There's a painting by Paul Klee in which two arrows can be seen. One of the arrows points downward, the other upward. The upper one is somewhat longer, the lower somewhat broader. They stand opposed to each other, like two different forces or directions of movement. According to Klee's “Pedagogical Sketchbook”, the arrows are indicators of movement and energy that stand in tension to each other. The background is divided horizontally into strips of colour. At the top he begins with a rust red and at the bottom with a warm orange. Toward the middle, the colours slowly graduate to a light blue. It's all delicately and irregularly painted on watercolour paper, leaving the structure of the paper visible. The painting is called “Scheidung des Abends” [“Separation in the Evening”] and may refer to the transition from day to evening, in which both moods are simultaneously present. They exist in a fragile equilibrium that can tip at any time.
There's another painting by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus, which was described by Walter Benjamin thus: “[It] shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”1
An angel that simultaneously looks both forward and backward? That simultaneously looks into the future and the past? What a paradox...
Alexandra Hopf portrays similar paradoxes or simultaneities in her works. Snapshots of antithetical materialities, energies and assertions. Impressions contradict themselves, references pop up and vanish in the same instant. Exactitude pairs up with carelessness, perfection with a taste for the flawed. Aside from evident references to artistic forerunners, there are countless un-seen influences and deliberations. She combines a confidence in the inherent dynamics of the material with painstaking craftsmanship. The different messages generate tension and tumult; her simultaneities demand to be looked at time and again.
With a work of art, one sees only in part the work process that went into its creation: preparing the surface, the repeated painting-over and correction, the hemming and hawing, the references and theoretical considerations. Oftentimes the initial ideas and preliminary work recede behind the presence and materiality of the works.
In particular, the “source material” remains hidden in the images and is only made visible in the catalogue. The catalogue lays bare some of Hopf's visual reference points, such as Bugs Bunny: this cartoon figure has the advantage of being able to continually re-characterise and de-materialise himself. The body is flexible material, capable of transformation and metamorphosis.
Or relics presented at a mass. Here again, Hopf is interested in the different forms of materialisation that a body can assume. A vernicle, a loincloth and a burial shroud are said to bear the signs of Jesus' body. The spiritualised body materialises itself in the form of bodily fluids immortalised on fabric. At the same time, the whole affair seems like the worship of rags.
Compared to these rather abstract influences, the artistic references to Frank Stella or Francis Picabia are much more evidently written into the paintings and titles (see “Stella Files”). Yet it remains unclear whether we are witnessing an appropriation – a parasitic taking for oneself – or an homage to the towering role models. It is likely, however, that Hopf herself consciously presents these two possible interpretations.
II. Letting go/controlling
The use of tissue or carbon paper is also a non-decision, for the material lives a life of its own partially beyond the realm of controllability. Tissue paper, for example, is so fragile that it produces waves and wrinkles when multiple layers are glued on top on each other. Carbon paper contains a greasy layer that repels water, so when paint is applied to it, it develops a mind of its own. Hopf cedes control over the results of the work process; she allows chance to do the fine-tuning. It's no coincidence that Francis Picabia, with his inkblot paintings, is a major role model. The material essentially works alone, forms connections or behaves antagonistically, becoming brittle. At the same time, Hopf works the surfaces with great precision, drawing meticulous fine lines or geometric shapes that give the image a clear structure. The simultaneity of control and letting go in the work process leads to contradictory results and confusion in the beholder. Was the blot painted intentionally or a slip of the hand? Is the break there part of the concept, or did the artist make a mistake? This is precisely the effect Hopf aims to achieve: that it looks both random and precise at once.
III. Painting on/carving in
When one places multiple layers of paper and paint over one another, meaning accumulates. The question is how visible these individual layers are in the end. Whether they shimmer through or are obliterated when they're painted over. One sees the layers in Hopf's paintings, but lines, dark spots, waves in the paper are only diffusely identifiable. They invite the mind of the observer to search again and again for another layer of meaning, and yet always return one to the surface.
In some places, Hopf reveals the layering, notching the material and peeling it back with a special tool. She carves into the surface, thereby inscribing herself, in turn, into the material. There's something liberating about it, because while the lower layers are unearthed, it also has a hint of violence to it, because it's an attack on her own work. As in Klee, there are different energies at work here, grappling with each other.
Hopf depicts simultaneities of sometimes conflicting assertions. In doing so, she unsettles the gaze while at the same time giving the beholder the possibility to join the process of negotiation and form an opinion of one's own. Engage with what's been seen, look and understand, perhaps pick a side and then, at any time, take a step back and choose another option. Just as Hopf concedes to herself to the last the option of simply turning the image around and making the backside the front. She maintains the room to manoeuvre, to choose between two options, till the very end.