PRINT January 2005

Richard Hughes

Clichés make good art. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure“ is a perfect case in point. As any MFA student knows, sifting through the forgotten byproducts of urban life can provide a gold mine of unusual materials—but Dumpster diving alone does not an art practice make. From early Dada assemblage to David Hammons's masterfully simple recuperation of things found on the street, very few artists have successfully (and selectively) incorporated “garbage” into their work.

Richard Hughes is one such artist. Born in Birmingham, England, in 1974 and recently graduated from Goldsmiths College in London, Hughes has already produced a constellation of sculptural works that convincingly appropriate cast-off goods such as bicycle tires, dirty mattresses, torn posters, and plastic bottles (he either deploys found objects or skillfully recasts simulacra of the originals).

Hughes grew up in Britain at a moment when municipal planning was transforming many cities into sprawling urban wastelands, and his material preoccupations directly reference the youth subcultures that were nurtured in those environments. Take for example a work entitled Stuntnutter, 2003—an ephemeral public sculpture composed of three BMX bicycle tires, recast and poetically interlaced, initially exhibited on a desolate, roadside stretch of grass. Hughes not only makes a clear if melancholic nod to the BMX bike and skateboard gangs of his youth, but also underscores the class conditions and spatial context that gave rise to such collective experiences. Echoing the way in which teenagers appropriate the “nonspaces” of cities (roadsides, empty malls, housing-project stairwells), Hughes’s display strategies reinforce his interest in uncovering the highly charged meanings of discarded objects and marginalized places.

Even within the sterile confines of the white cube, Hughes is able to convey his blackly humorous engagement with uninviting ambiences and scavenged materials. What initially appeared to be a pile of plastic trash bags full of clothes (awaiting donation to the Salvation Army) propped unassumingly against a wall at Roma Roma Roma (during his Italian solo debut in 2003) was, in fact, a playful, trompe l’oeil sculpture entitled Dad’s Bag of Rags, 2003. Hughes carefully arranged several brightly colored T-shirts inside the one clear plastic bag to create an iconic image of a face—the source for the image is taken from the cover of the psychedelic rock group Love’s 1967 album, Forever Changes. Using a similar trompe l’oeil technique for an installation entitled Crash My Party You Bastards, 2004, Hughes created out of everyday scraps a three-dimensional version of Salvador Dalí’s 1935 painting Face of Mae West. In both of these works, Hughes merges low-budget illusion with pop-y/cult-y allusion. This powerful, somewhat startling combination conjures an entire constellation of interests, behaviors, postures, and attributes—the devotion to pop heroes and cult bands, the rebellious aura of subcultures—typically abandoned at the end of adolescence.

In what is, perhaps, his most spectacular work to date, Hughes shifts gears away from youth culture to a seemingly more generic subject. Slouching Back, 2004, is a sculptural depiction of a sunset, which Hughes exhibited this past autumn at The Showroom in London. Each distinct element of this landscape is rendered from found objects and then carefully placed in the gallery. What at first appears to be nothing more than a dissonant collection of junky material ultimately coalesces into an image on the viewer’s retina. A misty “mountain top” landscape was suggested by a heap of down comforters in one corner; a stunning backdrop made from torn posters pasted to the wall mimics the gradation of colors in a late evening sky; the “sun” is nothing more than a light bulb hidden behind two hexagonal pieces of Plexiglas—aping the lens-flare effect that occurs in most photographs of sunsets. More than just a cheeky simulation of nature, Slouching Back balances Hughes’s formal originality with deliberate art-historical allusions (e.g., Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures; the affiches lacerées of Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé, and Mimmo Rotella). As with his more specifically subculture-inspired works, Hughes is able to recuperate even the most hackneyed of subjects (and materials)—like a beautiful sunset—and infuse them with new life. Hughes (and the web of concerns he evokes) commands more than just a casual glance.

Alison M. Gingeras is an independent curator living in Paris and New York.