Mr. In-Between: Contemporary Stops Along the Modernist Highway: An Interview with Simon Hughes

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.

border crossings: Did your daughter originate the colour scheme in Father/Daughter Composition?

simon hughes: Yes. Parker would come into the studio and do a little mark and then wander off to get a cracker or something. I was avoiding that whole painting thing about “where do you start” and “what do you paint?” Our collaboration also introduced the idea of chance. If people can use the I Ching to begin their paintings, why not put a bunch of pencils in front of a toddler? She was only 18 months old when she did it and she’s two and a half now. So she made these decisions in a pre-verbal time, and I used what she did as my entry point. It prevented my colour choice from becoming merely subjective. But if you look at the frantic gesturing, you can see she is just attacking this one spot and she used so many colours. The weird thing is she never did a scribble quite that good again. Let’s talk about the material and process involved in the work you’ve been doing in the last three years.

In my earlier work, like Northern Landscape, I was using computer files. All the ice stuff comes from an Adobe Illustrator image. Now I’m using a commercial vinyl. You run it through a computer and have a plotter cut it out, as if you were making a vinyl sign. Earlier I was using real sign-making vinyls, which are meant to last 30 years on a piece of metal, but they could rip the paper, whereas this stuff is actually gentle. The idea is that you do a really fast drawing and then execute this methodical, slow cutting out. I might cut out every fourth shape, put on a wash of colour, which dries, and then I cut out more shapes. It might be gone over eight times, which is what I did in Father/Daughter Composition. The feather shapes were fast drying—they were made by just overlapping squiggles—and then the cutting makes them precise. I do the cutting on the paper with an exacto knife, and at that point the vinyl is still stuck to the paper. You can get a nice effect if it does cut into the paper, but it can also bleed a bit too much. All the washes of colour go in the little groove where the cut is and it makes a very nice drawn line. This stuff has been a lifesaver.

The palette in Dream Book and Ice Hole is one that you have pretty well mastered.

Yeah. That piece is the bridge to the old work—it’s that same overlapping blue and orange. Suburbia Borealis is another work that links back to the “Northern Lights” thing. It makes a reference to Canadiana, and it’s starting to develop a new vocabulary. Texturally, Lights Over a Lake, Circa 1386 is a lot like Suburbia Borealis. It’s transitional because in an early version the rocks were actually figures. There was this weird time about two years ago when I was trying to paint in figures. A couple of cool paintings came out of that period, but then I thought it was ridiculous and I stopped. I used masking fluid and this hobby technique where you flick the watercolour on with a toothbrush. It maintains the white of the paper and you get the feeling of snow falling. I put down a line of tape to delineate the horizon and then did a whole bunch of flicking. Then it was painted over in brown to make the water darker than the sky. The background has quite a lot of nice business. I made a point in dealing with the edge and that became important in these works. The piece called Canada makes me think of a variation on the Group of Seven. Exactly. That one has a complete Tom Thomson reference. It’s just drips, but it gives an impression quite different from that. The masking fluid I use to keep the page white dripped and ran all over the paper.

Is the palette in Autumnal a deliberately leafy one?

It ended up that way. Sometimes you’re just glazing colour and you don’t know what colour you’ll end up with. What happens when the purple gets covered over by the green and you try and wrestle them back and forth? But once the dripping started happening I must have thought there was something landscape-y going on. In Canada I assumed you were referencing the branches in Thomson’s The Jack Pine or Northern River. It is kind of freaky, isn’t it? I did think of Tom Thomson, but only after it was done. I probably had Jackson Pollock more in mind. But then Thomson is our Pollock. In Harvest Moon Through Brambles, the black wash was added over the mask area. Sometimes I wanted to see things done, so I would rush to finish them. With watercolour, the paper is taped down so it stays flat, and it’s tough to go back in because you’ve already cut it out of the tape and it can warp and get all blobby. Some of these sat for months in the studio, still taped to their boards. I’d just stare at them. Harvest Moon sat for six months, at which point I felt it needed some black drips.

You find black-and-orange silhouettes over spheres in the work of Tony Tascona and George Swinton. So what you’re doing, while it isn’t exactly the same as what they did, does look familiar.

I’m sure that stuff soaked in from Winnipeg Art Gallery field trips I took in the fifth grade.

A lot of early Automatiste work also looks like this.

This weekend I picked up a book on Alfred Pellan at the Children’s Hospital paperback sale. It’s interesting how things become relevant at different times. This whole Canadian Modernism thing is something I have to dive back into. It was satisfying to find the odd book in the library at Irvine, where the small Canadian section is right next to the Mexican section. But it is interesting to see what ends up in a collection like that. There’d be weird books, like Contemporary Canadian Painting from the ’70s, with entries on Michael Snow and William Ronald. The book includes a photo of every painter, and William Ronald is wearing a white suit and in the studio with him is a girl in a bikini. He’s the Julian Schnabel of his time.

Lights Over a Lake, Circa 1386, 2009, acrylic, watercolour and gouache on paper, 52 x 42”. Courtesy the artist.

Your Suburbia Borealis maintains an unusual relationship to reality because the actual Aurora Borealis is so immense in scale that it tends to dwarf everything else. That’s the proportion in your piece, so in one sense it’s an accurate representation.

In some ways it’s a painting joke. It reads as a pure abstraction, and then it reads as some kind of giant thing. At that initial stage where everything is masked off, I tend to do several passes on the background, so it gets nice and dark, which allows the foreground colours to pop out more. Within that, you exploit the watercolour, which tends to bleed and dry at different speeds. It gives you these little forms. There are times in looking at your work that I think of Paul Klee. I took a lot of the colour glazing from him, including ideas from his sketchbooks and lessons. I’m striving for a kind of freedom. While I was happy with the older work, I asked myself, is this how I want to operate for the rest of my life? What if it becomes successful and I have to hang myself because I can’t put one more sticker on a drawing? So the last three years were good ones because I’ve reached the point where the work can maintain this base, which references Canadian art history and landscape, but it can also absorb any influence. It’s very free now. Some pieces can be pure abstraction. I can use books, a child’s drawing; abstract pieces can include small houses. I’ve carved out a place where there is a lot more freedom to move. But I do like to stay grounded in that conversation with the Group of Seven and Canadian Modernism.

How do you talk about these works: as collage or as drawing?

It seems like they’re getting called paintings a lot more than they used to. Watercolour is an on-the-fence medium. In the taxonomic sense it gets filed with drawing. In museums you find it in the drawer labelled, “Works on Paper.” But then it’s paint, right? In my case, it might be as much about the support as what I’m doing on the surface. The ones that use this masking are all about drawing, but it’s drawing with the knife. They are an in-between species. I think I need to make the leap into painting, but I don’t quite know how to do it. These are medium specific in a way I really like. I love that the surface is all on the same plane and it’s this dead matte. No matter what you do, painting is always coming out at you. Physically, it’s layered out, and I like soaking in and everything being at one level. In my oil painting I was trying to replicate that and you can’t ever do it. Even if it’s a thin glaze, it still builds up. If I’m going to move back into painting, the problem is I have to engage the medium in an appropriate way. I can’t just make these paintings in oil.

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