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Monday, Aug. 28, 2017

A Richly Realized Portrait of the Artist

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Talbot Hopkins reveals “The Essence of Things”

The object is simple: A small vase, wider at the bottom and vertical ribs. It is situated at the edge of a smooth, wood surface and set against a muted background. But description alone doesn’t convey the experience of seeing this image by Talbot Hopkins – the elegance of its geometry, the graceful convergence of its colors, the interplay of light and shadow.

This painting is “Portugal,” and it is part of a flat-out beautiful exhibition at artspace in downtown Shreveport, entitled “The Essence of Things.” The show is a moving demonstration of the power of realism in painting. It is also a demonstration of the power of painting in general.

Though it has not been a dominant style since the rise of modernism in the late 19th century, realist painting has remained vital in the 20th century and beyond, with the likes of Giorgio Morandi, Edward Hopper and Lucien Freud. The title of the show itself is a phrase from Morandi, which speaks to his belief that the concentration on everyday forms could yield images that capture of the magic of perception. His certainly did.

This same kind of magic manifests itself in Hopkins’ paintings of isolated objects and her still-lifes, like “Portugal.” “Catawba” offers it, too, with its concentration on the complex form and texture of a leaf. If there is a lusher and lovelier green than the one in this painting, I haven’t seen it.

Many of Hopkins’ oil paintings in the exhibition were made in the last decade. But the show also doubles as a retrospective, with its inclusion of handsome studies of the nude, reaching back to 1982, and the generous number of portraits from threeplus decades.

Some were commissioned, and some chronicle her family. In all of them, Hopkins combines exacting draftsmanship and a keen ability to coax us into connecting with the subject of a given portrait.

Like other gifted painters, she manages to make us care about people we know only through her likenesses of them. The very young “Hannah Love,” rendered in watercolor in 2003, isn’t looking our way, but her expression is still captivating, her look thoughtful. Hopkins clearly views children as full-fledged individuals, even if they are also emblems of sweetness and innocence. Love’s pale dress almost dissolves into its background, but her face is vivid. In “Jett at Eight Years,” the artist’s son wears an expression of delight. The rendering of him, in grey, black and white, is realistic and then some, its hyperclarity almost surreal. Lucien Freud spoke of aspiring to “an intensification of reality” in his portraits, and this same quality pervades Hopkins’ several interpretations of Jett. He is the most frequent subject of her portraits, from early childhood to his current college years.

Hopkins’ exhibition is the fifth in the series of solo exhibitions that are part of the Critical Mass project. Each year an art critic has chosen one artist from a large group exhibition, and my choice of Hopkins was based on a magnetic self-portrait in oils, “In and Out of the Fire” – also included in this show. Self-portraiture is a significant aspect of this exhibition and her work in its entirety. In these studies of herself, she achieves an admirable balance between self-revelation, self-scrutiny and self-concealment. Emblematic of this is the version of her face in “In and Out of the Fire”: partially lit and partially in shadow.

She called one of her self-portraits, done at 48, a reckoning. An exhibition like this is itself a kind of reckoning, a composite picture of an artist’s evolution. “The Essence of Things” presents a portrait of this artist at a moment of significant creativity, the new paintings suggesting an expansion and enrichment of her vision of painting.

What is on view makes me eager to see what comes next. It is a testament to her continuing vibrancy as an artist.

Robert L. Pincus served as the art critic of The San Diego Union and The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, beginning in 1985. Prior to that he spent four years as art critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has a combined doctorate in English and art history from the University of Southern California and is the author of “On a Scale That Competes with the World,” a book on the work of artists Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.


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