Design is the complete opposite of sculpture. Design is precise, planned and resolved, whereas a sculpture is quite unpredictable. Making sculpture involves continuous feedback, where the processes of looking, thinking and doing are all contributing to the end result in an unconstrained and spontaneous way. The brain thinks but the hand doesn’t necessarily do what the brain tells it to do, so the result of any one action is unpredictable and must be entered into the feedback loop before the next decision is made and so on. The whole process must be in balance though, the brain should not dominate the hand or vice versa; what is needed is a natural technique, one that will open up more and more possibilities.

Paul Hopmeier

Paul Hopmeier grew up in western Sydney where his father worked as a stonemason. As a child he remembers passing many hours in his father’s workshop, becoming familiar with hand tools and machinery and always involved in making things. These early experiences laid the foundation for an appreciation of material and technical process.

One could imagine that had he come of age during the early Renaissance in Florence, he may have joined a respected atelier like that of the famous sculptor and architect Brunelleschi, for such was his proclivity for handling material and the technical problems involved that he would have been the perfect candidate to take such a route. Growing up in the mid twentieth century though, and as the son of a progressively minded working class family, he was obliged to forego his father’s trade and take a more academic route, and so he enrolled in Mechanical Engineering at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. He studied for two years but he came to the realisation that there was something missing from his life that engineering could not fulfil. He had reached a personal crisis, which is not unusual with children who take on the burden of their parent’s ambition. He had become more and more absorbed with the visual arts which appeared on the horizon as a much more seductive option. It was like a direct link back to his childhood where imaginative play in the workshop had led to many discoveries and those moments of enlightenment that underpin our development. He took a year off university during which time he started to research various educational options and came into contact with a few teachers and professional sculptors. Instead of returning to university he enrolled in a foundation course at The National Art School in Sydney the following year. In 1973 He started the sculpture course at the East Sydney campus of the National Art School where at the time teachers like Ron Robertson-Swann and Ian McKay had introduced a St Martin’s type, project based course. Hopmeier responded to this system very well and was particularly influenced by Ian McKay.

Quite a few young sculptors had come under the influence of Anthony Caro at St Martin’s School, among them Ian McKay who had travelled to London to be there. Arriving back in Australia, McKay progressed from being a figurative sculptor to being one of Australia’s leading exponents of the constructed abstract genre and it was under his tutelage that Paul Hopmeier started on the path to becoming a professional sculptor.

The St Martin’s model worked well at East Sydney, providing a very stimulating educational atmosphere, but the tuition did not stray too far from the great masters of Modernism. Hopmeier became captivated by abstract steel sculpture but the sensibility that he brought to the genre had more to do with the tradition of carving. Whereas constructed sculpture is akin to modelling, involving the addition and subtraction of material and a very non-linear sequence of actions, carving is solely reductive and totally linear. With Hopmeier, his constructed work is informed by both approaches.

 

"Whereas constructed sculpture is akin to modelling, involving the addition and subtraction of material and a very non-linear sequence of actions, carving is solely reductive and totally linear. With Hopmeier, his constructed work is informed by both approaches."

 

 

 


Piano 1976
Steel painted, house bricks
138 x 180 x 122 cm

 


Piano 1976
In his final year at Art School he completed the piece Piano. The sculpture has a literal subject but Hopmeier has not made a literal sculpture; what he has made is a visual metaphor. As a metaphor it stands for some very intense subjective experiences related to his childhood.

Hopmeier has read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and he sees some correlation between his search for an allusive subject and Bachelard’s phenomenology. When Bachelard talks about the attic of a house for example he is not just talking about the physical space at the top of a house, but a space that is given archetypal status with all the connotation of stored memories and past histories.

Piano is Hopmeier’s attic, a piece that originates from the accumulated memories of his childhood. With its severe abstraction and interlocking cubists volumes it retains the scale of an upright piano. This is not just any old piano though, it is the family piano, the piano he associates with his childhood and on which he learnt to play. For him this piano, which he still owns, represents the intensity of his childhood, for at the time he was growing up, he would play it to escape the chaos of the family swirling around him.

The sculpture could be described as an apparition of a piano as he has chosen to give us just the bare outline, eschewing detail as if trying to exclude us from the complete psychological drama. He does give us two major pieces of information though, the keyboard and the soundboard, both represented by a line of bricks. Looking at a piano the keyboard is right there, as the major focus, but the soundboard is hidden inside the body of the piano. In his sculpture Hopmeier has made them both visible as a way of amplifying their duel significance, and it is their corresponding attributes that become the main focus. The bricks, representing the keyboard, are skewed and slope away in a neat row. Being suspended in such a way and given such a minimal look, they occupy a space somewhere between the accessible object (the keyboard), and a more obscure object, something internal and intangible. The line of soundboard bricks looks functional by comparison, where the bricks throw their weight across the whole expanse of the piece recalling some of Carl Andre’s minimal works.

We have adopted the word ‘soundboard’ to mean someone we can bounce ideas off, which is an interesting way of extending the metaphor of the sculpture. As a child and with such an investigative mind, Hopmeier would have understood the mechanism of the piano, so as he was playing notes he would have been imagining the workings of that mechanism. In this way he was receiving ‘input’ from his imagination whereby each of the notes became more interesting within a three dimensional context. The sculpture now becomes a soundboard from which the sculptor receives feedback as he moves through the three dimensional phases of its construction. This feedback involves recollections from the reflective imagination, which come into play, giving reasonable essence to things and directing the sculptor to make it ‘like that’. As he is working, the literal subject (piano) starts to recede and the ‘real subject’ as Hopmeier calls it, starts to emerge.

 

  "Piano is Hopmeier’s attic, a piece that originates from the accumulated memories of his childhood. With its severe abstraction and interlocking cubists volumes it retains the scale of an upright piano. This is not just any old piano though, it is the family piano, the piano he associates with his childhood and on which he learnt to play."

Scissors 1977
Steel
Another sculpture, made soon after Piano, is Scissors. With this work he could have made a big pair of scissors à la Claus Oldenburg if he was only interested in scissors as object, but he wasn't; his interest continued into the metaphorical implications of making such a piece. None of his work is meant to be didactic but in the making of a work he does see parallels between the way materials behave and the way individuals behave. He is very interested in human behaviour and the intricate structuring of social paradigms, something at the forefront of his mind every time he comes to make a work.
Scissors incorporates both the notion of the scissor action, i.e. the relationship between the two blades, and the notion of human relationships. He is very aware that people won’t necessarily see what is going on in his head when they look at the sculpture, but then that raises the question, what is the point of making art in the first place? It is obviously a human imperative and a drive to try and explain the inexplicable, which is probably the starting point for Hopmeier. In a way he is making social comment without actually giving us the commentary. He refrains from giving us the story behind the work because he finds that once people know the story they will then walk away with that story in their head without actually making contact with the work itself. He abhors the fact that so much post-modernist art depends on a text to explain to the viewer what it is about, therefore denying them the chance to arrive at any sort of individual response.

What he wants to leave us with is a sense of wonder and mystery, not dissimilar to the way the Belgium artist René Magritte wanted people to experience his work. With Magritte’s statement, written under an illustration of a pipe, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, he is inviting us to think about something ‘other’ than the object, which could be something induced by our own memories, something induced by the statement’s erotic connotations, or inviting us to think about why things are as they are. With Scissors, Hopmeier is inviting us to read his sculpture as much more than just a pair of scissors; he wants us to think about all the connotations that go with such an object and wants us to consider our subjective response to the piece.

In 1978 Hopmeier travelled to New York on a scholarship to enrol at The New York Studio School for a year and once there he selected the life modelling classes given by Sidney Geist. He considers this time spent with Geist, as being very instructive and valuable. For him Geist opened up a whole new understanding and appreciation of modelling. Geist’s method of teaching was to make short clear explanations while physically demonstrating in the clay, which struck a chord with Hopmeier, stimulating some very important sculptural instincts.

Hopmeier got much from the modelling exercises but he also benefited from the times when the model wasn’t posing and everyone was taking a break, sitting around talking with Geist. Geist was around the New York scene at the time of Jackson Pollock and Peggy Guggenheim, so he was full of anecdotes and a witness to those early days of Abstract Expressionism. This was a revelation to Hopmeier and being exposed to so much first hand knowledge confirmed his decision to continue with his own artistic enterprise. Sidney Geist was also a Brancusi specialist having published a book on Brancusi in 1968. One story he told was how Marcel Duchamp, living in New York, became the benefactor of an estate involving 22 of Brancusi’s sculptures and throughout his life was able to support himself as a dilatant and chess player through the sale of a sculpture from time to time. This story intrigued Hopmeier because it was about friendship and mutual appreciation between two artists whose work appeared to be so completely different.

 

 

"He is very aware that people won’t necessarily see what is going on in his head when they look at the sculpture, but then that raises the question, what is the point of making art in the first place? It is obviously a human imperative and a drive to try and explain the inexplicable, which is probably the starting point for Hopmeier."


René Magritte
La trahison des images 1929
Oil on canvas 59 x 65 cm
Los Angeles County Museum


Constantin Brancusi
Torso of a Young Man 1917-22
wood

 

 


Joint 1978
Steel
A piece he made during his time at the New York Studio School, Joint (1978), demonstrates that what he was doing in the modelling studio was reinforcing his visual acuity when it came to his own work. His sculpture was becoming more condensed as object through a process of reductionism, but at the time what was being expressed was a certain joy in the manipulation and sheer concordance of material. The piece has a certain mass and when we think about mass and sculpture we think about something being located and having an internal energy. Carvers have always known this and it is something central to their procedure. What Hopmeier has produced with Joint, is more of a hybrid, an object that lingers somewhere between construction and carving, and it is for that reason it carries both a classical and modern resonance. It has mass but the configuration of the piece releases an internal energy. The configuration is a series of elongated plates stacked side by side, intertwining in their journey towards an inexorable intersection. Hopmeier has said that this sculpture is about sex and it is not hard to imagine just what that intersection could be, but not knowing this does not diminish the experience of the work. This work, as an object, has some of the presence of Brancusi’s The Kiss, with the emphasis on the separate bodies becoming one, and in its construction it carries some of the nuance of Brancusi’s masterly carving technique.

Seventy 1983
Steel painted
Collection, National Gallery of Victoria
In 1983 Hopmeier showed a number of large pieces at Powell Street Gallery in Melbourne, among them a piece called Seventy, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. Seventy is from a period when he was thinking of constructed sculpture as a variant of carving.

Traditional carved sculpture begins with a block of stone and the sculptor must analyse it, meditate on it and determine just how the sculpture is going to emerge from within its given dimensions. Although carving is associated with stone, Hopmeier, who is a competent carver, works mainly in metal but brings to his sculptural practice the mental aptitude and discipline of carving. With the group of sculptures that were shown at Powell Street all the elements were made of rolled steel, which gave them a certain uniformity. He then set himself a limitation by making each sculpture as if it was made from a single ‘block’ within which the elements became the ‘carving’. Although he was adding the elements into the space as per constructed sculpture, he wanted them to appear as being contained, as if they had emerged from a solid mass.

Hopmeier has a deep interest in the music of J.S. Bach and we can see with his sculpture Seventy, his method of working is akin to a Bach fugue. With his composition Bach develops a motive or melody by presenting it in a number of variations. His use of contrapuntal technique can be considered as elements that go together developing and building up tonal and rhythmic shifts. Seventy is made up of elements which go together precisely, relating to the overall structure of the given ‘block’. Hopmeier introduces a kind of contrapuntal technique of his own where the rolled elements are counter-weighted, one against the other, to build up a complex visual experience. Listening to a Bach fugue is to experience the overlaying of many ‘voices’ and the visual experience associated with Seventy is also one of overlaying with its concordance of surfaces and discrete spatial shifts.

He has experienced a certain frustration from time to time during his career, probably related to his work being dismissed as mere formalism. The tag ‘formalist’ is very misleading because it is usually used in a derogatory way with the assumption that formalist art is made according to some predetermined canon or set of rules. Michael Buzacott, another Sydney sculptor and a contemporary of Hopmeier, has been quoted as saying,

“In a way all art is formalist because formalism means technique. I just refuse to let people demean the word technique, technique is everything, and without technique you can’t access your unconscious. All art of any kind, of any category is formalist; it’s about the technique of being creative.”

Hopmeier would find, within this statement, something relevant to his own work. Although he brings to each piece, major technical competence, a lot of his time is spent finding a methodology to meet the challenge of a new piece. Sometimes, to achieve a certain end, he will find himself actually making specialist tools from scratch to complete the piece. This goes to demonstrate how single-minded he is in trying to get as close as possible to the interior subject that generates each piece.

He has described in an interview how he experiences something happening in his brain, which is similar to the phenomena of synaesthesia, where some people, when they hear sounds, see related colours. His experience is that when he sees material he immediately has a mental picture of form, form that takes on sculptural attributes. This may sound like a godsend for any sculptor but it brings with it many hazards, like when sculpture becomes too ‘easy’ and tends towards the decorative. If he understands material and has a certain facility with material, it only makes him more determined to subject that facility to rigorous scrutiny and develop a methodology that is about making the right decision rather than making the convenient one. He does look towards subverting convention though, which then becomes invention. In the same interview, in relation to invention, he put forward the following interesting proposition.

“Brains have been described as random idea generators with an editing function to remove the absurd. Invention is the random idea generator and some must be more fertile than others. Is the level of fertility a function of experience or does experience make the editing more savage? In fact invention and creation should both be best when edit free.”

In this statement we can see that he is formulating an equation between a level of random activity and a level of analytic control. His assessment is that in an ideal world creativity would be free of convention, but he is also aware that experience, as the generator of ideas, comes with inbuilt inhibitors, and depending on which voice you listen to, you can end up with something which looks conventional or something that looks fresh and unburdened.

  "Brains have been described as random idea generators with an editing function to remove the absurd. Invention is the random idea generator and some must be more fertile than others. Is the level of fertility a function of experience or does experience make the editing more savage? In fact invention and creation should both be best when edit free."
Paul Hopmeier

 

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