|2000-2001||MA Fine Art||City and Guilds of London Art School, London|
|1975-1978||BA (Hons) Fine Art||Chelsea School of Art, London|
|ONE PERSON EXHIBITIONS|
|2020||Autorretrato: The Female Gaze||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2018||Autorretrato||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2016||The Death of the Artist||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2014||Nachrufe / Obituaries||BRAUBACHfive, Frankfurt|
|2014||Obituaries & Other Works||High House Gallery, Oxford|
|2013||D.OA. the Good, the Bad and the Beautiful||Gusford, Los Angeles|
|2012||Obituaries||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2011||9/10/11||KENNY SCHACHTER / ROVE, London|
|2009||An Existential Itch 2001-2008||BRAUBACHfive, Frankfurt|
|2009||An Existential Itch 2001-2008||Loading Bay Gallery, London|
|2008||An Existential Itch 2001-2008||Fishmarket Gallery, Northampton|
|2007||Death from Above||Sartorial Contemporary Art, London|
|SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS|
|2019||10 Years||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2019||Summer Exhibition||Royal Academy, London|
|2019||Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Award||Piano Nobile Gallery, London|
|2019||The Rules of Freedom||Colyer Bristow Gallery, London|
|2017||In Memoriam Francesca Lowe||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2017||Remains (two-person collaboration with Alistair Gordon)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2017||Part I: Street Semiotics (curated by Zavier Ellis)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2015||Black Paintings (curated by Zavier Ellis)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2015||Doppelganger||No Format Gallery, London|
|2014||The Great War||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2013||War||Jacob’s Island, London|
|2013||Six Degrees of Separation||Wimbledon Art Space, London|
|2012||The End||Jacob’s Island, London|
|2012||The Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2012||The Serpent’s Tail||Witzenhausen Gallery, Amsterdam|
|2012||Polemically Small (curated by Zavier Ellis & Edward Lucie-Smith)||Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham|
|2012||The Id, the Ego and the Superego (curated by Zavier Ellis & Marcela Munteanu)||BRAUBACHfive, Frankfurt|
|2011||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT presents: Polemically Small (curated by||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|Zavier Ellis, Edward Lucie-Smith, Max Presneill & Simon Rumley)|
|2011||The Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2011||Polemically Small (curated by Edward Lucie-Smith)||Klaipeda Culture Centre, Klaipeda|
|2011||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT presents: Polemically Small (curated by Zavier Ellis, Edward Lucie-Smith, Max Presneill & Simon Rumley)||Torrance Art Museum, Torrance|
|2011||The Possessed (curated by John Stark)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2010||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Shoreditch Town Hall, London|
|2010||Press Art||Museum der Moderne, Salzburg|
|2010||Papyrophilia||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2009||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2009||New London School (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Gallerie Schuster, Berlin|
|2008||New London School (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Mark Moore Gallery, Los Angeles|
|2007||Still Life, Still||T1+2 Gallery, London|
|2006||New London Kicks||Wooster Projects, New York|
|2005||Fuckin’ Brilliant||Tokyo Wonder Site, Tokyo|
|2005||Art News||Raid Projects, Los Angeles|
|2005||Art News||Three Colts Gallery, London|
|2005||USUK||Lab Gallery, New York|
|2005||Green Door||Sartorial Art, London|
|2004||Forest||Rockwell Gallery, London|
|2003||Chockafukingblocked||Jeffery Charles Gallery, London|
|2002||Yesteryearnowadays||Hales Gallery, London|
|AWARDS & RESIDENCIES|
|2003||Fresh Art ‘Artist of the Year’|
|2011||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Exhibition Catalogue|
|2008||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Exhibition Catalogue|
|2008||An Existential Itch, Craig Burnett||Fishmarket Publications (ISBN 978-0-9555 706)|
|Wendy Asher, Los Angeles|
|Jerry Hall, London|
|Mauritz Huntzinger, Frankfurt|
|Angela Nikolakopoulou, London|
|Peter Nobel, Zurich|
|Kelsey Offield Ford, Los Angeles|
|Kenny Schachter, London|
|Steve Shane, New York|
|Bill Wyman, London|
|Wooster Projects, New York|
|Private collections in China, Germany, United Kingdom & United States|
Press Release | Autorretrato: The Female Gaze | 2020
|Autorretrato: The Female Gaze|
|PRIVATE VIEW Thursday 13 February 6:30-8:30pm|
|EXHIBITION DATES Friday 14 February – Saturday 14 March 2020|
|GALLERY HOURS Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm or by appointment|
|‘Taking obituaries out of context is a very important aspect of my practice. Fundamental. I hope to engage the viewer in an entirely different way. Painting is a very slow process.’|
CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Hugh Mendes in his first solo since his sell-out 2018 exhibition ‘Autorretrato’. In response to that exhibition, where he made a series of obituary paintings based almost entirely on self-portraits of male artists, Mendes switches focus here. Having emphasised the inherited bias of a male dominated history of western art, Mendes continues by affirming the breadth and power of women artists from the 16th to 20th centuries who are influential and inspirational to him.
Mendes began making still life paintings of newspaper articles in 2001. As his practice has evolved his intentions have become gradually more specific, progressing from painting mostly political articles to obituaries of those of interest generally, to obituaries of artists and then those derived solely from self-portraits. Mendes also began to revert from the present exclusively to historical figures. And always, throughout his career, he has steadfastly painted subjects of profound personal interest.
Mendes goes to great lengths to understand his subjects. As an experienced artist and BA / MA tutor at City & Guilds of London Art School, he is most often familiar with their life and work. However, Mendes embarks on deep research by reading; watching videos; listening to interviews where possible; and most importantly going to visit the original work. He seeks to bring the persona of the artist into his studio; and almost inhabit their work, entering into a profound dialogue with his subjects. The result is slow painting that represents an intriguing synthesis of the style of Mendes; his subjects; and the mechanical reproductive processes that occur in between.
Please contact gallery for images and further information
Text | Edward Lucie-Smith | 2020
|Autorretrato – Part 2|
|In my text for the previous version of this exhibition of work by Hugh Mendes, which consisted almost entirely of recapitulations of self-portraits made by male artists, I noted that it was “paradoxical that an artist should now choose to repeat, as exactly as he can, these originally self-generated likenesses”. I also noted that “in part this belongs to a recently established tendency in the visual arts, where ‘appropriations’ - more or less exact copies of pre-existing images - are put forward as embodiments of contemporary originality”.|
The paradoxes accumulate here, in a new series devoted to self-portraits by women. A major paradox, of course, is that all these borrowed images have been made by a man. Or, to be exact, almost all. The image of Rrose Sélavy is of course a portrait of himself in drag by Marcel Duchamp, indubitably male. The image of Georgia O’Keeffe is not direct appropriation from one of O’Keeffe’s self-portraits, but is instead, as research on the web discloses, based on a likeness in the style of O’Keeffe made by a male artist called Jacques Moitoret. The image offers a few tweaks, which distinguish it from O’Keeffe’s own self-likenesses.
What strikes one about these images of women, originally created by themselves and now skilfully appropriated here, is that they seem much more polemical than their male equivalents. They all have something to say about the female condition, in terms of the time when the image was made.
To choose just a few examples, starting with two of the earliest - Artemisia Gentileschi (soon to be the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery), and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun - one notes what they had to say about the situation of the female artist when women as professional participants in the art world were rare. Gentileschi uses herself as the model for a saint, complete with halo and martyr’s palm. There is a sidelong reference here to the fact that female models, in the studios of early Baroque Italian art were, more often than not, women of easy virtue. In contrast to this, the portraitist Vigée Le Brun working at a somewhat later epoch, presents herself as a woman of fashion, fully the equal of the sitters who came to her. Closely associated with Marie Antoinette in the years just before the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun prudently exiled herself from France in October 1789 and spent the following twelve years living and working in Italy, Austria, Russia and Germany. In these locations she made likenesses of many royal and aristocratic clients, chiefly women. In her elegant self-portrait, made as testimony to her own skill, she portrayed herself as fully the equal in social rank to the members of this exalted clientele.
The bulk of the images in the show offer likenesses of Modern and contemporary women artists. One of the earlier examples in this category is the portrait of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who painted a large number of self-portraits (they form the majority of her output). They often, as here, show her in some form of generic Mexican costume, to emphasise her immersion in indigenous Mexican culture, as opposed to what might be offered by the European and North American art of the same period. Kahlo has had a remarkable posthumous career. Patronisingly referred to as “dear little Frida” by her husband Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, she has now probably outstripped him in worldwide renown, and has become the best-known of all the Mexican artists of her time.
Kahlo is the only Latin American artist included. Many of the others are British or from the United States. This is reasonable, both in terms of the fact that the show is being presented here in London, and of the fact that North American female artists have been, in recent years, leaders in the struggle for full recognition of women’s creativity in the visual arts. To a certain degree, artists in this category have tended to oscillate between the wish to produce a likeness and the (often contrary) wish to make something that seems radically new. The early self-portrait of the radical American abstractionist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) seems to have little to do with the kind of art she produced through most of the years of her career.
Similarly, the brutal self-image by Eva Hesse (1936-1970) has not much to do with the Post Minimalist style with which she is usually associated. The Wikipedia article on Hesse tells one that: “Hesse’s work often shows minimal physical manipulation of a material while simultaneously completely transforming the meaning it conveys”. There is no trace of such a process in the self-portrait by her repeated in this exhibition.
Paradoxically, however, more and more self-images are now being produced by the leading artists of our time, male as well as female. The hunt for the self has never been more voracious.
Text | Sue Hubbard | 2020
|The Inverted Gaze|
|“For in its afterlife...the original undergoes a change” - Walter Benjamin|
In 1972 John Berger suggested that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”. The male gaze, he argued in Ways of Seeing, for centuries defined the way we looked at the female subject. That subject, in turn, aware that she was being looked at, stared out from the picture space – whether in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque or a porno pinup - with an expression calculated to titillate the male viewer. In both post-Renaissance European painting and contemporary girly magazines a woman, Berger suggested, “has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life”. Yet all images, he implied, are ambiguous because there are always alternative narratives, alternative stories. Other ways of seeing. Past and present coalesce in a turbulence of contradiction.
Imagine two mirrors facing each other. You stand in the middle and your image multiplies, becoming more and more distant from your original self. Each reflection is watched by those in the other mirrors, becoming further removed. Meaning is distorted, modified and gradually changed. As Walter Benjamin argued, in an age of pictorial reproduction, the initial reading of a painting or object is altered by the making of copies. It is within this prism of reflected meanings that Hugh Mendes has created his series of female self-portraits in the form of obituaries. These follow on from his recent show where the subjects were almost all men. After the death of his father Mendes went back to art school to do an MA. He had been painting newspaper-based images since he graduated in 2001. The first was an iconic photograph of Princess Margaret by her, then, husband, Lord Snowden. Around this time, he also began to notice the often unconventional images used by The Independent newspaper in their obituaries. Until this point he had been painting still lives. Now he was to move from natures mortes to painting death notices.
Pre-photography the only way for an artist to record their presence was through the self-portrait. For a female artist to paint herself, rather than be the subject of a male painter, was to take agency over the way she presented herself to the world. Within art history it has all too often been stated that there were few women artists of real talent. Yet the structural sexism of art schools and academia actively contributed to the perpetuation of gender hierarchies. In this series Hugh Mendes not only acknowledges female artists of exceptional talent from Sofonisba Anguissola to Frida Kahlo but inverts the proprietorial ownership implicit in the male gaze into a complex conundrum. Here a contemporary male artist paints copies of historic female self-portraits taken from images reproduced in newspapers. In this hall of distorting mirrors, we are left with more questions than answers. Who is doing the looking? What is truth and what fiction? With whom does the narrative voice lie? If it is the case, as much feminist art history claims, that the male gaze bestowed on the female subject is a form of consumption and paternalism, how are we to read this intricate interplay, or understand gender and (re)production when the images being produced are self-portraits by female artists of the far and near past, used by a contemporary male artist?
In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin suggests that: “translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability…by virtue of its translatability the original is closely connected with the translation; in fact, this connection is all the closer since it is no longer of importance to the original”. It is this act of translation that lies at the heart of Hugh Mendes’ enterprise. As he stated when I visited him in his studio, “Art is an act of the imagination. What matters is to get into the headspace of my subjects.” In so doing he brings fresh expression to the way these images are read, and these women are reassessed in an era of the copy and social media.
He finds most of his images online, prints them out and makes a collage using the original newspaper typeface. The first were accurate transcriptions of the source image but, more recently, he has begun to make them up. All his subjects are of personal significance to him. He tries to give a strong sense of the person. He looks at their notebooks, watches videos, and attempts to create dialogues. The original newsprint obituaries are flimsy and ephemeral, but his careful, studious paintings become a form of reincarnation where the impermanent becomes permanent, the transitory ossifies into a lasting memento mori.
Hugh Mendes is a great craftsman and a teacher at the City & Guilds of London Art School. He knows about colour theory and how to draw. His academic prowess is visible throughout this project. It is not simply a question of making copies. These paintings are not taken from life but from a flat photo, already at one remove from the subject. He subtly alludes to and understands the different styles and techniques, how each artist used colour, while making the work recognisably his own.
Stand in front of these paintings and the subjects all make eye contact with the viewer, challenging assumptions about the self-portrait, the role of women in art and our understanding of the copy. In this hall of mirrors truth becomes multi-layered, a complex palimpsest of meanings where the ephemeral is rendered permanent. Through this transformative process of looking, these women artists are not only returned to themselves, but create a haunting discourse on gender, history and reproduction.
Press Release | 10 Years | 2019
|Dale Adcock, Emma Bennett, Kiera Bennett, Sara Berman, Jelena Bulajić, Tom Butler, Paul|
Chiappe, Adam Dix, Susannah Douglas, Tessa Farmer, Tom Gallant, Florian Heinke, Sam
Jackson, Simon Keenleyside, Thomas Langley, Wendy Mayer, Hugh Mendes, Sean Molloy,
Alex Gene Morrison, Tamsin Morse, Gavin Nolan, Dominic Shepherd, Carolein Smit, Barry
Thompson, Gavin Tremlett
|PRIVATE VIEW: Thursday 11 July 6.30-8.30pm|
|EXHIBITION DATES: Friday 12 July – Saturday 10 August 2019|
|GALLERY HOURS: Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm or by appointment|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to announce ’10 Years’, our anniversary exhibition produced to celebrate a full decade’s|
operations in Shoreditch.
During this time we have presented 88 exhibitions within the gallery, defining CHARLIE SMITH LONDON and gallery director
Zavier Ellis’ unique curatorial vision. The gallery has also established itself as a discovery zone by being the first to exhibit many
acclaimed young artists via its annual graduate exhibition Young Gods. Beyond the gallery walls, the gallery has participated in
over 30 art fairs in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, UK and USA. Zavier Ellis also launched the monumental annual
exhibition THE FUTURE CAN WAIT with Simon Rumley, a ten-year project that was presented in partnership with Saatchi’s New
Sensations for four years and culminated in helping organise the seminal fund-raising exhibition In Memoriam Francesca Lowe.
Ellis has also curated or co-curated gallery, museum and pop up exhibitions in Berlin, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Klaipėda, London, Los
Angeles, Naples and Rome. And, perhaps most notably, the gallery has placed millions of pounds worth of artwork into collections
globally, working with many of the most prominent international collectors, and enabling artists to continue to do what artists do
best: making work.
This exhibition consists of some (but by no means all) of Ellis’ favourite artists who have shown over the years at CHARLIE SMITH
LONDON; some whom he has been tracking and wanting to show; and gallery artists. We hope you can join us on July 11th to help
us celebrate 10 Years!
Please contact gallery for images and further information.
Press Release | Autorretrato | 2018
|EXHIBITION DATES Friday 14 September – Saturday 13 October 2018|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to announce Hugh Mendes’ third solo exhibition with the gallery.|
Mendes is recognised for finely rendered obituary paintings that operate simultaneously as portrait and still life. This obsessive
project, ongoing now for over ten years, evolved originally from making still life paintings of newspaper cuttings. Considering still
life’s metaphorical function within the history of Western art from 16th century Netherlandish painting onwards, adopting the
obituary as a singular subject enabled Mendes to embrace and affirm the inherent meaning of memento mori: remember death.
In this series Mendes continues from his 2016 exhibition ‘The Death of the Artist’, which represented a shift from painting various
notable figures whose life and work resonated with Mendes, to recently deceased artists only. Significantly, in this exhibition
Mendes turns backwards to paint heroic artists from throughout the centuries, all of whom have expressly impacted upon him and
his practice. And in using their own self-portraits as source material, Mendes has been able to engage profoundly with the artists’
“I used Lucian Freud’s self-portrait a few years ago, then continued to explore this theme with others, such as Francis Bacon and
Michael Andrews. This gave me a fascinating new perspective, as I was engaging with their psychology and how they saw
themselves. It also allowed me to engage with their idiosyncratic use of paint and perhaps consider a degree of existentialism.”
Indeed, this process has facilitated a meditation on and enabled a conversation with the titans of art history: Picasso, Matisse, van
Gogh, Cézanne, El Greco, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Goya all feature. During the making of each of these paintings, Mendes has
engaged profoundly with the personality of the artist, investing in and befriending them. He will talk with fondness of the
characteristics of every subject, as well as the challenge of integrating their techniques with his own. Each painting, therefore, is
activated differently, and represents an audacious synthesis of contemporary and historical painting.
Edward Lucie-Smith | Icons for and of the Self | 2018
|EXHIBITION DATES: Friday 14 September – Saturday 13 October 2018|
|In this fascinating series based on the self-portraits made by a number of extremely eminent artists from the past, Hugh Mendes offers an examination of what this form of activity has meant to the Western canon. |
Self-portraits are not common in non-Western artistic traditions. Here in the West, on the contrary, they have played an important role in defining the meaning and purpose of art. Certain major artists, among them both Rembrandt and Van Gogh, exist within the sphere of the popular imagination through the series of images they made of themselves. In no other sphere of creative activity has the direct, unflinching examination of the self played such a major part. Autobiographical texts play the same role in classic literature, but do not occupy nearly such a central place. Music is sometimes autobiographical by implication – when it does so, usually with the aid of words. It is hard to think of examples of architecture serving as a tool for self-examination.
It is therefore paradoxical that an artist should now choose to repeat, as exactly as he can, these originally self-generated likenesses. In part this belongs to a recently established tendency in the visual arts, where ‘appropriations’ – more or less exact copies of pre-existing images – are put forward as embodiments of contemporary originality.
Yet in this case there is something that goes much deeper. In making these paintings, Hugh Mendes also looks to another model – that is, he offers these versions as surrogates for the photographic portraits that often accompany obituaries in newspapers. An obituary of this sort, with its accompanying image, indicates that the person so commemorated has achieved a certain degree of importance within contemporary society.
That is, these are no longer simple acts of self-examination, obediently copied, but tributes to the enduring celebrity these often long-departed personalities have achieved, and to the way in which they now continue to resonate in the popular imagination after their demise. What they say is: ‘Yes, this person is still very much alive to us.’
One can also suggest a further dimension. Basically, what is offered here is a series of cultural icons. It is not going too far to say that they are the equivalents of the sacred images one might find in a church.
We live in a time when this hunger for and sense of the sacred have been displaced from the purely religious settings they once seemed to occupy. Rather than celebrating rituals in church, we now very often subscribe to a more general cult of ‘the creative’.
The growth of interest in self-portraiture, from the time of the Renaissance onwards, can be regarded as being part of this. Essentially, self-portraits offer not simply a likeness that external observers will recognise, but an invitation to penetrate the innermost recesses of creativity. Another paradox here: in doing so, the observer is often made aware of the huge gap that exists between the maker of the self-portrait and himself (or, as the case may be, herself). The self-portrait thus alienates at the same time as it penetrates. We can never be Rembrandt. We can never be Van Gogh. Nor would we, in all honesty, wish to be either.
Press Release | The Death of the Artist | 2016
|The Death of the Artist|
|EXHIBITION DATES Friday 14 October – Saturday 12 November 2016|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Hugh Mendes’ second solo exhibition at the gallery.|
Mendes is well recognised for his ongoing, obsessional series of obituary paintings. In this exhibition he presents a collection of intimate oil paintings of dead artists. Operating simultaneously as portraits and still life paintings, these works are contemporary memento mori, serving as reminders of our mortality to both artist and audience. Being obituaries of deceased artists only, this is Mendes’ most personal exhibition to date. They are wistful, ritualistic memorials to artists that Mendes has known and / or admired, including Anthony Caro, Lucian Freud, Chris Burden and Robert Rauschenberg.
Beyond a rendition of a given subject, Mendes’ practice is an investigation into the process of image making, exploring both historical and modern strategies. Walter Benjamin states in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.”
Mendes engages with 16th century Dutch still life painting; portrait painting from Vermeer to Gerhard Richter; Andy Warhol’s disaster and headline series; historical and contemporary photography; and mass reproduction in the form of newspaper and digital media. Predominantly, a Mendes obituary is composed of a painting of a photograph of his subject in combination with text, and a subtle allusion to the notion of still life by employing a drop shadow to suggest a newspaper cutting. However, within this
collection we often find an artist represented by their artwork, and so the subject is a photograph of an artwork, which has been filtered through the newspaper medium. Both manual and mechanical reproduction must be considered an essential component of his work therefore.
This calls to question notions of authorship. Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author:
“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
The generational nature of Mendes’ paintings, both in the means of production as well as reference points, illustrates this, positioning him very much in a post-modern context. By adopting a methodology that involves interacting with sequential images and across media, he simultaneously affirms and denies authorship. The aura of the original is negated as that of the new object emerges.
Text | Frances Woodley | 2016
|Exhibition: The Death of the Artist|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday 14 October - Saturday 12 November 2016|
|He whose portrait we offer you,|
Whose art subtler than all others,
Teaches us to laugh at ourselves
He is a sage, gentle reader. i
‘Verses for the Portrait of Honoré Daumier’. Charles Baudelaire.
Hugh Mendes’ ‘unnervingly prophetic’ painting of a press photo of Osama Bin Laden holding a gun to an image of the head of George W. Bush in 2001 heralded a practice that has concentrated on painting as a form of obituary. In a curious way these paintings also pass for still life concerned as they are with iconography, mortality, genre and representation all of which, as the tradition dictates, are explored in a shallow depth of field. Mendes’ paintings are quiet meditations, little games involving hybrids and oppositions: painting/photography, original/reproduction, representation/illusion, portrait/still life, private/public, image/icon, life/death.
The exhibition The Death of the Artist includes painted obituaries of artists of special significance to Mendes, including some that he has known for many years. But, as Baudelaire writes, ‘There are some who have never known their Idol’ and Mendes paints these artists too.ii Being filmed painting Obituary: Lucian Freud was an enjoyable experience for the artist though Mendes hadn’t known Freud in life.iii Painting an obituary, according to Mendes, brings them close. Artists whose deaths have occurred in recent years including Anthony Caro, Bruce Lacey and Ellsworth Kelly feature in The Death of the Artist. ‘Every now and then, a well known artist would die and take their turn at my easel’ he says.iv However, these paintings mark more than an artist’s passing, they also mark time, the artist’s time and the art of a time, and in doing so they also become art historical.
The obituary is a written notice of a death to be found in a newspaper—a respectful summary of a life in the spirit of a memory. Inherent in its origin, ‘obit’ (from the Latin), is the notion of going forward towards something else. Taken this way, Mendes’ painted obituaries can be understood as more than mere recollection of a life. But a question also emerges: Just whose life is being remembered here? Artist, icon, or image, or are they too close to call?
An obituary also condenses a life into a narrative text printed onto newsprint or, as more recently, digitized for screen. The thing that distinguishes Mendes’ painted obituary from the written version, other than the fact of its being painted on canvas, is the absence of narrative. And it seems important here to remind the reader that these painted obituaries are not intended as ‘lives’, the visual equivalent to Vasari’s for example. Instead they are paintings of printed images of the famous that are usually peremptorily trashed, or deleted, after a day in the life of a newspaper.
Mendes appropriates these printed images of popular or venerable icons brought fleetingly to the public’s attention by their death, and uses the framework of the obituary to make them become something else in painting. He then swerves away from the protocol of the obituary to cast his practice into conversation with traditional seventeenth century conventions of the vanitas, memento mori, trompe l’oeil and I would suggest, the printed emblematic portrait, before easing it back into the culture of contemporary painting. In doing so, his painting becomes intertextual, reverential
and referential. His style of painting embodies some of the characteristics of the photographs he paints. Like a photograph his self-effacement is made possible by the near absence of material gesture, or at least as near as his pace of painting permits. This absence leaves his obituaries open to others—to be ‘read’, to feel attachment.
In 1651 the artist David Bailly painted Self Portrait with Vanitas Symbols, a painting of himself as a young man, surrounded by the accumulated objects of a successful career as a painter. The artist placed a much smaller self-portrait in an oval frame upright under his left hand on the table beside him. In this tiny self-portrait he depicted himself as an older man, the age he was at the time of the painting. Intended to outlive the painter, the painting affirms the value of painted resemblance as a form of legacy. Bailly, however, took the added precaution of painting his larger likeness in his prime, in pride of place.
When a painting is made of an actual person, like Bailly’s for instance, the painter is concerned to construct an illusion of semblance, substance, weight and form. When a painting is made from a photograph of a person, the painter is left ‘only’ with the problem of making a semblance of a piece of paper on which is printed, not an illusion of the person, but a copy of them as recorded through the lens of a camera. How do we know then that it is the latter that Mendes paints? It is because the slimmest of shadows adheres to a piece of paper in a way that the cast shadow of a head does not. It is this painted attached shadow that inhibits his paintings from becoming icons. The shadow creates an infinitely thin opening for the photographic image to exist between physical canvas and illusory picture plane.
‘Photographic connotation’ writes Barthes ‘like every well structured signification, is an institutional activity; in relation to society overall, its function is to integrate man, to reassure him’.v Mendes’ painted obituaries would seem to unsettle this claim to reassurance. His paintings of photographs are unsettling.
The Obituaries bear some resemblance to the trompe l’oeil portraits of Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (1630-1675) though it is their similarity in appearance rather than intention that is striking. I suggest that Mendes shows little inclination to dissemble in the manner of Gijsbrechts or, for that matter, to startle with photographic lifelikeness as in the portraits by the younger Chuck Close, or the photographic verisimilitude found in Gerhard Richter’s portraits. On the other hand Matt Collishaw’s Last Meal on Death Row series (2011) does make for an interesting comparison, if only in their form of remembrance. Collishaw’s photographs depict the last meals chosen by prisoners on Death Row. Made in the manner of a seventeenth century breakfast piece, they are also ‘portraits’ of those already dead. As such they are memento mori, and not obituary.
By representing the subject of the obituary thrice removed, as photograph/newspaper image/still life painting, the artist is still only painting what he sees. It is the way in which he draws his painting into conversations with historical and contemporary painting and photography that expands their depth and accrues for them their meaning and significance.
There is another important feature of Mendes’ painting, the picturing of text: titles above the photographs, notes that adhere to a thing prior to being photographed, or adhered to the surface of the photograph prior to painting. Sometimes, as in Obituary: Tom Lubbock, lettering other than the title is left as a trace of a more casual gesture. In SS Margaret, the title of the sitter, Princess, was cropped to playful effect. Picasso pulled the same trick in Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) when he
cropped the title of a newspaper (Le Petit Journal) to turn ‘journal’ into ‘jou’ (French for game). Text in Mendes’ work is always carefully considered. In a painting marking the Charlie Hebdo attacks made in collaboration with the artist Harry Pye in 2015, printed newspaper text becomes the primary, and only, object and image for painting.
There is little by way of context in these paintings other than what appears in the original photographs, though they are arguably self-contextualising when presented as a series. Sometimes, however, a clue remains. Cy Twombly’s identity bracelet, for instance, is an object that lets something slip in an otherwise inscrutable pose. Occasionally, things coalesce, as happens in Tom Lubbock’s greying temple, a place on the painting where time and pigment run out together. Such events are pure painting.
© Frances Woodley September 2016
i Baudelaire, Charles, trans. William Aggeler. ‘Verses for the Portrait of Honoré Daumier’. The Flowers of Evil. Fresno, AA: Academy Library Guild, 1954.
ii Baudelaire, Charles, trans. William Aggeler. ‘The Death of Artists’. The Flowers of Evil. Fresno, AA: Academy Library Guild, 1954.
iv Mendes, Hugh. Artist statement, 2016.
v Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. 31.
Press Release | Obituaries | 2012
|EXHIBITION DATES Friday February 24th – Saturday March 31st 2012|
|CHARLIE SMITH london is delighted to present Hugh Mendes with his first one person show at the gallery.|
Mendes began making oil paintings of newspaper pages in 2001 when he found a scrap of an Arabic newspaper in Brick Lane,
east London. Blowing onto his feet, he picked up a newspaper picture of a turbaned man aiming a Kalashnikov which he later
made into a painting that formed part of a diptych, the other being a portrait of George W. Bush. Scheduled to be shown at
Mendes’ final MA show, opening on September 11th 2001, the artist had portentously paired Bush with a Kalashnikov aimed at him
by the then relatively unknown Osama Bin Laden. This became the precursor of one of Mendes’ two obsessions: the first being
The War on Terror, a ten year retrospective of which was recently exhibited at Kenny Schachter / ROVE; and the second being an
unyielding recreation of newspaper Obituaries.
Although it is clear that these paintings belong to the still life genre they are of a very particular niche, and this is the first time that
a selection will be shown together as a group. Still life of course brings with it associations of the Memento Mori. Mankind has
been warned by artists throughout history to remember that you are mortal, and Hugh Mendes continues this tradition
compulsively. The root of this is perhaps biographical. Mendes’ father was a newspaper editor who amassed a collection of
hundreds of significant newspaper editions, piles of which were found at his home upon his death. Mendes sat with the deceased
body, ruminating for two full days. The artist had also been exposed to the tragedy of bereavement early in life, when he lost his
mother prematurely aged 7. As postulated by Freud, trauma is bound by a compulsion to repeat in order to be overcome, and this
repetition can be transferred into many forms.
In turning to newspapers for obituaries Mendes also creates distance from the personal, sublimating it with the deaths of political,
cultural and celebrity figures. And in this a confrontation takes place where loss is mourned and fear defied. There is also a type of
redemption, where focus is redrawn from the dead to the living. An obituary is, after all, the celebration of a remarkable life as well
as a significant death. In turning to the well-known Mendes’ oeuvre has become a record of our recent life and times, paying
homage to those in the public arena, to those deemed successful enough to warrant a page or so in a broadsheet upon their
demise. Interestingly celebrity figures have begun collecting Mendes obituaries themselves, flirting perhaps with that which will
come to them. Recent noteworthy acquisitions have been made by Jerry Hall and Bill Wyman, for example, which have been
private decisions based on the subject portrayed. And it is here where Mendes weaves back into the personal, where the choice of
subject is defined by his particular interests. Artists, writers, singers, film stars and political figures such as Lucian Freud, Tom
Lubbock, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Amy Winehouse and Muammar Gaddafi are particularly visible, and each selection is made
according to their impact on the artist as well as on the world at large.