Looking back into the future: artist Andy Hope’s twisted optimism.
“THINGS HAVEN’T BEEN NORMAL,” San Francisco artist Andy Diaz Hope said recently, with a touch of irony and a trace of German accent from his immigrant family. He and his wife and fellow-artist Laurel Roth Hope, a former park ranger, were anticipating a baby, but he might just as well have been referring to the state of the world, a principal theme of his conceptual works made of wood, mirrors and other materials.
Hope started off in Silicon Valley, after studying engineering and design at Stanford, as a product designer at Apple and Microsoft. Then he worked as a technology consultant and amateur furniture maker in San Francisco.
“I was trying to design furniture for myself,” he says, and it became a creative outlet during the mid-’90s. “But I realized that my designs were becoming more conceptual and less practical. They were a critique on the way we live in the world.”
Making artful objects inspired by topics that mattered to him wasn’t a big leap. Hope grew up in the Bay Area in a multigenerational household where his grandmother was a chemist, his grandfather was a physicist and his mother, a math and art major, was a painter. “Science, engineering and design are linked. Art is not far behind,” he says.
Presciently anticipating higher rents and hard times for working artists in the city, the Hopes and another couple bought three Mission District Edwardian flats with a carriage house in 1998, and that is still where they all live and work.
For a while that work involved transforming scraps from furniture projects in Hope’s studio into art installations. Then, in 2001, while still an engineer at a tech company in San Francisco, he created the Futurator, an interactive device made from an old refrigerator reconfigured with custom software connected to video and audio equipment that could “speak.” It encouraged people to imagine, with the help of toys and props contained in the refrigerator, future technologies that might help or hinder their lives.
Using the props, “people composed stories — like in sandbox play therapy — and the Futurator recorded them. It was a mixture of analog and digital technologies,” Hope says.
On a linked monitor, “you could see videos of the stories people composed. You could also see a randomly generated loop of stories others created as well.”
The idea won artistic awards and opened the door to a career in art.
Now he explores topics such as politics, terrorism, health care and mortality. “Little things,” Hope says with a laugh. “I try to offer a counterpoint to mainstream media that often gets it wrong.” For instance, “in 1990 when I traveled from Pakistan to China before the first Gulf War, I was in tribal regions at the border of Afghanistan and met many nice, hospitable people who were uniformly vilified in the press when George Bush was ready to start a war. That was wrong.”
Perhaps among his most viewed and intriguing works are three cotton tapestries Hope created with his wife. With the help of Oakland’s Magnolia Tapestry Project, their drawings and paintings, converted into large image files, were fashioned into tapestries on computer-controlled jacquard looms in Belgium.
“Early versions of these looms used punch cards, which in their day were the first computerized machines,” Hope says. “However, although our designs were digitized, some of the same old weaving constraints applied. We had a limited 256-color range that had to be created by knots and not by digital printing.”
The first tapestry, Allegory of the Monoceros, was the centerpiece of their 2008 multimedia installation at New York’s Schroeder Romero Gallery called Future Darwinist — which scientists of the future might do well to examine for evolutionary evidence. It inspired a triptych that now includes Allegory of The Infinite Mortal, as well as Allegory of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, created in 2012 during a fellowship in San Francisco at the de Young.
The tapestries aim to make clear — even if history books do not — that human actions degrade the environment. “We want future generations to connect the dots,” Hope says. “Darwin’s theory of natural selection is being replaced by a new concept: human intervention that impacts the governing principles of evolution.”
Confronted by the Hopes’ references to genetics, the loss of biodiversity and the creation of monocultures, “viewers can reach their own conclusions,” Hope says.
For instance, inspiration for Allegory of the Monoceros came from the famed 15th-century Unicorn Tapestries at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that helped to decode symbols embedded in medieval art. Monoceros depicts a garden filled with medicinal botanicals, including opium poppy and a few others with potential for harm. “We wanted our tapestry to reveal subtexts of our current times,” Hope explains.
The tapestry’s central motif — a “tree of life” whose branches imitate Darwin’s first sketch of evolutionary paths — also contains Eden’s proverbial snake. But the snake is two-headed, like the medical industry’s intertwined helical symbol that, ironically, “is derived from the staff of the Greek god Hermes, who protected both merchants and thieves,” Hope says.
Endangered species such as the golden toad and honeybees circle genetically engineered corn, and Dolly the sheep and her clone from the 1990s also appear, suggesting a new and perhaps pernicious era of science.
The second tapestry, Allegory of the Infinite Mortal, highlights controversial scientific and religious ideas through the ages, symbolized by a “fountain of youth” spouting LSD, shamanistic animals and Asian demonic avatars as well as images from the Hubble telescope. Simultaneously it honors those who have advanced our knowledge of time and space, including Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, who inspired modern computing, and Brahmagupta, the 17th-century Indian mathematician/ astronomer credited with the concept of zero and negative numbers.
The final tapestry, Allegory of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, features a tower composed of monuments such as ancient pyramids, Roman aqueducts, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Chrysler building — edifices that celebrate human optimism and cooperation. But the artists also slyly include the Tower of Babel as a symbol of hubris.
More than a decade ago, New York’s Lyonswier Gallery displayed Hope’s first solo show. Since 2007, his sometimes interactive but always elaborately crafted, kinetic and digitally inspired art has been represented by San Francisco’s Catharine Clark Gallery. This past spring that gallery hosted a re-installation of The Woulds, which the Hopes co-created in 2017 for Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It’s an immersive forest-like environment of wood and mirror sculptures enhanced with ceramic birds, recorded birdsongs and changing light effects to meld fantasy and reality.
“In a way, all my works are ‘centering’ devices,” Hope says. “They invite contemplation about the driving philosophies of our time: spirituality, science and the disruptive changes brought about by the internet.”
Photographs courtesy of the artist and the Catharine Clark Gallery.