Carl Hopgood's neon artworks take the medium to bold new places
"Be Yourself” (2022). Six wooden chairs, yellow neon
Exhibiting at UTA Artist Space’s new group show ‘Fragile World’, Carl Hopgood transforms the chaos of a moment in time into existential expressions
Wednesday 17 August 2022 By Dawn DeKeyser
At the UTA Artist Space’s new group exhibit Fragile World, British artist and Soho House member Carl Hopgood delivers sharp social commentary with wit between 15 installations, each an irreverent mix of dark existentialism and glowing neon light.
Created in the aftermath of the pandemic, finding whimsy in a bleak time in history meant Hopgood had to look for the beauty in destruction. All one had to do was drive down Santa Monica Boulevard to see broken storefronts, boarded windows, and chairs piled on tables in empty restaurants. Particularly painful was the state of the once-vibrant West Hollywood; the heart of gay nightlife disappeared, and with it, an entire community was silenced. Gone were the shared experiences, the hook-ups and take-downs, the colourful, outrageous denizens of the neighbourhood.
The majority of Hopgood’s work in this exhibition was made during this time when he entered into a self-proclaimed ‘existential crisis’. It allowed him to reflect on his life and draw on personal experiences. It was also a way for him to address the vulnerability he felt at that time.
‘It brought back that sense of loss when my friends in London passed away over the years. Taken at such a young age, all before they were 40 – Christopher Price, Tim Royce, Alexander McQueen, David Perks… the pandemic triggered overwhelming feelings of sadness, shock, anger, and disbelief. There was one thing that could be done, and that was to make art as my therapy.’
Born in the UK to a Welsh father who was a chemist and a Greek mother who handled the bookkeeping at the local brewery, Hopgood came from a mathematically gifted family. His grandfather was an engineer during WWII working on fighter-bombers for the military. However, Hopgood didn’t identify with such an unambiguous, inductive line of thought. Instead, he invented make-believe worlds through installations cobbled together from mushroom boxes and cardboard. These imaginary worlds became an escape from the bullying he faced in school.
It takes no small amount of sufferance and self-reflection to recreate oneself from a boy who was bullied into a man who brings empathy and allure to the bullish art world of today. This point of view shows in his work titled ‘Be Yourself’, where yellow suspended neon lights say, ‘Who You Are’ and ‘You Are You’. He draws inspiration from Marcel Duchamp and Bruce Nauman while using everyday objects such as chairs, mattresses, birdcages, ladders, and empty soda cans.
If didactic art intends to instruct, Hopgood teaches with a commanding narrative.
“Freedom To Choose” (2022). Found birdcage, neon wire hanger
Portrait of the artist with “Just Say Gay” (2022). Three painted wooden chairs, white neon, and “Twelve Steps” (2021)
Let’s start with the neon chair installation in the main gallery space, ‘Chair Therapy’. You take the detritus of a worldwide epidemic and create life from wooden chairs, wire, and light. So, where did this idea begin?
‘During the pandemic that turned our lives upside down, I’d walk past restaurants and shops and see chairs stacked up in the windows. It was like a ghost town. There was so much illness, death and collapse that the virus left in its wake.
I remember driving past stores that caught fire in North Hollywood. Everything burned to the ground. The only things that survived were these burnt chairs. I wasn’t sure if it was an accident or a deliberate act of desperation. I thought about using them for a sculpture, but one crumbled when I went to pick it up. I was thinking about the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes and wanted to make something that offered hope in dark times. So, I painted the folding chairs black to make them look burnt. I realised the power of creating art had given me the ability to heal.’
‘Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places’ is a powerful display of desire and desolation. A mattress frame hangs from the ceiling with cascading neon words from its box springs. What was your inspiration?
‘I made this artwork when I first moved to LA. I saw so many mattresses, beds and chairs discarded on the streets. I began to see that this was a city of extreme divides between the rich and the poor. I remember in 2008 seeing the Derek Jarman show Brutal Beauty at the Serpentine Galleries and was reminded of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. In many ways, COVID-19 brought back the panic and fear we first felt living through those times. The work is about subconscious thoughts, dreams, fantasies, and taboos.’
“Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places” (2019). Found mattress springs, wire, multi-colored neon
‘Freedom To Choose’ represents an erosion of our freedoms. But, contextually, what else does it say?
‘It’s a piece about inequality. A twisted piece of wire isn’t just a symbol of dangerous abortions. It’s a symbol of inequality. The Supreme Court of the United States signalled its intention to overturn fundamental human rights, so the neon wire hanger suspended in a birdcage depicts the inability of millions of women to make choices about their bodies. History has shown us this will lead to unsafe back-alley abortions.’
Your ‘Just Say Gay’ installation is both simple and hard-hitting. Can you tell us about the messaging you chose?
‘I made ‘Just Say Gay’ in response to the controversial so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and the increased attacks that the gay and trans communities are facing on our human rights. The Republican-backed legislation banning LGBTQ instruction in primary schools is the latest example of how our liberties are at stake.’
In ‘Twelve Steps’, you paraphrase a quote from Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. His couplet, ‘What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed,’ was included in the collection The Body And The Wormwood.
‘Christianopoulos was sidelined by the Greek literary community in the 1970s because he was gay. The fight against bullying, repression, injustice and discrimination are things I have personally experienced being Welsh, Greek, and gay. One of my earliest memories at school was being chased when I was a child. They would scream “gay boy, gay boy” over and over again. I didn’t stop running until I found a place of sanctuary – a pile of stacked chairs in the back of the school canteen. This disturbing memory never left me.’
“My Pain Today is My Strength Tomorrow” (2022). Nine black chairs, white neon
“Your Soul Is Beautiful” (2020). Four wooden chairs, white neon
Carl Hopgood has degree in fine art from Goldsmiths, University of London and a masters in fine art from the University of the Arts, Central Saint Martins in London. In this exhibition, he brings new and existing works combining found objects, neon, and video.
UTA Artist Space, an exhibition venue designed by Ai Weiwei, is an extension of United Talent Agency’s commitment to the Los Angeles art scene as much as it is a venue for showcasing globally recognised talent.
The Fragile World exhibition features the works of Carl Hopgood, Samyar Maleki, Ryan Winnen, Jack Winthrop, and Greg Yagolnitzer. Arthur Lewis, creative director of UTA Fine Arts and Artist Space, and Soho House will hold a member event before the exhibition opens. You can reserve a spot here.
Soho Art Walk: Fragile World & Holloway Rooftop Reception: Friday 19 August, 5pm to 6pm
Opening reception: Friday 19 August, 6pm to 8pm