed that sense of justice, using it to hold a mirror to contemporary society in her meticulously created paintings which highlight and observe how social mores play out in a digitally-mediated age.
Hopkins Halls’ stark canvases address the artist's fear of losing free will to social media's constrictive grip on thought and expression. "In this age of anger, shouting above the other has become a norm, and exclusion a punishment for non-conformity to the neo-social protocol," she says.
Hopkins Hall's visual expression ranges from tongue-in-cheek to serious subject matters. In conjunction with the titles, which are meant as mini manifestos, we are immersed in an absurd world in which the figures play out their roles conducted by the 'puppet master' artist.
Since graduating from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Geneva, in Switzerland, Hopkins Hall’s work has been exhibited internationally, notably at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, and the Walker Gallery, Liverpool. Her work is held in private collections across Europe and the United States.
Hopkins Hall lives in London, where we caught up with her this week to find out more about the work she is offering as part of Artspace’s Artist Direct program, which sees art made available straight from the artist's studio.
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it? The motif that is used repeatedly, and as a nod to an era that is indisputably saturated with images of the face, is that of my back, ad-nauseum. The obsessive repetition is used to various ends, thematically and visually. Visually, on first view, the figures wearing black-and-white striped shirts and finely painted hair might look the same, but each are painted individually, producing a hypnotic optical image. The size of the pieces is often imposing, and in conjunction with the titles, that are meant as mini manifestos, the canvases provide a stage on which the figures play out their roles.
The paintings tend to be created as polyptychs; diptychs, triptychs etc: with my trademark aesthetic of extremely finely painted, and visually strict, imagery. The polyptychs are used to create a break, or a rupture within the visual ensemble. The thematic of my visually paired back work is a sharp scrutiny of the paradigms that have embedded recent political and social ideals.
The work discloses a fear of losing free will in a world gripped by social media and clannist states of mind, ranging from populism to the ever-concerning radicalism coming out of the woke movement. It is imperative that we fight for human rights and call out injustices but in this age of anger, shouting above the other has become a norm, and exclusion a punishment for non-conformity to the neo-social protocol. I hope to bring a visual expression centred on the question of true independence of the individual in the face of collective absurdity, ranging from something that is partly tongue-in-cheek to addressing the more serious issues of our times.
How does your work fit together – is there a journey you can see? Painting figuratively for 20 odd years, my work has been concerned with the nature of being human from the onset. Fascinated by psychology and philosophy, the prevailing thematic is absurdity and nonsense. At the time painting single figures in an action of which the nature was unclear and often playing on what was going on off the canvas, invisible to the viewer.
As such, the essence of the concept hasn’t really changed much, the paintings on the other hand have evolved, from youthful fresh portraits set on white backgrounds to a more strict conceptual aesthetic of turned backs and, as I mentioned earlier, using a motif repeated incessantly.
Where do you fit in, who do you think you belong alongside? To be very honest I’m not sure where I fit in today’s trends and styles trail-blazed by the art market or Instagram. There are fabulous artists out there and if hard pressed to align, I would sit with artists tackling political and sociological issues in a larger sense.
The American minimalists have certainly informed my aesthetic, whilst artists such as Juan Munoz, Michael Rakowitz, or Francis Alÿs have captured my imagination. Louise Lawler’s Helms Amendment, a photographic installation of plastic cups framed with the names of the senators who voted for a bill to obstructed preventative action at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis is truly powerful. I am drawn to the aesthetic and to the committed concept of this piece.
What do you think about when you’re creating? As a result of my meticulous painting technique, mostly using 0/2 paint brushes, combined with the repetitive aspect of the movement, I go into an ultra-focused zone. The concentration is such that I cannot let my mind wonder, otherwise the lines tend to go awry.
Where do your titles come from? The titles are an essential part of the work. They act as mini-manifestos and, in most cases, give direction to the temperament of the pieces. Fascinated by absurdity, by existentialism and simply by the stupidity of how human nature can function, these are often long, complicated, humorous mouthfuls of titles.
Can you control where the process takes you? The process is entirely controlled from start to finish. Beginning with the reading of articles, books and so on. Being informed by what is going on on the global stage, writing at length in my notebooks, then drafting a quick sketch, the painting is entirely visualised and created before the canvas is even stretched. I reproduce the exact image I have visualised in my mind.
Tell us a little about some of your work on Artspace.
The current series of paperworks on Artspace, Barriers and Quagmires, is a set of painted and hand printed wood blocks on beautiful handmade Japanese paper. The philosophy behind these pieces came about with renewed preoccupation of building walls to keep people out, erecting not only physical barriers but mental ones too, feeding the social polarisation that we have witnessed globally. The quagmire makes a direct reference to the subsequent psychological turmoil that we are in as a species.
The piece If I Could Have Stayed, I Would Have Stayed, 2020, is the most literal interpretation of the demonisation of the other, showing solidarity with people risking everything to cross land and sea. Of course, the magnitude of the problem is multi-layered and extremely complex. However, I cannot remain unemotional to the plight of millions trying to better their lives by taking the most perilous journeys and ultimately paying the greatest of prices. I will donate half my income from this piece to sea-watch.org.
What made you want to become an artist? Although I have no recollection, it was apparently evident from the onset. At the age of 15, my mother sat me down to discuss my future choices. I told her I wanted to become an artist. She paused, and we discussed the implications of such a choice, telling me that it was going to be a difficult and hard life of ups and downs but that if I was 100% certain and understood the challenges it would bring, she would support my decision. I was fortunate enough to have an innate ability to draw and a strong sensibility and sense of justice. I am also convinced that artists are essential as witnesses, to positively or negatively mirror society, I decided that this was the path for me for better or for worse. I believe we hold a real responsibility.
What are the bits of being a fine artist you struggle with? I wouldn’t really know how to answer this question, where would I start? But truly, the bottom line is that I am fortunate to be a fine artist. There are tremendous struggles and achievements, and they both come with the territory.
My greatest grievance is the art market. I’ve struggled to meet dealers who are truly genuine in a milieu where there is an asymmetrical care for profit over the art. I will, perhaps, be shouted down for this but the reality is that I do have to collaborate with a hyper-capitalistic art world that follows a pre-set of aesthetics dictated by a few.
Do you collect art yourself or something that you consider art? If so, what have you bought lately? Yes, I have a beautiful little collection on the go, some bought but mostly gifted or exchanged with fellow artists. This is certainly one of the perks of the job.