Neil Goodman: I am going to ask you two, Michael Hopkins and Keith VanWinkle, a series of questions. This is a little unusual to do an interview with two artist at the same time. Can you tell me about how you two met and what interest you have in each other’s work?
Michael Hopkins: We met at a cigar shop.
Keith VanWinkle: So I’m working at a tobacconist in downtown Chicago and Michael was a regular client who would come in to the shop and we spoke on three or four occasions—I eventually showed him some images of my work. You know I didn’t necessarily want to solicit him but I wanted to let him know that I’m an artist and making work. When he saw my work he seemed to respond very positively and said that I should email him more images. He then forwarded those images to Diane Thodos (artist and contributor to Neoteric Art). She also responded well to my work. So it was at that point Michael Hopkins came to me and started a dialogue about perhaps working together on a group proposal or a group project, eventually teaming up on two person proposals … but it was really over cigars that we met.
Neil: It’s relatively unusual for an older more established artist like yourself (Michael Hopkins) who’s had a long successful career to become interested in a younger artist. That’s kind of a unique mentorship. It happens occasionally in the art world but that’s more infrequent than not because most artist see themselves in terms of a hierarchical order rather than a collaboration. What is it about that relationship that moved you to start this partnership?
Michael: Well first of all I really thought his work was of quality. When I was coming up I saw a lot of older artist that would not help out younger artist because they felt like there was another piranha in the tank and I never looked at it that way. I always thought art that is really good should rise to the top and its going to need help in doing that—how to approach galleries, how to approach museums, how to connect the dots. I never wanted to be one of those artist that never helped out another artist if I thought their work was really good. I have a close friend in Diane Thodos, who’s an extremely talented artist and writer. She feels the same way. Diane and I have helped out a couple of artist. What I hate to see is younger artists who have quality work but don’t know how to approach the art world and how to get shows and things like that. My helping Keith has been more connecting the dots and showing him around. How to do things—the quality of his work is already there. My working with him has been more to show him about going to openings and who to talk to, how to approach people and how to prepare yourself. I see a lot of students coming out of college who don’t know how to do this. They haven’t been taught these things, and what I would hate to see somebody who has a lot of talent fail. Not because there work isn’t any good but because they don’t know how to approach the art world.
Michael Hopkins, Dead Mouse, Coated metal wire, 7.5″ x 9″ x 7.75″, 2015
Neil: That has a certain kind of empathetic structure that’s somewhat unique today in the art world. That’s one of the reasons why I was interested in doing this interview.
Michael: When I used to ask older artists on how to do those kinds of things I never got any kind of coherent answer because they didn’t want to help. They weren’t going to help anybody. They just felt it was more competition and I don’t feel that way.
Keith: For myself, as an emerging artist, coming into the market place one should always know their limitations. The fact of the matter is that while I may make quality work and I think people seem to respond well to that, I’m incredibly grateful to have Michael—an artist who enjoys mentoring and who is also prominent in their own right—actually take interest in my work and want to help me not only with finding my voice but also the business side of the art world. I could spend a lot of time flailing about but Michael has helped me find the proper channels and avenues. Again, I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.
Keith VanWinkle, Untitled, Canvas, burlap, plaster and paint, Panel dimensions are 18″ x 18″, 2014
Michael: Oh, you are welcome. On mentoring, I’ve tried to mentor others before who I thought had talent but some of these people were not capable of listening or even taking suggestions. At some point I’ve had to cut myself loose from these people. They were unable to engage—so detached. They couldn’t even come up with dialogue to challenge what I had to say. Keith is open to what I have to say and that’s all I ask. He of course has his own views. I don’t mind being challenged on what I think or say if it comes from some base of knowledge and intelligence as opposed to saying, “oh that sucks” or “oh, that’s going to be too hard.”
Neil: That brings up an interesting kind of age old dialogue about the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. As an artist ages you have a world of experience that’s different than when you were starting out. For a young artist who is maturing, emerging and finding their own aesthetic identity but also their identity in terms of the overall type of artist they want to be, their very persona becomes—embodies the artistic spirit—that dialogue. One of the really interesting discussions that happens between artists of different generations is the idea anticipation. Very few artists have the stellar opportunity of having a trajectory that doesn’t include any bumps, even the best, and for a younger artist when that first happens they often get discouraged and often quit. They don’t know what to expect, their hugely disappointed and they become angry. I think one of the benefits, in my experiences, is that dialogue is a certain kind of resilience that’s pasted on from one artist to the next.
Michael: You better have that resilience. There are years that I’ve gone through that are really good and there’s other years that I thought the world was ignoring me. Also, the struggle with the work … I’ve gone through hot streaks where I can’t miss and other times where I’ve gone six to eight months where I couldn’t figure out anything—I was lost. What I did was modify my practices as far as making art, to try to be working on multiple series at a time, so once I got those series up and running, if one started to fall short, or I got stuck, I could move to another series. As opposed to when I first started working, I would work on one series at a time and I would get to the point that I was stuck or the series ended and I had nothing else (another series) to go to. Having multiple series going on at the same time makes me more productive and improves the quality of the work.
Neil: ( To Michael) Why do you like Keith’s work?
Michael: I like that the work has been essentialized, it’s not a lot of flim-flam stuff … it’s not a lot of unnecessary flopping around. He’s narrowing in on the essence of what he wants. I’ve always liked that. I’ve always been influenced by somebody like Constantin Brancusi, who I think is one of the greatest artist who’s ever lived. I like his pairing down of things. I like the fact that he isn’t looking at Art Forum to see what he should be doing. It’s his own personal vision and he’s not referring to something like Art Forum and asking, “what should I be doing, what’s hot at the moment, what’s hot in the last fifteen minutes.” I don’t see that in his work and I have respect for that. I also like that he uses some historically ancient techniques that he incorporates into his process. That shows me that he’s interested in art history which can be a great benefit to his work.
Michael Hopkins, Torso, Coated metal wire, 11.75″ x 10.25″ x 11″, 2015
Neil: When I look at the both of your work, one thing that strikes me is that you both have a certain economy, economy of line; economy of form, well the great line from Brancusi is “simplicity is complexity resolved.” I see that kind of fabric between the two of you. I definitely see a shared sensibility. Michael, when I look at your work too, it brings me back to some of the Abstract Expressionist—Robert Motherwell and some of the Phillip Guston line drawings that he did towards the end of his life. Also there is a very strong calligraphic sensibility.
Neil: Chinese, or a strong link between kind of an unspoken history of the economy of space.
Michael: Absolutely. I have been strongly influenced by Asian calligraphy. Since my early days out of college, I’ve always loved the economy of line … the character of the line. I like the fact that in that category there are very few lines. Those lines have a character to the mark—they’re not sterile—and once you get to that area where you are using very few elements it’s easy to become sterile. Where you pair it down too much, you go too far. When I look at Oriental calligraphy, I have never seen it miss … it’s amazing. What I love about it too is that it shows the evidence of the hand and I find that extremely interesting.
Neil: That’s an interesting point. With Keith’s work there is a certain kind of convenient inconvenience. He’ll ask something to do, something that it doesn’t want to be but the end result is something that it should be. There are some artists that I know that are terrific practitioners, terrific craftsman … they’ve got everything going for them but their essential sense of rightness never seems to quite coalesce in their work. I often see some klutziness … there’s something that undermines it. With Keith’s work, he has an extraordinarily good sense of refinement and taste which inevitably brings you, allows you, to look at the work and enjoy the imagery rather than become kind of befuddled by the the air of it. Both of you tend to have that. I think that both of you are aligned with a certain kind of harmonic beauty in the work, unconventional but still within those traditions. Keith, I’ve looked at your work for a long time in different ways and I’ve seen you kind of move from let’s say beginning abstraction and I realize that as I’ve watched you work that you spend a lot of time thinking and reading and looking. Tell me a couple of pivotal artists that might of changed your thinking once you saw their work?
Keith: Well actually this is probably another thing that I have in common with Michael but any time I’ve gone to The Art Institute of Chicago and look at the Brancusi, I can’t help to be inspired by those forms. Bird In Space comes to mind immediately, such a pleasing esthetic to the eye, the quality of the reduction. There’s been a distillation of the essential, there’s no additional information. There’s nothing fussy about those forms. I can only hope that what I do is really take the temporal that I sort of study or ruminate over and many times that’s thinking about the essence of the materials I’m working with. I’m always thinking about what materials I’m in. Thinking about how these materials can coalesce together. That’s what I’m really trying to do. Paring down the materials to their essential sand seeing if those materials will have a dialogue together.
Keith VanWinkle, Untitled, Concrete and archival paper, 4″ x 4″ x 20″, 2014
Neil: Michael, I’m going to ask you the same question. When you were a young artist who was the artist you most emulated?
Michael: When I was a young artist? This is tricky … I don’t like his work anymore … but when I was coming up there were a group of artists and then also an individual artist. The Harry Who people impressed me and I grew out of that very quickly and found that they didn’t impress me at all; they were kind of a noose around my neck. The other artist that influenced me at the beginning of my career was David Hockney. I was fortunate enough to briefly meet him—he wasn’t too crazy about meeting me! I loved Hockney’s drawings—his figures and pool drawings. What eventually happened with David Hockney is that he eventually kind of turned into the older version of Elvis where anything he produced was a Hockney so it was good apparently? So those two, The Harry Who and David Hockney were the first to influence me. As far as my influences concerning sculpture I would have to say Martin Puryear. I think he is an amazing sculptor. Wolfgang Laib … Arp … certain sculptures are fantastic. I think Arp is a kind of a hit or miss sculptor.
Neil: Yeah, I agree with that. Sometimes you see things that are really dreadful.
Neil: And also really amazing!
Michael: He has a group of works that is stunning and he has a group of work that you think, “did he have an off day.” Calder’s mobiles I think are fantastic though in his later years, making jewelry and rugs, he also turned into an older Elvis character. Claus Oldenburg’s soft sculptures have had a lot of influence on my current sculptures as far as being playful and humorous. Brancusi is however what I consider to be a true genius. His work has had a great influence on both my two dimensional and three dimensional work.
Keith: Also, we’ve had this discussion before. The term genius gets thrown around a lot but I think Richard Serra is quite inspiring to me as well. They are monumental in scale but for me, beyond the actual forms, it’s about the material and the material is very much what it is: CorTen steel—it’s beautiful. You can suspend or arrest that in various stages of patination or decay, so I’ m kind of a materialist. I appreciate the material he works in. Even though my work is really nothing like Serra’s, his forms are inspiring and his material is intoxicating.
Keith VanWinkle, Untitled, Shou Sugi Ban and Concrete, 42″ x 69″, 2014
Michael: I would like to talk a little bit more about the influence Oldenburg’s soft sculptures have had on my current sculptures. Reexamining his work gave me the idea of making work that could be humorous, playful and whimsical. The Donald Duck sculpture for example. I can’t stand Walt Disney but I was interested in the line work that composed Donald Duck’s eyes and bill. Oldenburg got me thinking about subject matter that I would have never used before.
Michael Hopkins, Donald Duck, Metal wire, 5.5″ x 4.5″ x 3″, 2015
Neil: As an artist you’ve watched the Chicago scene and you’ve been a member of it for many years. You’ve been involved with numerous galleries. How do you feel about being an artist now as opposed to when you started 30 or 35 years ago? What’s the difference for you?
Michael: I think we talked about it earlier, that the art world continues to be more closed off and for an artist like Keith who’s starting out, I definitely have sympathy towards what he’s going to have to face. When I first started out it was pretty much open. The first time I went and visited galleries I put work in a portfolio and walked in the door and said, “take a look”. Now if you did that today, you would either be arrested or laughed out of the gallery. I didn’t know any better at that time so galleries at that time were nice enough and said, “sure we will look at your work”, and I got into my first gallery that way. So one of the things I see is that more places are not willing to look at unsolicited proposals or work and I think that can be the death of a lot of places because then your collectors have seen the crop of artists that the gallery has and not a lot of new artist are coming in. Eventually the collector or collectors that visit said gallery have seen the stable of artists and may have purchased work form the gallery, but at some point, if the gallery does not bring in new artists, the collector or collectors go elsewhere and the gallery dies. I think that’s a big change from the past and I only think this is getting worse. The art world continues to get smaller and smaller. Some galleries today talk about “their mission statement,” and if your work fits with this so called mission statement. Mission statement? … I’m an artist. I’m not applying for a job at I.B.M.? When I first started out, Milwaukee was wide open to artists and the galleries in Milwaukee loved to look at new work. I got a gallery in Milwaukee very quickly and got my first major newspaper review then!. That whole town was open to looking at new things. The gallery opening nights were packed with people—wall to wall people—it was a great experience. But now you go to openings and the vast majority of the time the turnout is small at best.
Neil: Is that discouraging to you as you get older?
Michael: It is. I don’t understand how a junior college could be approached for an exhibition … somebody approaches a junior college for a show and that junior college says “oh, we don’t look at exhibition proposals.” Really? There are some colleges and junior colleges that don’t look at exhibition proposals. I thought education was about expanding horizons as opposed to becoming a closed system. I still think galleries are cutting off their noses to spite their faces when they don’t look at unsolicited proposals. You go back in art history and look at certain galleries and how they came to light … they constantly looked at new work. The art world gets tighter and tighter, it needs to expand. I’m glad I came up during the time I did because artists like Keith are going to have a much more difficult road to hoe.
Neil: If you had one word of advice to Keith … going back to the beginning of this conversation as mentor.
Michael: Just one word?
Neil: Well, one thing you would like to impart to him as a mentor, what would that be?
Michael: I’ll say two words: never stop. Be relentless. When I came, nobody mentored me at all. I basically just threw myself out there and I learned the hard way. The way to beat the system (as I see all systems can be broken down) is to out work the system. You’re going to be rejected and you’re going to be turned down. I’ve experienced both. You’ve (Neil) experienced that! All artists experience rejection but there will be those times when great things happen and you say to yourself, “holy shit, I got in … I got accepted! So it’s being relentless, being tenacious. It’s simply: never stop, and that’s how I did it. I’ll give you an example. Early on in my career I got turned down 24 straight times in a row and I thought, hhmmmm, this isn’t going well and the only answer to problem of course was try the 25th time … and it worked! When I look back it was nothing more than just a bad stretch. You (Neil) go through stretches where people aren’t all that interested. They don’t all get together and say were not interested in his work, it’s just that you hit a bad streak. I’ve also gone through streaks where I was hot and thought, “wow, what did I do differently”. It all basically comes downs to randomness. The way to work through that randomness is never stop.
Michael Hopkins, Water, Metal wire, 1.375″ x 6″ x 2.75″, 2015
Michael Hopkins makes drawings, paintings and sculptures. He has work in numerous museum collections including the Art Institute of Chicago. He has work in numerous corporate art collections including The Progressive Collection and The Wellcome Trust Collection in London, England. He is a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant recipient. www.michaelhopkinsdrawings.com
Keith VanWinkle is a mixed media artist, with a concentration in sculpture and painting. He has a sculpture archived in the permanent collection of Indiana University and studied under prominent artists Neil Goodman and David Klamen while at Indiana University. Keith, as of 2015, has started working in conjunction with notable Chicago artist Michael Hopkins. He also has a forthcoming solo exhibition at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, scheduled to open in January of 2016.
Neil Goodman received his MFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1979. Since than, Goodman’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and he has had numerous one person exhibitions throughout the country. Goodman’s sculpture was included in the·1995 Museum of Contemporary Art’s opening exhibition entitled the “History of Chicago Art 1945-1995. His work has been written about and reviewed in numerous catalogs and periodical’s including “Art Forum, ” “Art in America,” Art News,” and “Sculpture Magazine”. He is currently Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University Northwest.