View of “Richard Hughes,” 2012.

View of “Richard Hughes,” 2012.

Richard Hughes

View of “Richard Hughes,” 2012.

Over two walls of the expansive gallery housing Richard Hughes’s largest exhibition to date, “Where It All Happened Once,” a network of rusting pipes spelled out the word NOWHERE. Titled Sleeping Rust, 2012, this piece suggested a regional hinterland—forgotten and neglected—as the context for the other works in the show (several new, with others made over the past six years). But then again, it could be read as “now here” as easily as “nowhere,” this shifting meaning a subtle reminder that the exhibition might resist an easy or singular interpretation.

Beneath this mysterious sign, the gallery was transformed into a stagelike set, in which the viewer became a player in Hughes’s narrative, among an array of burned and soggy objects—broken lampposts, a worn-out sleeping bag, corrugated cardboard. Yet all of these items possess subtle and comic attributes, visible only if you know where to look: Several are rife with magic mushrooms, which sprout, for instance, from an old football (Football, 2010) and a long-discarded cushion (All That Grows Old, 2010). In if socks aren’t pulled up heads will roll, 2009, a deflated ball perched atop a lamppost, a face grimaces out of the ball’s leather folds. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Community fun day, 2012, one of the largest works Hughes has ever made, a full-scale replica of a run-down community center tipped on its side, around which other, smaller works are situated. The installation was an ambitious exercise in skewed realism, its interior equipped with an extraction fan and working lights, while the impossible angle at which it was balanced immediately signaled its imposter status. The community center’s association with delinquent youth lent Hughes’s older works new associations, suggesting those who would most likely be found interacting with the objects—and implying that the burned park bench in Wot we did on our holidays, 2010, or the glowing cigarette discarded in Afterburner, 2008, were the aftermath of recent actions. He provides a loose framework of association that returns the viewer to a recent but familiar past, finding magic in a British social landscape faltering in the grim wake of Thatcherism and the abandonment of common values. A sense of sincerity pervades his practice, underscored by his careful attention to detail in producing each individual piece, while the focal point of the community center suggests a return to a former haunt that is a nostalgic, perhaps even indulgent, exercise for him as it might be for his audience. While his works may not at first appear political, their nostalgia pointedly recalls a period of significant and controversial change.

Meticulous fabrication is not the only strategy Hughes uses to give his works a sense of value, however: Today and Forever, 2008, consists of abandoned bicycle parts gathered up, sprayed with gold paint, and strung up in the gallery on a chain. A similar gesture of ostentatious bling animates The magic of my youth, 2012, a limp sleeping bag filled with multicolored, geodelike resin “crystals.” With such works, Hughes conjures a sense of creative excess in the everyday, poking fun at any banal notion of the readymade.

Hughes reinvents the forgotten and discarded, catching us by surprise with his subtle sense of humor and skillfully realistic renderings. We find enchantment where we least expect it as he combines the identities of artist, prop designer, and storyteller. Ultimately, all of his works—though perhaps none more obviously than the painted bronze Spitballs, 2010, which spattered the gallery wall—offer us tools for mischievous rebellion.

Steven Cairns