The large windows in Patrick Hughes’ studio on Great Eastern Street in London, grant passers-by an opportunity to glimpse into the artist’s inside-out and upside-down universe. Patrick’s studio is situated in London’s vibrant and artistic East London district.
Before entering the space we took time to watch, through the studio window, Patrick’s three assistants – his “Three Graces” as he likes to call them – unobtrusively painting his Reverspectives. Like a child looking into a sweet shop, we were dazed by the multitude of colourful paint tubes and paintbrushes covering the surface of each table, as well as the maze of wooden easels dotted around the space. Eager to continue exploring Patrick’s experimental kingdom of paradoxes, we entered his studio.
Numerous Reverspectives ranging in size lined the room’s interior. At first, they appeared merely as paintings; an Academy hang of scenic views and interior spaces. However after close inspection wr noticed each painting’s volumetric form. Each work carefully built, crafted, and painted into something completely unordinary, fun and a little disorientating. These visual one-liners raised a smile as we questioned how we usually view the world around us. Patrick greeted us with a warm smile shortly after arriving at the studio. He quickly compelled us to journey through his workshop, guiding us into the virtual spaces of twentieth-century art and cultural history. We explored his books, objects, photographs and artworks. Instantaneously, we realised that Patrick’s playfulness in his work transpires from his inherent humorous and spirited personality. During our conversation with Patrick, we began looking at the world through the artist’s own eyes. His enchanting persona was captivating as we began discussing Reverspectives, St. George and the Dragon, Steinberg and Realism.
Hanmi Gallery: Your work enables spectators to experience paradox. When did you first become interested in creating paradoxes?
Patrick Hughes: I didn’t realise they were called paradoxes until 1965, when I was getting on for thirty. I didn’t call my works paradoxes but I did know that I liked making things that thrilled me – things that were mysterious and complicated or revealing. I realised they were called paradoxes because the works chased their own tail or they were contradictory, as I have argued before, and I have gradually learnt more about them. I have always been interested in paradoxes; they thrill me like finding a diamond. A little nugget that is tremendously interesting like a Mobius strip. I can’t pinpoint when I found the Mobius strip but I remember feeling overwhelmed – it’s amazing.
HG: You have written and expressed notions of paradox in your writing and art. Do you feel there is a difference between the visual paradox that appears in your work and the paradox we experience through language?
PH: No I don’t think there is anything different. I am a sort of Universalist. I think that people are all the same and language is more or less the same. For me, visual language is like verbal language and this belief makes me a Universalist. The first thing one gathers are ideas and then you can either express your ideas in words or in a picture. A major change in my career was that in my earlier pictures I was saying, this is a paradox. In my reverspectives I am not saying it is a paradox but I am allowing the viewer to experience it. It’s like in school, you can explain what you will do but you only understand it once you have done it. For instance, if you’re doing arithmetics you can say, this is how things add up. Once you’ve added it up and worked it out correctly, you have experienced it. This is one of my greatest differences, it’s all very well telling someone something but the next stage is to understand it through experience.
HG: Lets talk about your Venice reverspective series. The paintings come alive as the viewer moves back and forth towards each piece. The motion of our movement activates each work and allows the spectator to experience the reverspective as a disorientation. We first experienced one of your Venice reverspectives at the Courtauld Institute of Art and The British Library in London. We thought that when you walk towards it, you became submerged within Venice. You can almost imagine yourself travelling down the Venetian canals in a gondola, looking at the beautiful architecture surrounding you. It seems that Venice has been a very inspiring visual source for your work. Why is this?
PH: I didn’t think of portraying Venice actually. Sometimes art happens accidentally. Venice was an accident. An interior designer called Roy Ackerman, who at the time was redesigning the restaurant in the Waldorf Hotel in Aldwych, asked me to create a Venice reverspective. Initially I said no, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t because it was far too complicated. And then the computer arrived. And once it came, Donna [Patrick’s assistant] was able scan in a picture, Photoshop it, arrange Venice into the right shape of the structure and then print it. At first, I couldn’t do this because the old fashioned way, when you square images up and sketch from a photograph, would take about six months. Now it doesn’t take long at all.
HG: Do you think today’s technological advances have really helped you explore new arenas in your art?
PH: Yes, technology has made it so much easier. One of the first subjects I remember doing was a Mondrian reverspective. It was easy to depict Mondrian’s pieces because they consist of only straight lines. We did several Mondrians and Rothkos right at the beginning. Now we can do almost everything. Next we will do a [Paolo] Uccello. You can just scan in a Uccello, or Saint George and the Dragon [by Paolo Uccello c.1470], which we are also going to do, and fit it into the trapezium shape.
HG: Your answer links to another question we wanted to ask you. We are really interested in your references to art history and the appropriation of other artworks within your art. We have read that you don’t consider yourself as part of the Pop Art or Surrealist movement. What influenced you to incorporate these works in your reverspectives?
PH: Artists are very egocentric. I am sure Picasso didn’t think of himself as a Cubist. It was perhaps different with Surrealism because it was a political movement. For instance, when Magritte joined the Communist party, he sort of joined the Surrealist party. This was different to being part of the Cubist movement. Originally being a Cubist was a term of abuse, like a Fauve and so on. I don’t, and I think most artists don’t think they belong to a movement. It’s like being a Boy Scout or a Girl Guide. Nobody wants to belong to a group, especially not artists. However, the most important art movement for me to study has been Surrealism. It could have been called ‘Imaginativism.’ It belongs to the realm ofthe imaginative. The Surrealist artists were all, like myself, devoted to being imaginative. There are other artists who were imaginative but not Surrealist – I like to study these too. For instance Escher, de Chirico or Charles Addams. MyrReverspectives are compiled of walls and I have to fill my walls with pictures. I ask myself, if they were actual walls what would I put on them? I have to decide what these pictures might be. I’ve said to the dismay of people that I don’t like Rothko or Mondrian. And it doesn’t mean that I like them if I put them inmy work. Vermeer included maps in his works – I don’t know that Vermeer loved maps himself. Presumably when Hogarth created Gin Lane  he didn’t like drunkenness. Well, he didn’t like much cheap drunkenness! So it doesn’t mean to say that when you depict a picture you like it, or dislike it. It’s an odd presumption isn’t it? If you paint a picture does it mean you have to like it?
HG: I suppose then, your work is a response to something? Are you responding to both popular culture and art history?
PH: Yes I could be responding to it.
HG: Your reverspective entitled, The Emergence of the Hole (2008) incorporates the work of the famous artist Damien Hirst. Why did you choose this particular artist? Was it an arbitrary choice to include Hirst’s work in this Reverspective?
PH: I am continuously looking for box shapes to put in my Reverspectives. I have done about twenty-five boxes including books, crates, Brillo boxes and telephone boxes.They are all boxes and Hirst uses boxes. Plus, since everybody knows Hirst’s work, it was agood one to do. But this doesn’t mean I love his work. On the contrary, I don’t really find his work interesting. I find the sharks he places in formaldehyde puerile. I am not frightened by sharks, I’ve not been near one nor ever will be near one. I am frightened of various other things, like electricity or ladders but not sharks. So his work to me seems childish. I think Hirst’s circle paintings are cynical because they are so repetitive, dull and manufactured. It is the opposite of art, these are just products. I have done a lot of variations on a specific theme, for instance my rainbows. I’d say twenty of these works are good and twenty are ordinary. But this subject is interesting. A rainbow is a hot potato because it is so sentimental and charged with emotions. Hirst’s dot paintings are simply a nod to horrible abstraction and repetition.
HG: Do you not like abstract art?
PH: No I don’t. I can’t imagine it ever working. Abstraction in relation to music works wonderfully well. I’ve been in the Rothko chapel in Texas and it’s horrible, boring and trite. It wouldn’t be like sitting in a Beethoven symphony. It’s like sitting in a tedious room with awful art on the walls. It’s not like a highly decorated mosque or like looking at beautiful stained glass windows, which are unique. I think my view is the average view of Rothko’s chapel and I am sure people would agree with me. I am only being ordinary. The Emergence of a Hole is just a box. It is a box people know and it is fun to bring it to life – bringing a shark to life.
HG: Many of your reverspective paintings appropriate the work of celebrated authors as well as artists. In Venice Volumes (2013) for instance, you include books by renowned scholars such as Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited by Sarah Quill. What influenced you to do this? How do you select the books for your paintings?
PH: Yes for Venice Volumes I thought I should put Venice books in. It would be daft to put in other books. It was good to have the Venice books. At first, I was very timorous to put books in my works. I thought people would dislike it because all of the books are placed outdoors, where they immediately become messy and damp. I thought people would see it realistically, but luckily people don’t. Putting Greek literature in the water is odd isn’t it? But I think it works. It is a sort of a mini Surrealism.
HG: From a very early age you have always been interested in writing yourself. In fact, you began studying English Literature at Leeds Day Training College before your tutor suggested you study art. Can you remember how you felt about this?
PH: It’s a good story isn’t it? People always ask, how did you start doing art and I respond saying I was told to do it! I haven’t got any physical ability to do art. I can’t draw. I never learnt and I wasn’t interested in learning to draw. But neither could Magritte or de Chirico. Some artists are very bad at art. Matisse was terrible at art. Some people are excellent but others aren’t. Picasso was a great illustrator but I am worse than the average. But luckily for me, it isn’t necessary because the “Three Graces” upstairs [pointing up to his assistants] can do it all for me. I don’t think Jeff Koons was ever very good at art. He can’t draw.
HG: I noticed in your first reverspective entitled Sticking Out Room (1964), that as well as painting the reverspective you also pasted items onto the structure. In this particular work for instance, you stuck a picture rail and a sample of a wooden skirting board onto the canvas. Contrastingly, your later reverspectives all have flat surfaces.
PH: Well I couldn’t draw or paint very well, so in those days the best thing to do was stick the item you were trying to depict onto the surface. In Sticking Out Room I also included collage. The wallpaper in the dolls house is made of collage. It was a way of getting round what you wanted to depict. All these ways, like having them painted or collaged was just a step to creating the finished product.
HG: You then redeveloped Sticking Out Room in 1970 for the exhibition Ten Sitting Rooms at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Did you think about the original in the six years between these exhibitions?
PH: No probably not. I have always had this idea that once I make one thing I will then do something different. The great moment in 1989 was when I realised I could create numerous variations on a theme, like a musician does a variation on a theme. My reverspectives are variants of a central theme. Up until then I thought I should always do something different.
HG: What was the turning point in your artistic career then? What happened in the 1980s?
PH: I realised through doing a lot of watercolours that I was interested in creating a volume of works based on one theme. I had a lot of watercolour exhibits in my studio and I knew that they were often just variations of a theme. I realised that I could depict various doors, mountains and windows. Although my reverspectives are limited in the sense that they have to be boxes, walls or doors. I can’t squidge humans into my reverspectives. Although in my doors and boxes I can depict anything.
HG: It is interesting though that your works are comprised of such basic structures yet your inclusion of water, books and doors allow viewers to enter and become lost within their own thoughts and experiences. Your reverspectives invite spectators to read the canvas as they would read a book. Each painting is a library of information waiting for the spectator to explore. They offer an escape into another world, history or story.
PH: I hope so. I include these things to draw you in. To make you want to really go there. Before we paint the boxes they are merely boxes, the viewer cannot enter anywhere. But as soon as the door is painted onto the structure or into the scene, it grants the viewer permission to start their journey through the space.
HG: There is a great parallel in your artworks to reading. For instance, when you open the book and you start reading, one enters their imaginary realm.
PH: Yes. A book is like a door, and through the little door, like Alice, you can go to your own wonderland. Through the door you can go to the eighteenth-century or through the door you can become a woman. You can be anything once you open the door. The door leads to anywhere and allows you to become anyone or anything. I love the door because for me, as a child, the door enabled me to leave the horrible room that I was in. Outside my actual door was a butcher’s shop, but this door allowed me to go anywhere – to freedom.
HG: Looking around your studio, there are books everywhere. Do you try and read daily?
PH: I always try and read. I have just finished reading the autobiography of Philip Larkin. I’ve been a fat, drunken, old man in Hull for some days just reading. But all of these biographies end in the same way. They all end in death. I read a lot of biographies but they all end the same way.
HG: Do you have a favourite biography?
PH: I think I prefer autobiographies. Some autobiographies aren’t great works. I remember enjoying Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. Like me, he was a resentful adolescent all of his life. The autobiography is in the form of a novel but actually it is an autobiography. It is a picture of his horrible, dull and difficult family. I think autobiographies are superior if you can be honest.
HG: Do you think the idea of self-reference in autobiographies is interesting? There is a lot of self- reference in your reverspectives too.
PH: Yes I do. I think it’s good if you can examine yourself; like my little drawing of Fear Itself (1976) which is of a man running away from his own shadow. This piece actually draws on a theme in Hans Christian Anderson’s text. Hans examines the time when a little boy sells his shadow to the devil and he becomes shadowless. The person’s relationship to their shadow is discussed in a book by Victor Stoichita called The Shadow. My work is a bit like his book. I often showed my drawing Fear Itself to art students and said that the person who is most likely to annoy you and let you down, is yourself. The person you have to fear is yourself. I suppose autobiographers are facing up to themselves. Self-referencing can be brilliant if you are able to face up to yourself. I wouldn’t write an autobiographical piece, however I do often refer to my own history.
HG: We noticed that your new monograph, A New Perspective: Patrick Hughes is featured in the reverspective Booking (2014) and is depicted besides books by Magritte and Escher for instance. Are they your favourite artists and art writers?
PH: Yes, but I also like Steinberg. He is more or less considered an illustrator. I like that he was a popular artist, despite only really executing drawings, but he really appealed to his audiences. Popular is a good thing from my point of view. I am enormously popular myself. My work is popular but perhaps not as popular as I am. Steinberg was popular in France. It’s a lingua franca, he’ll be popular anywhere. When I incorporate books, I choose books that I like. It’s an opportunity to express my fondness for them. I love Steinberg, Charles Addams and Magritte. I do love them. I really really love them. I have all of their books.
HG: We have also read, that you like Magritte’s work but you don’t necessarily like how a Magritte looks. What do you mean by this?
PH: Well I think the way he paints is second rate illustration. As we speak, there must be 100,000 people in the world that can paint better than Magritte but there is nobody who can think better than Magritte. It is a special quality. Gradually Magritte got better at painting because he kept doing it. I do like people who can paint really well, like William Nicholson or Wayne Thiebaud, but Magritte has a better imagination. I use realism. It is rather contradictory but Magritte was using realism as if he had found it in the road, picked it up and said this is reality and this isn’t. Realism is certainly horrible, I particularly dislike realism. I despise realism. Reality isn’t even true, let alone realism.
HG: There is a great playfulness inherent in all of your works. They invite an intellectual as well as humorous response from the spectator.
PH: Yes they are. I am lucky to have invented something that is a revelation on example or a metaphor for what experience is really like.
HG: I suppose then, having the viewer in front of the works, and you acknowledging their experience is part of the work as well. You could argue that the paintings are only activated when the spectator is in front of them.
PH: The importance of the viewer in art is usually associated with Duchamp. I think Duchamp’s work was quoting a nineteenth-century French poet who once said, ‘I write the poems but the reader makes it up.’ I am delighted by this concept. I just paint pieces of wood but the people turn it into an experience. I can’t make an experience but I can give you the opportunity to have one.
HG: You’ve exhibited your work in institutions and galleries all over the world. Do you find that people from different countries react differently to your Reverspectives?
PH: Flowers Gallery have taken my works to art fairs and exhibitions all over the world and I’ve heard that people do respond differently to my work from culture to culture. Flowers once told me a story about a German man who stood in front of the painting and said ‘Are you going to turn it on then?’. I suppose this is a minor cultural difference but it is humorous. I guess this response is only superficial. In the end, it is the same experience for everyone. To me, art is a worldwide language. I believe that people’s taste in art is culturally defined but it is more global than most things.
HG: I suppose your work is global because you draw on so many different things. Your work and your studio both stand as platforms for learning. Your art hints towards so many different experiences, cultures, movements, artists and books.
PH: Yes, I would say it is global.
HG: 2014 marks the fifty year anniversary since you first invented the reverspective.
PH: Yes, it is amazing isn’t it? I like the symmetries of my years, I’m seventy-five years old and it will be the fifty year anniversary. I made my first work when I was twenty-five.
HG: How do you feel when you look back over the years? Would you ever consider going back to making two-dimensional works?
PH: No I wouldn’t. I am sometimes called upon to do it, but I don’t think I would. I am always trying to think, or have been for the last thirty years, of new ways of creating reverspectives. I have found my vein and I keep on digging. I could go down other mines but I am staying down this one.
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