Murray McDonald reviews and interviews Patrick Hughes in London, 2014. McDonald is the life-long friend and critic of Patrick Hughes. He has written on Hughes fifteen times before this, starting in 1979. He is a perpetual student of logic and rhetoric, both visual and verbal.
When I first met Patrick Hughes as a student in the late 1950s, our lecturers, Muriel Atkinson and John Jones, taught their introductory Basic Design course on Bauhaus principles. Patrick started off his art practice in the shadow of Paul Klee, whom he continues to venerate. Patrick did not have a background in art – he had originally gone to college in pursuit of a literature course but it was thought that his interest in Ionesco, Kafka, Samuel Butler, Lewis Carroll, N.F. Simpson, Christian Morgenstern – imaginative comedians all – was more suited to the art course. There he managed to combine his simple child-like skills as a naïve artist with his critical intelligence based on the use of metaphor and paradox that he had relished in his favourite authors.
His earliest successful works were black paper cut-outs stuck on to a white ground. Patrick soon found, as all collagists do, that the figure and the ground are mutually supportive, and the negative and the positive contradict and mirror each other. Hughes began to use given shapes like the heart and the shield in paper, and soon turned to making the same cut-outs in hardboard, which were then painted with gloss paint. He used a variety of echoing and rhyming shapes, breasts and bottoms, lips and eyes and crosses and frills and hairdos. These gloss-painted thin wooden cut-outs stood alone, with no background, on the wall as shaped objects. Patrick said to me that he could not think of backgrounds for them so he cut the image out and presented it on its own.
The next stage in his student work was to work within the rectangle. He became more confident of his simple flat image-making, and, he said he was determined to make pictures of a variety of things, eggs, flags, snowmen, bottles, fences, doors, postboxes and so on. The best-known example, painted at Leeds Day Training College in 1960, is Liquorice Allsorts, itself a demonstration of the variety of sweets within this well-known packet. It was painted on a green ground, as if on grass. At this time he made a lifelong commitment to follow the course of comedy. Hughes argued that the two dominant modes of art were tragedy and comedy and he was drawn to the comic. He likes to quote ‘tragedy is the raw material of comedy.’
The variety of images is another plank in his platform: that it is an essential part of art to see a picture of something new done in a new way. Here he is agreeing with Roger de Piles who writes in his Principles of Painting (1708) that the primary quality of a painting consists of surprises: “True painting, therefore, is such as not only surprises us, but, as it were, calls to us.”
A companion idea of his from these first days is that it is best to paint a picture of a thing than simply to re-present the thing itself, in a new context for example. (This is what Marcel Mariën had to do, because he was a writer who turned to art later in life, freed by Pop Art to use plastic toys and so on in his three-dimensional collages). Patrick’s theory is that if you add one strange fur teacup to the world of china teacups, it is one among many more ordinary ones, but when René Magritte paints a picture of a carrot and a bottle joined together, he asserts that there is another world in which there are carrot-bottles. The power of the picture over the object is that the picture says this is the world instead of merely interfering with the things in this world. Nevertheless Patrick has sometimes made objects – the solid keyholes, the balls on wheels, the snakes, the electrical short circuit – but mostly in the 1960s. In his subsequent work of making an object out of the world as we see it – a reverspective – Patrick has combined painting things with making objects. In his reverspectives he has solidified space, made our perceptions into a physical thing, a piece of painted wood. In the art world there was at one time a thing for painted abstract sculpture. Ever eager to contradict, Hughes has made sculptured painting, it is as if he has pulled the perspective in a flat painting out into the foreground in a uniquely plastic way.
I was proud to be at Patrick’s first show in the West End of London, aged twenty-one, (it was also the first time he was Patrick Hughes, he had always wanted to be P.D.Hughes) with catalogue introductions by the leading art critic David Sylvester and the foremost surrealist sympathiser, George Melly. Hughes was recognized then as a new star. The Belgian surrealist poet and art dealer, E.L.T. Mesens bought two, Roger Hilton from St. Ives and Peter Blake of the Pop artists was there, and Patrick became friendly with Richard Hamilton and the art world, and Bob Gill and Alan Fletcher in the design world. Arthur Moyse, the art critic of the anarchist paper Freedom wrote an introduction to his next show at the Portal Gallery. This success also introduced him to art teaching – he started at Bradford College of Art in 1963 under Eric Rimmington with Bill Gainham, and went on to Leeds College of Art under Eric Atkinson with Robin Page.
Murray McDonald: My first question to Hughes is, “In 1964 you made your first reverspective, the Sticking-out Room. Why did you not follow this great idea further at the time?”
Patrick Hughes: Well, the thing was that not only did I have the idea of painting different things as often as possible, I also had the idea of doing different pictures as often as possible. I recognized the Sticking-out Room as a good idea but thought I would have other good ideas, I even thought that some lesser ideas I had at that time were just as good! But they weren’t. Also, I did not have the know-how or confidence to make variations on a theme. The idea of ringing the changes, milking an idea, came to me through making many rainbow pictures – the prison rainbow, the upside-down rainbow, the sky full of rainbows, the rainbow over the moon, and then through working on watercolours in the 1980s when I painted three pictures every day, they were often versions of versions.
MMcD: So, what made you concentrate on reverspectives in 1989?
PH: I had over the years occasionally gone back to the Sticking-out Room – as a print in black or white – or as a small piece – and suddenly I saw that cupboards and doors and rooms and boxes and windows and floors and ceilings and railways and streets – those varied images I had pursued over the years – could be subjected to the reverse perspective discipline. At first I made the shapes myself, and I had assistants to help me draw and paint the libraries and Mondrians and brick walls and wallpaper and mirror and skyscrapers, and then I had Dan Flowers make the shapes for me.
MMcD: What knowledge of perspective did you have, did you study it?
PH: No, I knew nothing about perspective. I had never been taught it, because my training was in basic design. I always painted rather flatly, I used gloss paint for thirty years which has to be applied to the board when the painting is lying flat on a table, so you typically did not see the painting clearly till the paint had dried and one propped it up against the wall – then it was either a revelation or a disappointment. I do not think anyone who knew about perspective would do it the wrong way round like me, because they would have learnt what the right way was. I was a fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread.
MMcD: So how do you manage to make such perfect illusions?
PH: I do not make the illusions, I make the coherent structures that are neat and complete, it is the see-er who creates the illusion, you are the person who makes it, with your mind and your legs. As long as it is coherent in each plane – though my pictures are not coherent as a whole at all – the see-er creates the retreating space and with their own movement creates the vividly apparent movement up and down and left to right. A foremost neurologist, Rodolfo Llinas, says that reality is not ‘out there’ but that we live in a kind of virtual reality.
MMcD: I can see why you keep on making your reverspectives, because they are the gift that keeps on giving, the ones I see every day continue to live on my wall, in my sight, and in the eyes and in the minds of visitors who come to see them. But what do you think of them, what draws you to this daily discipline?
PH: I am very lucky in that I found my métier twenty-five years ago when I was fifty. Up until then I think my first thirty years of art was me telling people about contradiction and paradox and self-reference and vicious circles and oxymoron, each picture was a poster for my philosophical belief and my kind of logic, the revealing absurdity, my art was a kind of poetry too, an image standing for another reality. But now I give the looker and the mover their share in getting the art to tell the story, they get the experience of relative motion, I let the viewer pull the carpet from under his own feet. The pictures are not obviously poetic but apparently prosaic now, places, rooms and buildings, although they involve us physically, neurologically, emotionally, imaginatively, in creating an original experience tailored to our own selves. My reverspectives are life-like. In life itself, first you create an illusion and then you find it has a life of its own and you cannot guess what your illusion is going to do next.
MMcD: Your new perspective gives a lot of pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction, I have seen that it often raises a smile. What is it that you want your art to do?
PH: What I got from René Magritte or M.C. Escher was astonishment at their resourcefulness, that they could create out of nothing a unique experience. What I learnt from Paul Klee was the importance of composition. Klee’s best works, and there are many of them, seem to start from a playful, perhaps repetitive, sometimes all-encompassing geometry that grounds the picture, takes away the arbitrary plopping down of images and gives them an underlying structure. His genius then lies in seeing the imagery, the highways and byways, the march of the viaducts, that fits naturally into the scheme of things. In my reverspectives I am happy that all my trapezoids and verticals and tops and bottoms fit together so snugly, and that the pictures of walls and skies and carpets and doors and landscapes and palazzo sit so happily in the composition. When you read Kafka’s Josephine the Mouse Singer or A Hunger Artist, you are taken somewhere you have never been before. I am so pleased that my reverspectives seem to do this. But I am a bit surprised by how powerful the pleasure principle is in most people, I expected the watchers would wonder more ‘why does this happen? Why does this picture twist and buck?’ Myself, I am intrigued, continually interrogating the pieces, and finding out new facts, new rules, new strategies all the time. But that is my job, I suppose the art-lover only has to love it with his eyes.
MMcD: Where do you think your new perspective is going to take you? Can you see the end of the line yet, will you disappear when you finally get to the point of infinity?
PH: There is so much to do in this discipline, there are about a dozen big innovations I have made, I am sure there are more to come. I turned from one vanishing point to two or three points or more, I realised how to keep the frame from holding the planes, I cut the ends square or skew-whiff – to give the eye somewhere to rest, I cut-in boxes into the protruding planes, to make a negative space become a positive in your mind, I realised I could incorporate forced and reverse perspective into the same structure. It is an experimental art, I try new things, they almost always work, although when I started out, as you know, Murray, there were lots of failed attempts – fifty per cent at first. I have learnt from my own mistakes and I can also learn a lot from watching people looking at the work, one can tell what is involving and what is not so.
MMcD: A one-trick pony is taught by reward and punishment to tap its hoof according to a signal from its handler. How do you like being compared to this animal?
PH: You are brave to ask me that, luckily you are sitting out of my reach. I think that perception and perspective are absolutely central to our lives and I have been exploring these long avenues single-handedly for fifty years, quite unlike Pavlov’s dog! It has always amazed me that the world is full of artists that imitate other artists – I have got dozens of dullards who copy me – when the only point of this difficult and tortuous road is to be yourself and make your own world. I can see that as a student one has to absorb influences and come out the other side, but I prize my individuality above all else – no one has helped me get where I am, though I have learnt so much from artists and writers and psychologists and philosophers. I continue to study the Renaissance and the moderns.
MMcD: Talking about study why have you continued to work on those theoretical areas, which no-one else seems to be interested in, the paradox and the oxymoron in your last book Paradoxymoron?
PH: Well you are right, this is somewhere where I plough a lonely furrow. I always thought that art should be clear, not obscure, so I have been a Pop artist who was very popular. I have sold about a million postcards, ten thousand screenprints, two thousand reverspective multiples and many reverspective paintings and collages, but no one is very interested in my hilarious and comprehensively wide-ranging book Paradoxymoron of 2011. I have published a book of such obscurity whereas my art is so popular.
The research is for my benefit, to study the hundreds of minds who have taken the trouble to generate self-reflexive thoughts and pictures, to analyse the metaphors and shapes people have used since the beginning of modern culture. I am a collector of these curios, which I think are central to logic and philosophy and rhetoric, and which the average intellectual thinks is a dead-end, a by-way, trivial and readily dismissed. But I keep on because I believe in a paradoxical philosophy.
MMcD: There is the crux, the philosophy behind the reverspectives. Why do you paint like this? What does it all mean?
PH: I have always intuitively known that oxymoron works, that the best way to tell a tale in a lively fashion is to play with the form, come from behind, add a spin, use any old irony, confound expectations, expect the unexpected as Heraclitus wrote. I am so happy to have found a structure, the reversed perspective shape, which I have been able to play with like a cat’s cradle, as I redesign the basic shape in so many different geometries. As Jonathan Miller once wrote to me “anyone could have done this in the last five hundred years”. But no-one did, everyone stayed in the straitjacket of perspective, or at its best in forced perspective like the Borromini arcade in Rome. My second piece of luck was timely, the computer and Adobe Photoshop came into the studio about fifteen years ago, and that meant I could paint anything, Venice, all of art, anything that takes my fancy. Before the computer I was stuck with doors and landscapes and Mondrian. But I still love the pencil, the nail and the ruler.
MMcD: I think I have got a handle on your rainbows. A rainbow is a unique event, the coming together of an observer and the sun and lots of globules of water. The human being sees an arc of all the colours of the spectrum reflected by the water from the sunlight. In your pictures you take the unique and chancy rainbow event as if it were a thing, hang it on the line to dry, have it poking out of a man’s flies, put several in a vase like flowers. I have heard you say that this is a basic human failing, to take an event, a happening as if it were a thing, to make a relationship, which is impalpable, into a thing which seems palpable. Is this what you are getting at?
PH: In the end I think I am a Heraclitean. He wrote that we cannot step twice into the same river because other water is flowing on. His follower Cratylus bested him by saying you could not step once into the same river because it is continually changing. I think my reverspectives give this sense of continual flux and reciprocity, as they move you move, and what is more they move in the opposite way to what you expect, which is why one says they move although they are solid and immovable. This is what artists want to do, to make something come alive, just so long as you are engaging with it. The reverspectives are examples to us of the give and take, the talking and the listening, the doing and being done-to, that is the essence of life. In this way I think a reverspective is in the opposite camp to an artist like Mondrian who lays down his mediocre laws and hopes to persuade us by his relentless hectoring. Reverspectives give you air to breathe and a dance of life to pursue. I like to think my work is universally appealing. failed attempts – fifty per cent at first. I have learnt from my own mistakes and I can also learn a lot from watching people looking at the work, one can tell what is involving and what is not so.
Murray McDonald’s Ten Essential Questions on Patrick Hughes’ Art Practise
Murray McDonald: How did you start in art?
Patrick Hughes: When I was nineteen I went to a training college to learn to be a teacher, specialising in English. We were asked to write about our six favourite authors, mine were Eugene Ionesco, Laurence Steme, Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Butler, N.F Simpson They said their idea of Eng.Lit was the Brontes, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, so I should take the art option.
MMcD: What did you learn at college?
PH: The art course was a basic design course, Bauhaus influenced. So I never did life drawing. Although abstract art did not interest me, I soon got into Paul Klee.
MMcD: Some of us might find it hard to see Klee as part of your foundation?
PH: I take three things from Paul Klee, organisation, humour, and invention. He was very varied - I have tried to be. His principle of organising the space and then deciding what it is to represent I still hold to. But I never wanted my work to look like Klee, or Magritte for that matter.
MMcD: I'm glad you mentioned Rene Magritte. I know he is your model artist
PH: Magritte at his best, in The Human Condition, The Blank Signature, On the Threshold of Liberty, is ineffable. He knew how to get behind the surface of things, with a hundred strategies and witty discombobulations. I don’t particularly like what Magritte’s paintings look like, I like what they think.
MMcD: What is your philosophy, what do you want people to get from your art?
PH: My philosophy is paradox. I am of a logical cast of mind, and find common sense hopeless. Philosophers have found paradox cropping up at the crux of every enquiry, and have tried to explain away this vicious circularity. I embrace the contradictory and celebrate the paradoxical. A paradox to me is like a pearl.
MMcD: How would you compare your earlier work with your perverspeetive ? After all you were a successful artist for thirty years before you decided to devote yourself to this sculptural painting.
PH: I hope people remember my earlier work - The Space Ruler, Infinity, Sunshine, The Endless Snakes, Prison Rainbow - I had some very good ideas, refined ideas. But I was telling people about paradox. With reverse perspective I am letting the viewer experience a paradoxical relation between the self and the work of art.
MMcD: In your reverspectives you have externalised the structure of perception. Were you always interested in perspective?
PH: Not at all. I preferred to have my art flat, two-dimensional. So when I made the Clown in 1963 he was made to lie on the ground as if flattened by a steam-roller. I was always interested in perception, and kept up with the Ames demonstrations and JJ.Gibson’s Our Perception of the Visual World. But I have studied perspective very closely in the last fifteen years.
MMcD: People confuse the solemn with the serious, the literary with the learned, the autobiographical with the real I know your work inside out, and I find you an outsider in today’s art world
PH: I have always believed that one should wear one’s learning lightly. I am not a clown who wants to play Hamlet: on the contrary. I studied paradoxes, (with George Brecht) puns (with Paul Hammond) and oxymorons (on my own). These findings were published in three popular books, influential, complete, and original. But I would never let this research show overtly on my art work, it is in my art and in my heart.
MMcD: What do you think art is?
PH: I like the idea that art is a lingua franca, a language that we can all read. For someone so literary, I abhor words as back-up for visually inadequate visual art. I am not interested in the personal in art - we are all persons - some want to be more personable than the rest of us - creeps.
MMcD: What do you hope people take from your work?
PH: I believe they have an experience, unlike any other, in which they see the impossible happen. And I hope that they then think a bit about why that is. If lookers and seers experience the paradoxical and reciprocal relation between parts of the world and themselves, they get a sense of the flow of life.
© Patrick Hughes. All Rights Reserved.