New York

Violet Hopkins

A large watercolor and pencil depiction of a golden disc, covered with runic designs and floating against a depthless black background, greeted visitors upon their entrance to Violet Hopkins’s second solo exhibition at this gallery. The lines and symbols imprinted on the orb seem evidence of an animating intelligence, but their meaning is nearly impossible to intuit. The image depicts the instructions on the cover of the Golden Record, created in 1977 and sent on the Voyager space missions to communicate information about life on earth to any alien life forms that may encounter it. Around the room Hopkins installed smaller watercolors of what at first appear to be random images, but which one learns were encoded onto the Golden Record. Hopkins worked from online reproductions of slides of the photographs sent on the Voyager spacecraft and, as befits images sourced at third hand, they are rendered with imprecise, soft edges. Their subjects include people walking along the Great Wall of China; a man measuring an alligator’s tail; a group of dark-skinned and dark-haired girls; the intricate spirals of a conch shell; and a Romantic explorer standing alone atop a thin rock column in the mountains. There is also an image of a naked man and pregnant woman, the original of which was considered for inclusion on the discs but was ultimately rejected as too controversial.

The Golden Record clearly offers prime material for artists interested in critically interrogating past cultural assumptions. Meant to be an objective and varied chronicle of our planet, after little more than two decades the document reveals innumerable biases and blind spots. Its idiosyncratic and now dated-looking conception of human achievement and diversity is emphasized by the artworks’ titles, which Hopkins culled from Murmurs of Earth (1978), a book written by Carl Sagan and other scientists responsible for the project. They point to the images’ unspoken subtexts: “We hope this will indicate our curiosity about natural worlds”, “More hands and faces from a different gene pool and culture“, and “Reluctance of a government agency to swim in the murky waters of human sexuality” (all works 2009) are three examples. When we read such phrases today, they seem to contain within them their own critique.

The impossibility of neutrality is further suggested by the inclusion of numbers in the bottom right corner of two compositions. A pair of monoprints in the rear gallery, which depict what look like contact sheets of the numbered Golden Record photographs, remind viewers that the images have been selected by the artist and, by extension, that despite Hopkins’s critical vantage point, she is hardly objective herself. This is also acknowledged in the sole artwork in this exhibition not based on the Golden Record photographs, which directly addresses the subjectivity of vision. Drawing (Conclusions) with Light is around the same size as the picture of the Golden Record itself, and was hung in the opposite corner of the gallery’s main room. It depicts, at very close range, an eye reflecting a solar eclipse—a blunt metaphor for the narrow, limited nature of perception, and the lack of self-knowledge that inevitably accompanies our wish to understand the mysteries of the universe. The Golden Record, too, both copies of which are now traveling beyond the boundary of our solar system, is more representative of us in its limitations than in the knowledge of us it conveys.

Brian Sholis