Room with a View: Hugh Mendes
Art in a Covid Climate May 2020
We are living through times which are a poignant reminder of the fragility and transience of life, dominated by headlines that have since the beginning of the Covid 19 outbreak dealt with little else as we experience the biggest wave of mortality since 1945. In this social media era the lives and deaths of not only prestigious but ordinary people behind the statistics have been recorded. Many of us in the modern era struggle to imagine death so the work of Hugh Mendes seems particularly germane as since 2001 he has based it on newspaper coverage of The War on Terror and his signature Obituaries. There is a poignancy to committing to oil on canvas in meticulous detail individual lives, portraits of political, cultural and notable individuals, a stark contrast to the mass-produced, easily discarded newspaper itself. Mendes' subsequent series has focused on artists in obituary form but derived solely from self-portraits, setting in motion a dialogue between self-reflection and how perhaps the world sees their legacies. His recent solo show at Charlie Smith Autorretrato: The Female Gaze featured women artists from Artemisia Gentileschi to Agnes Martin. During this pandemic he has produced prints of collages of these obituaries worked with pencil and ink adding current newspaper headlines. www.https://charliesmithlondon.com/project-papyrophilia/
Hugh Mendes was born in Germany in 1955 and graduated in 2001 with an MA in Painting from City and Guilds of London Art School after completing his BA (Hons) in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design in 1978. He is a lecturer at City and Guilds and is represented by Charlie Smith Gallery in London.
For many of us this is a time of reflection. What helps you stay positive in isolation?
Meditation. I have been meditating for over 30 years. Going to work in the studio. I am lucky as I have full access. Also really enjoying doing more cooking.
And the worst thing about living through the pandemic?
I actually contracted the virus early on. It was very rough for a couple of days and a bit scary as I couldn’t breathe properly, etc. But I did live through it!
Where are you spending your days during the lockdown?
Between home and studio. I am still teaching at City & Guilds of London Art School and doing all my tutorials via Zoom, mostly from home. Then I cycle through the park to the studio, maintaining social distancing.
If you could have any anything delivered to your door what would it be?
I did have a bottle of Correlejo tequila and a new pair of shoes delivered, oh and some art materials. Can’t think of anything else I need just now. My hairdresser?
What have you rediscovered at home?
I rediscovered an edition of Van Gogh’s letters on my bookshelf. I had not read them in years. Pretty harrowing really, but compelling.
Which exhibition plans this year have now been postponed?
I was due to have a big show at Blaine Southern later in the year, but that was cancelled due to their demise, not the virus. I was going to show my self portrait based obituary paintings of 20th Century artists alongside original works by them including Sickert, Freud, Gwen John, etc. I am still hopeful that show will take place somewhere sometime… any takers? Also a group show at Tremenhere Gallery in Cornwall and my solo at Charlie Smith London Gallery called ‘The Female Gaze’ was brought to a very abrupt and premature end by the virus.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am completing the self-portrait based obituary paintings, currently Francis Bacon, in the hope that my show will happen one day. I have access to secondary market originals by such as him, mainly through Piano Nobile Gallery. Meanwhile, like so many other artists, I am developing new works on paper, making digital prints of the collages I usually paint from. Then adding text, based on current newspaper headlines, eg; ‘Fresh air Lockdown’. These are mostly gleaned from The Guardian newspaper, which I have worked with as source material for years…
Tell us about one of the projects you most enjoyed doing?
I am really enjoying the new works on paper, as they happen relatively quickly and they recall an earlier stage of my practice, when I was using newspaper headlines a lot more. This started in the aftermath of 9/11 when I was making more political works relating to current events, such as the so called ‘War on Terror’. As many people have pointed out, the current situation, though so very different, is similar in its far-reaching global impact. The new works on paper are a pertinent synthesis of my current practice and a recording of social history, as impacted by Covid-19. They usually record an artist working in isolation, both through the self-portraits, or other portraits, and the text, etc. They are selling very fast…
What was it like where you grew up and who within your immediate family has had the greatest influence on you?
I grew up all over the place: born in a British military hospital in Germany, on Armistice day. Then moved to Canada, then UK aged 7 onwards…. kind of grew up in Farnham, and did Foundation there before Chelsea Art School and London. My mother had the greatest influence, even though she died when I was seven. She took up painting after having a nervous breakdown when I was pretty young. She had been a military nurse and one of the first people to enter the Belsen concentration camp upon liberation. She never recovered from that experience. She introduced me to the work of Van Gogh and Picasso and the idea of being an artist. I had already decided that was what I would do aged about six.
Which artists have inspired you the most?
I would probably say Vermeer, for his technique and historically. I wrote both my BA and MA dissertations in relation to him and his work. Also Warhol for his subject and methods. Newspapers and popular culture, and film.
What would you say is one of the most spiritual works of art for you?
I would pick out Rembrandt’s flayed Ox in the Louvre and his self-portrait in Kenwood House. I have spent more time with that painting than any other. Profound spiritual depth.
What do you think the world will be like post COVID 19?
Difficult to tell… less travel, especially by air. Simpler lifestyle perhaps. Less consumerism?
How do you think it will impact the art world?
Obviously everything is currently on line, from Museums, galleries, art fairs, auctions, teaching, selling work, etc… Some of this, or this shift, may well remain. I suspect some galleries and businesses will not survive. Others will flourish. Adaptation…
What is the best online exhibition you’ve seen, podcast you’ve heard or webinar you’ve participated in?
I was interviewed by Paul Robinson of Artlyst for an on line art and music festival called Lockdown, which was fun and worked pretty well… The works on paper exhibition ‘Papyrophilia’ through Charlie Smith Gallery was in a virtual gallery space hosted by Artspace/Kunstmatrix, which I felt worked really well, as you could ‘walk’ around and go right up to paintings.
If you could have lunch with someone you admire who and where would it be?
Dinner with Lee Miller would be interesting. Perhaps in New York.
Where in the world would you live if not here?
I did live in San Francisco for a period in the 90’s, so I might return there, or New York has always appealed, though I am pretty happy living in London and having access to so many European cities…
Which is your favourite museum in the world?
Perhaps the Met in New York. The Prado and Rijksmuseum vying for second place. Sometimes we take The National Gallery here for granted, but it is one of the great museums of the world. I have a fondness for the Frick as well. Sorry… so many amazing museums!
If you weren’t an artist what else would you do?
I used to, and still do, teach quite a lot of meditation and Buddhism. Recently ran a retreat in California, but it could not really be a full time job or occupation…
Which 3 books and music tracks you’d take if you were marooned on a desert island?
Life of The Buddha by Nanamoli, Dreaming of Babylon by Richard Braughtigan, On Modern Art by David Sylvester.
One of those long Fela Kuti tracks (African Woman), Mozart’s Magid Flute (is that a track?), Hurricane by Bob Dylan or Like a Hurricane by Neil Young and maybe Circle in the Round by Miles Davis. How many is that? Am I cheating?
What would you describe as your luxury at the moment?
Dinner at home with my wife, wearing my new shoes!
What’s the first thing you will do when lockdown is lifted?
Maybe go for a drink at The Groucho, when it re opens. Been described as the ultimate ‘After Party’!
Thank you Hugh!