Taking Pleasure In Paradox

Catalogue introduction from Structure Of Space, Paintings and Multiples by Patrick Hughes, Galerie Boisserée, Cologne, 2013 by Tayfun Belgin, Director Osthans Museum Hagen.

Without a doubt, the arrow paradox of the Presocratic philosopher Zeno of Elea (490–430 BC) is a successful example of the kind of humour and pleasure that the artist Patrick Hughes takes in stimulating the senses. Zeno’s philosophy relates to the true nature of movement. He observed that, at any moment in its flight, an arrow occupies a particular point in space that can be precisely specified. This implies that the arrow is at rest in that precisely specified place, since it is not moving with respect to that place. If the arrow is at rest at that moment, then according to Zeno’s argument, it must be at rest throughout its flight. This is a paradox: it presents an insoluble contradiction, because our experience tells us that the arrow is in flight.

Reality and perception are subjects not only for philosophers, but also for artists, especially those who engage with the phenomena of our world. Changing perspectives, ‘moving pictures’ and confusing images are the stock in trade of the British artist Patrick Hughes, born in Birmingham in 1939. Hughes is a master of optical illusion. As fascinated viewers examining his three-dimensional works – whether unique creations or multiples – we not only experience impressive visual transformations, but are also prompted to reflect on our own perceptions. The excitement of the visual experience is matched by the fundamentality of the experiences we have through our powers of perception. Having seen the work of Patrick Hughes, we experience the world with new eyes – that is to say, with fresh insights into our own perceptions.

Even in Hughes’s childhood, circumstances confronted him with the theme of perception. When his home town was bombed by German warplanes, he and his mother had to hide under the stairs for days. His only view was of the bottom side of the staircase above his head. Recalling those difficult days, Hughes comments, ‘We were looking up at these stairs the wrong way round – up and down, up and down – stairs that only a fly could walk up. It must have made a strong impression: being bombed and in the dark and sleeping with my Mother and seeing everything the wrong way round.’

Stepwise transitions between flat surfaces have figured in the work of Patrick Hughes for more than twenty years; the artist has a unique way of drawing attention to distance and nearness. The initiation-like experience of his early childhood years was followed by a second one, at the age of fourteen. Hughes was nearsighted, and his parents gave him a pair of glasses, which enabled him to see the world in clearer, sharper focus – until then, it had always seemed blurry.

During his unspectacular youth, books were his most treasured companion. In his parents’ lower middle class milieu, books were his window on the outside world: ‘A book is a way out. I believe that you can find yourself in books. They are like little doors – you open the little hinged rectangle of the book and step out. I escaped from my suburban hell hole of an upbringing through the book.’ Patrick Hughes went to secondary school in Kingston upon Hull, about 250 kilometres north of London. From 1958 to 1961, he studied art at a college in Leeds with the intent of becoming a teacher. Afterwards, he taught at the art school in Leeds for several years. To imagine that as an artist and teacher in his early twenties at the start of the 1960s Hughes would have gravitated towards abstract art or the expressive, gestural style then in fashion is to fundamentally misread his character. Even at that stage, Hughes was already in search of clearly articulated forms and their variations. There is an inner logic in his preference for the artistic systems of individuals such as Paul Klee, René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp, rather than a relationship to the world mediated by the creation of abstract forms.

Hughes founded his art on classical laws of form, such as the figure-ground relationship, which led him to make cut-outs expressing the relationship between positive and negative. In our perception, a figure is never independent of its background. Hughes did away with this background, critically questioning the traditional figure-ground relationship. This brought him to his first paradoxical images. Postbox (see illustration), made in 1962, clearly shows what his artistic aims were. A rectangle carved into the upper third of a red-painted board measuring 123 x 62 centimetres opens up a new perspective. Here, the figure-ground distinction gives way to a newly three-dimensional quality, with the same type of opening in a closed postbox that can actually be found in everyday life.

Paul Klee’s art was important to Hughes because it ingeniously explored relationships between forms and the transformation of forms. A case in point is Klee’s Hauptweg und Nebenwege (Main Road and Side Roads), now in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Klee’s multiperspectival work simultaneously expresses his rationalist outlook and undermines it by granting a central role to the unconscious. The statement for which Klee is probably best known – ‘Art does not render the visible; it renders visible’ – must have fascinated Hughes, who discovered his artistic roots in Surrealism.

Accordingly, Hughes has an intensely charged relationship with the grand master of Surrealism, René Magritte. Hughes first encountered Magritte’s work in London’s Portal Gallery in 1961 and found a kind of spiritual father in the earlier artist. Marcel Duchamp’s works taught him how to address everyday phenomena with a light touch. Magritte was the ‘painter-philosopher’ whose work was essentially defined by paradox, but Duchamp opened the door for the young artist to a conceptual way of seeing the world, through the medium of everyday life. It is understandable that Patrick Hughes took these three heroes as his examples, without falling into imitation.

As we have seen, the evolution of Patrick Hughes’s work followed a path of inner development, with growing emphasis on the phenomenon of paradox. In 1972 Hughes achieved a new milestone with Short Circuit (see illustration). Starting from the statement by the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus that the beginning and end of a circle’s circumference are one and the same, he created an artistic vicious circle. Short Circuit consists of a socket and plug connected by a short cable; the plug is plugged into the socket. As we know from experience, this does not work. In short, we are confronted with a paradox. ‘I believe that reality is paradoxical and not real’, Hughes is quoted as saying in the comprehensive biography Patrick Hughes. Perverspective by John Slice, a source drawn on many times in this article. Aesthetics versus function, elegant illusions and absurd machines – shades of Marcel Duchamp.

In the early 1990s, Patrick Hughes worked with three-dimensional objects, regarding his two-dimensional trompe l’oeil paintings as a closed chapter. Another kindred spirit, the Dutch draughtsman and printmaker M.C. Escher, whose work is distinctive for its mirror images, confoundings of space and surface, impossible architectures and infinite perspectives, had worked exclusively in two dimensions throughout his career, just as Hughes had until 1990. Hughes’s shift to the three-dimensional world was an abandonment of the traditional central perspective that had dominated Western art since the Renaissance, This technique is said to have been discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi, who completed his panel paintings illustrating linear perspective for the Piazza San Giovanni in Florence in 1410. The principles of central perspective are based on perspectival foreshortening. All the lines running through the picture converge to a vanishing point on the horizon. Things that are further away from the viewer are depicted as smaller than objects in the foreground. The ‘eye point’ determines the angle from which the scene is viewed. Perspective is always linked to the point of view of the observer.

Obviously, Patrick Hughes’s works also employ a kind of visual perspective, but the opposite of the kind described above. Viewers are forced, as it were, to change their position, and that plunges them into paradoxical visual situations. In Hughes’s relief paintings (see the adjacent page), a kind of reversed perspective, which he calls ‘reverspective’, serves as an entirely new method of rendering the third dimension in painting.

Hughes describes these reverspectives as three-dimensional paintings that, when viewed from the front, initially look like flat painted surfaces showing a perspective view. But as soon as the viewer moves his head to one side or another, the impression of spatial depth is reinforced by the background and a shift in perspective occurs that cannot be explained rationally. This is possible only because Hughes makes three-dimensional objects composed of parallel truncated pyramids and triangular prisms with their summits facing the viewer. Our disorientation is caused by the artist’s placement of the furthest elements in pictorial space closest to the viewer, on the summits of the forms. ‘Reverspectives’, a portmanteau of ‘reverse’ and ‘perspective’ invented by Hughes, means nothing more than a reversal of the usual perspective. This reversal stimulates perception; we become tangled in the artist’s net; he puts our visual habits to the test.

A viewer in motion, passing in front of Hughes’s works, experiences the changes in what he or she sees as a cinematic series of images – even though the art object is in fact motionless. The deceived eye, or rather the deceived human perceptual system in its entirety, adapts what it sees, which is actually static, into a dynamic sequence.

A viewer who is so inclined can leaf through Patrick Hughes’s distorted perspective images as if perusing an encyclopaedia of art and literature. Hughes’s focus on books follows almost inevitably from his biography, as described above. Books are the wide world – the world that opened its doors to Hughes in his childhood. That explains why doors form a recurring theme in his work, taking over the role of books as direct intermediaries. It was in Patrick’s childhood that Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception (1954), a work of historical significance that remained relevant into the 1970s. It describes Huxley’s experiments with mescaline, during which he had extraordinary visual experiences. Huxley’s book is the product of a generation that opened new perspectives in literature, music and visual art in a modern world governed by routine. The fascination with M.C. Escher, Salvador Dalí and Herman Hesse in the 1960s can be partly traced to Huxley’s experiments and ideas.

Of course, we also find themes in Patrick Hughes’s works that stem from his own world – a world of visual art, architecture, travel and literature. For example, his lithograph Compendium (cat. no. 46) presents a holistic view. from left to right, we find a scene that opens with a Magritte painting, followed by a twin-lens reflex camera facing Man Ray’s famous photograph Le violon d’Ingres. The twin-lens camera, referred to in another art work as a black box, is symbolically integrated (cat. no. 9). One advantage of these cameras is that the photographer can continue looking at the subject while illuminating it. To the right, the scene continues with one of Hughes’s own works, followed by a painting by one of the most expensive artists in today’s market, Mark Rothko. Then come Roy Lichtenstein, Piet Mondrian, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Andy Warhol and Venetian architecture.

Patrick Hughes appears to believe in the idea of the musée imaginaire. First put forward by André Malraux after the Second World War, this is the idea that anyone can assemble a museum out of postcards and photographs. In today’s digital world, with continual access to paintings, the notion of an imaginary museum seems almost self-evident. By constantly drawing new connections, Hughes offers a navigation system for the all-encompassing, inescapable world of images. Now and then, he even takes his own work and artistic development as his theme, for example in Retroperspective (2000; cat. no. 24).

The art of Patrick Hughes offers us miraculous, almost cryptic visual and spatial experiences. With its manifold allusions to other works of art, it transports us into the virtual spaces of twentieth-century art and cultural history. In this musée imaginaire, we find works of twentieth-century art that have left their mark on more than just the life and work of Patrick Hughes. By inserting them into his special constructions for spatial experience, the artist demonstrates the extent to which all reception – and perhaps the reception of art above all – is dependent on perception. Reflection on our perceptions is a fundamental theme in the art of Patrick Hughes; it is what he offers us, his viewers, for our scrutiny and consideration.

We have one final practical note for anyone who may be interested: all the effects described here can be experienced only when you stand or move around in front of the actual works of art. The artist compels us, as it were, to come to a gallery, home or museum where his art is found.

Tayfun Belgin, Hagen, February 2012