Some artists like answers; others like questions. Simon Hughes prefers the latter. He is among a generation of Winnipeg artists–the Royal Art Lodge, Karel Funk, Tim Gardner, Jon Pylypchuk, Sarah Anne Johnson, to name only the most prominent–who have already established significant reputations in the contemporary art world.
Hughes is best known for a series of watercolours depicting invented buildings, rendered in a style that you might call Log Stockade Miesian. It is a crisply smart combination of a pioneering and a Modernist spirit. In one sense, he is a faux architect, designing buildings that don’t and, in all probability, couldn’t exist. But the absence of certain structural necessities does nothing to diminish their desirability. We wish his hybrids of glass towers and log cabins were possible. They are individual buildings and spaces in which groups of people meet in improbable surroundings. What interested Hughes was documenting a non-existent architectural and urban history. If coureurs de bois and Inuit found themselves transplanted from the wilderness into a contemporary art gallery, or onto the couch in a psychiatrist’s office, what would the spaces look like and what would they do there? By sticking them onto the surface of his watercolours, he sticks them into an ongoing Modernist history.
Hughes also extended the scale of his work from single pictures to lengthy narratives that articulated the truth of Chief Broom’s observation in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that “these things are true, whether they happened or not.” His River Saga and Northern Landscape, both multi-panelled works, pick up Manitoba’s development somewhere in the 20th century, but the city’s topographical spareness has more in common with a settlement in the Northwest Territories than it does to a modern metropolis. On the social side, this cityscape has about it a tinge of downtown squalor. Hughes displays both a sense of humour and a sense of disappointment that areas of his hometown are as marginal and unattractive as they are. But even with this awareness, these ambitious works mark him as less a social critic than an artful historian, creating a sort of “what if?” history.
What is most attractive about these early forays into urban and architectural planning is the intelligence of his fanciful combinations–a log cabin atop a pile of logs and debris that resembles a beaver dam, Inuit hunters carving blubber from a dead whale, the edges of the pinkish squares cut as cleanly as a wheat field in a Brueghel landscape, another cabin casually drifting away among a flotilla of jig-sawed ice. Hughes’s ice fragments (which are based on riverside observation) are like hard-edged, decorative slices of ice-cream cake, evenly layered and coloured.
But however dire their circumstances, no one in these environments ever seems concerned, as if all threats are resolved inside a cartoon code. His city inhabitants are cousins of Wile E Coyote; they suffer a thousand calamities and come back resolute and hopeful every time. Their curse is their applied optimism…
Simon Hughes was interviewed in Winnipeg on September 28, 2010, by Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright.
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