Michael Hopkins calls his 11 small, haunting, eerily transparent works at Navta Schulz X-ray paintings, and though some are ambiguous, others do suggest bones, perhaps a rib cage or joints. Fragile, strangely glowing presences, these untitled pieces in white ink on slate hover before the eye like ghosts. Begun in early 2004, they were inspired in part by hospital jobs Hopkins had in college two decades ago, cleaning up after surgeries and as a physical therapy technician. “That really had an influence on me–you’re so close to the figure. We did ultrasounds and back rubs, we put hot packs on people. I was young, at the peak of healthiness, and it made me more aware of the human body in all its variations.”
Hopkins describes the first 30 or so of the works he did in this line as “pretty X-ray-like.” Wanting to explore other possibilities–he says he generally hopes the viewer “has no words” about his art–he started applying washes to soften the lines. Two instructors at the first of the three colleges he attended, Ben Dallas and Ken Dahlberg at Harper College in Palatine, were the first to show him the importance of a mark in itself. Before that, he says, “I had only thought of the mark as something that represented a person or a tree.” Many series of drawings later–including geometrical abstractions, images that suggested the figure, and acrylic drawings on plastic inspired by Asian calligraphy–a friend suggested he use slate. After some failed flower paintings, he thought of X-rays.
Hopkins has strong beliefs about not modifying his work to make it more commercial. “I’m not a jukebox,” he says. “I don’t take requests.” He remembers admiring the paintings of one of his fellow students at the last college he attended, the School of the Art Institute. “She did these small, beautifully textured, somewhat minimal abstract paintings. I never met her, but I would come visit her space. One day you could see that somebody had gotten to her and told her to make her work larger and more colorful. And it was awful. Painting large is not for everyone, and her work lost its inwardness.” Hopkins received similar advice after graduating from Harper: gallery owners told him that he’d improve his prospects if he worked bigger and used more color. But “if you even for a second start to think about the market,” Hopkins says, “you’re dead as an artist.” Several years ago a gallery owner who “loved” his insect drawings told him they were unlikely to sell. And they didn’t: despite the gallery’s efforts, only one of at least 60 pieces ever sold. Still, it’s one of the artist’s favorite series.
Hopkins has worked as a salesman and a security guard, had brushes with poverty, and alienated loved ones because of his commitment to doing what he felt he had to do. He says his ex-wife, whom he met in an art class, was unsympathetic to his struggle: she too suggested he work larger. And though Hopkins says they weren’t poor, “she wanted a different lifestyle. I had hoped that she would say, ‘Stick with it, your work is really good.’ Instead she was becoming one of the enemy.” A later relationship failed when his girlfriend asked him to give up his art. They broke up in 1998, and since then Hopkins says he’s had just a few brief relationships. Now living in Arlington Heights, he works for a suburban park district but lives partly on sales of his work, asking artist friends to recommend collectors who might be interested in it. (His current show is the result of sending slides to Navta Schulz when its only gallery was in Wisconsin.) And he spends every Sunday on the net looking for new opportunities: last year he sold five of his X-ray paintings to a medically oriented art collection in London. He’s also writing a play–about an artist and “what other people would like him to do. Usually it’s not to be an artist.”
When: Through Sat 4/22
Where: Navta Schulz, 1039 W. Lake