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Press Release | 2016
|HUGH MENDES | 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.
Please contact gallery for images and further information
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.