Art In Conversation
RICHARD HUGHES with Toby Kamps
“Some of my objects and arrangements express an optimism for the unknown”
New York CityAnton Kern Gallery
November 7 – December 21, 2019
Richard Hughes is realist and a fantasist. He is a sculptor who makes replicas of the worn out and thrown away things littering the urban environment: old shoes, dusty comforters, tattered “I’m with Stupid” t-shirts. He also is a skateboarder who sees poetry in the most desolate streets. A true connoisseur of the modern world, he recreates, reconfigures and repurposes a panoply of abject objects. With love and care and a host of high-skill casting and modeling techniques, transfigures his subjects, acknowledging their stories of use and wear while transforming them into something new and transcendent. A bunch of deflated balls become a map of the solar system, a sports fan’s foam finger becomes the hand of God.
Toby Kamps (Rail): Can you describe your overall project? What do you call the things you make?
Hughes: I make objects. I refer to myself more as a sculptor than an artist. I didn’t used to, really, because I didn't feel my concerns were particularly sculptural. I always felt I was resolving ideas in whatever way seemed appropriate. But now I realize that I make objects that are new versions of real-world things that I have an affinity with. They draw from the everyday and are somehow manipulated, enchanted, or reconfigured into something that elevates them from the way I found them. Hopefully there’s a kind of transformative effect. The process I go through, transforming them from the everyday into the—I wouldn’t exactly say extraordinary—involves trying to elevate them above their original status.
Rail: You were raised Catholic, and you’ve used the word transubstantiation to describe the ways you replicate and reimagine everyday things. Can you talk about the influence of Catholicism and how it flows into the work?
Hughes: I think it is a very relevant observation—the idea of an object being sacred, and of having qualities beyond the material. I think, in hindsight, that was one of the things from when I was growing up that had an influence on what I do, this idea that something seemingly ordinary has a far greater meaning beyond what you’re presented with. So I think that my upbringing, being very Catholic, you know—large family, devout parents—meant that I was exposed to a belief system based very strongly on the idea that we are surrounded by parables, things that tell stories. I think those sorts of influences—the church, the iconography, the system of belief—have fed directly into why I became an artist. And the idea of materials becoming more than just inert matter through the process of creation and work in the studio is very present for me. The labors of art can bring about transubstantiation. Not necessarily in the Catholic sense that bread becomes Christ’s body, but in the ways the materials I use can become a thing with meaning. That kind of communication is at the heart of my project. For me this is especially true in projects where there's a replication—where one material represents another.
Rail: I’m imagining polychrome wood sculptures of saints or the Madonna in a church where somebody has made something, sparing no effort trying to render every detail. And your work, some of that same loving, absolutely sincere attention to detail. Is Christian religious sculpture an inspiration?
Hughes: Yes. Although two of my brothers went to art school only a couple of years before me, and they were always doing something creative, it was generally through church more than museums or galleries that I really first encountered art. I wasn’t really exposed to that sort of thing until I sought it out in my late teens. To see these beautifully rendered objects in the unspectacular area near Manchester where I grew up made an impression, these objects that seemed so precious and were the focus of such attention and devotion. We had iconography at home, but it was always shelf-based, and to see larger works in church was definitely an influence.
Rail: By iconography in your home, do you mean something like a figurine of Christ the cross?
Hughes: Generally the saints. My mom was very into certain saints. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, of course, but also the Child of Prague and St. Francis were popular ones with my mom and my grandparents. So I was familiar with this very Catholic cast of characters and the cults around them. I never learned their stories necessarily, but their soft realism really drew me in. There was a piece I made—this is going way back, before I graduated with my first degree—it was a statue of Jesus as a child trying on a fake beard, sort of based on Jesus as a boy in the carpentry workshop where he’s showing his cut hand to his step dad. John Everett Millais painted this scene in Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’), 1849–50. It’s in the Tate Collection. I thought of it as Jesus thinking about his legacy. I tried to do it in dreamy, religious-seeming pastel colors. My mom still has it in her house. She thinks it's just this gentle illustration of childhood, and it's Jesus, so she loves it.
Rail: He’s trying on a beard?
Hughes: Yeah. It looks like a big, theatrical joke shop beard, and he's got a little mirror. I always understood the Bible as stories with meaning, rather than historical facts, whereas my Dad and Mum were very much, “This is what it says. That’s what happened.” Transubstantiation of the host in Communion—they’d tell you they believe it becomes the body of Christ. Whereas I thought it was symbolic. When I found out, no, you’re meant to actually believe it, I realized I felt that the symbolic meaning was more magical than the absolute faith that this thing actually changes.
Two of my brothers did art before me, but I wasn’t interested in it for that reason. I did it because I had a certain knack in drawing, painting, whatever. But once I started to make things that were about ideas, that side of it, it sort of scared me, and I thought it was amazing that you could actually have a voice. It was totally new to me. Why do people make art? It was a dawning, a total revelation. Of course, when I started doing it, that was a totally different matter.
Rail: Are you a soft realist?
Hughes: Yes. Because of the level of representation I go for. The casting process and the other techniques I use are quite esoteric and archaic. They’re ways to put all that information in very specifically. It's a way of copying, but the way that I then paint or color them, it's somewhere between strict and analytical. There's a slight generalization at times where I'll paint them until it looks like the thing I want it to be. Sometimes the real objects that I cast, they’re about freezing a thing in a certain state, suspending it. But in order for me to get to it there's a sort of sense of generalization that represents how I feel the thing should look, so there are some liberties taken there.
Rail: Why do you need to freeze a shoe, a recurring subject in your work? Isn’t it already a static thing?
Hughes: I think it is, but some of the objects I work with involve a kind of slippery formlessness. I'd started casting from found cardboard for example, which was already wet when I found it, and quite mushy. Once I went through a process where it had to stabilize and recreate this material, it gave me a real sense of ownership and affinity with the physical world. Again, this might be a certain Catholic thing, where I had to apply a strong work ethic to prevent the actual objects from disintegrating. I felt like I needed to earn the skills and the right to depict it, which in turn allowed me to gain a really intimate understanding of the stuff I work with. You know, even now, my processes can take days and days. Casting something, you’re almost switched off in an interesting way. I wouldn't say it’s meditative, but there's something about going through this process where you’re not thinking so much about what you’re doing but focusing on the nature of things. It allows for a real understanding of every square inch of the object.
Rail: It sounds like you’re engaged in something that’s a combination of both meditation and metabolism. Your subjects pass through your mind and your hand. Charles Ray, another over-the-top realist, talks about the psychological aspects of remaking things from the real world. In your work, it seems like this might be a form of reverse-transubstantiation, one that involves an exalted idea becoming a mundane thing by going through your body and consciousness.
Hughes: True, in that sense, very much. I feel remaking them allows me to take ownership of the objects that are my subjects. Of course, there’s also the other part of the process: deciding what the object is going to be. Sometimes that's very precise. Sometimes I chance across something that fits the scheme I have developed and the archetype of the things I’m looking for. But there are a number of stages. Sometimes I’ll collect objects when I’ve only got a half-inkling of how I’m going to use them, and they’ll sit around in the studio while I wait for the idea to come together. It’s an ongoing process.
Rail: Can you describe the range of things that you work with and how you find them?
Hughes: My collecting process is endless. It’s charity shops, markets, and car boot sales. I’m always going to these places. Specific things might be found on eBay or Gumtree [the UK’s Craigslist] too. There are also all sorts of things in the studio left over from other projects. I’ve done a lot of cast shoes. I’ve got shoes I’ve found on beaches. There’s a box with 20 or 30 sneakers or trainers I’ve found on beaches. Also old flip flops and work boots—things that have a history to them. I’ve collected plenty of blankets too. I made a number of works a few years ago where I was casting draped boxes. It would be a box containing objects draped with a blanket and then cast so that you get something that looks slightly like a ghost. I’m interested in stuff that gets stored away. And that impulse is something I’m guilty of myself. I say, “One day I’ll get around to fixing that myself” and keep things lying around. So I wanted to make this draped box where you might get a peek of something sticking out—the way unfinished projects become submerged in your mind. I’ve got piles of fabrics and blankets with great, substantial textures. These have what I call “proximal values.” They have a history of wear and use that comes from being on or near the human body. I've also used mattresses in the past, which are not the best thing to carry into the studio. Also sleeping bags, cushions and pillows, sometimes hats. I’ve got things like false teeth. I’ve got a few glass eyes. They’re a rarity. Whether they’ll ever get used remains an open question.
Rail: Wow. It sounds like you have assembled your own collection of holy relics. Shrouds of Turin from unknown saints. I’m reminded of David Hammons’s work with hair and discarded flasks of cheap vodka, which he says have power because of their proximity to the Black body.
Hughes: He’s fantastic. The way Hammons puts things together so beautifully and seemingly effortlessly is really enviable.
Rail: Your work sometimes seems forlorn, bordering on the melancholic. How did the shoe get washed up on the beach, one wonders?
Hughes: Yeah, there’s also the possibility of somebody walking home from the pub and losing their shoe, or having it pulled off and thrown. The stories the things in my work suggest are often slightly tragic but never super specific. The narrative, if there is one, or several, is that this solitary object has a very rich and human story behind it. The messages, I hope, verge on fairy tales or possible epics, but they’re generally anchored in the reality of the slight tragedy, the worn—things that have come to the end of their useful existence. But somehow, hopefully, the processes they go through to come into being brings in this sense of optimism. My reflection on this state of being is generally an optimistic one and looks to find glimmers of hope and magic.
I started making objects with the idea of a double-take—that experience where, especially when you’re a kid, you’ll see something that takes on the appearance of something else. Something familiar becomes unfamiliar. It takes on the guise of something else. I remember a brilliant section of one of Carlos Castaneda’s possibly fictional books about studying with a Mexican shaman. There’s a great passage where he's been starved for a couple of days, and he goes on this night hike and he comes across this dog in the moonlight that is in its death throes, taking its last breath. And he stares and stares at it until something breaks the spell, and he realizes that it's just a tree branch. I love that sense when you totally believe something you see, and you keep believing in it until the magic breaks.
I am going for that kind of feel: where the objects are fake, but you believe in them the whole time you're interacting with them. Plus, I’m interested in the sort of environments that my objects suggest: suburban spaces with an element of the unreal, possibly psychedelic, or even just a kind of mistaken identity. I guess this is a semi-autobiographical kind of take on it.
Rail: You are deeply into skateboarding. Skaters I know have a different sense of moving through the world—especially when it comes to appreciating the grit and poetry of the street. Do you feel like skateboarding has made you able to see omens and signs and shibboleths all around us?
Hughes: Yeah, definitely. I think about those strange urban or suburban places from my own history: the idea of going out to find a spot. You might hear that someone’s found this great block or bank, and you get on a bus to go find it, and it becomes your own. These were generally in the in-between spaces that people just pass through. They'd be intended for something else, and they’d often be closed when you got there. Or they were where the deadbeats and the ne'er-do-wells congregated. Seeing these spots and the people in them became pointers to my future practice. I became interested in discarded objects and how they define space. The classic is shoes on a wire, but also a bicycle tire that's been hooped onto a lamp post, or pair of trousers on the top of a bus stop. Someone has obviously done this anonymous gesture to show their skill or to create a slightly aggressive, bullying atmosphere. They are remnants of all the things that got lost along the way.
Rail: What do shoes on the wires mean?
Hughes: They’ve got lots of different meanings, don’t they? Loss of virginity, drug dealing, marking a spot as your own. I think it varies across the world. Or it meant gangs. I’m not talking about really big gangs; I’m talking about local. It was enough to make you think this is someone's turf, and maybe you should be careful. Graffiti also marks these spaces. This idea of looking for spots and reacting with your environment, I think that sense of being on the lookout was almost as important as being there. You'd be on the bus or in a car, and you’d be scoping things out. Appreciating and spotting environments. When I wasn't skating so much, when I did my first degree, I'd still be tuned into looking around my environment for skateable details. That was good training, really.
Rail: Oscar Wilde said something like “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us can see the stars.” I think every skater can relate to that. You may be in some grimy spot, but you’ve just done something incredibly beautiful: quick transcendence off a curb.
Hughes: And it's not for anyone else's benefit. It’s there for whoever is there at that time. A sense of appreciation, a sense of camaraderie that comes from doing something so futile and useless, but that means so much at the time. In terms of well-being and belonging and making use of commonplace things, that kind of appreciation is very hard to point to words.
Rail: The title of your exhibition is The Great Perhaps. Where is this from?
Hughes: It’s from Rabelais. He was on his deathbed, and said, more or less, “Now I go to see the Great Perhaps.” This felt like a great summation of what’s been permeating my thinking lately. You know, middle age, pondering the future and the past, and the children growing up, and the current political situation. Nobody’s got certainty. It’s also about wondering what comes after death. Today, there seems to be a great sense of “perhaps.” A general feeling of uncertainty that defines our time and our personal moments in it. It also looked great as a piece of text. It wasn’t like those vague inspirational posters and memes that are everywhere. It seemed very open to interpretation. I like to think some of my objects and arrangements express an optimism for the unknown.
Rail: The print ad for your Anton Kern exhibition featured a foggy window in which the words of this title appear. It has a wonderful daydreamy sensibility. Can you talk about your inspiration for that ad?
Hughes: This is the first show I've done in a gallery in a few years, so that in itself led to a kind of pondering. And where I live now, a remote, rural location in England’s Midlands means you‘re kind of isolated. You have no idea from piece to piece really how successful you’re being in terms of making strong work that people will appreciate.
When I’m working on a show, I like to produce an image that works as a poster. The condensating window, I think, brings to mind a sense of longing, of looking out and waiting for something, pondering the future, the past—and also the idea of boredom. Even more so when I was a child, I remember being full of boredom. It was great, really. At the time it's not, but thinking about it, it's a situation in which all kinds of things can develop. So I wanted to try and evoke that state in the poster. I shot numerous locations and made a rubber stamp for the text because I couldn’t draw the words with my finger. They’d drip all over the place. Plus, I wanted a specific typeface, Bookman, which is similar in feel to the font used on the cover of the Bread album, The Sound of Bread from 1977. I made a rubber stamp, and I shot it from the boot room at the back of the house. I put the kettle on and blasted steam into the room and the printing on the window. I did this at various times of day. Morning, sunrise, different weather conditions. And then I tried to do it in our old Volvo. I thought I could have the studio building in the background. I just tried various things to see which one worked. A couple of them were successful. They contained my current location and the mindset of pondering things from a rural location. There's a sense of nostalgia to the image too, of course.
Rail: Yes. Nostalgia really seems like a throughline in your work. Your subjects seem to come from a just-out-of-reach past where things feel charged and portentous.
Hughes: In my photography, I’m drawn to things like lens flares. To me, they speak of a quality of image that you might associate with a certain generation of posters and albums covers. I didn’t want to simulate that. I wanted to do it for real because I'm quite analog in the way I produce most things. I like to cut and paste, physically, and use a photocopier instead of Photoshop. And, in the same way, I like to have full, manual control when I cast things. Even in the work in the show at Anton Kern Gallery, a large quilt made of tee shirts, each saying “I’m with stupid,” were all hand-lettered from old Letraset catalogues, and I printed them myself rather than finding a digital way to do it. I think they have a sentimental quality, although I don’t think “sentimental” is the right word. There’s a time-inflected aspect that I always aspire to, even in the way I make work.
Rail: I think, as a newcomer to the UK, that nostalgia is different here. The Hauntology movement in music picks up on the fact that not so long ago this was a much more socialist country, where things like BBC programs for kids didn’t need to be commercial and so were much more experimental and strange. Am I on the right track, and can you talk about nostalgia in your work?
Hughes: Yeah, it’s funny that you mention BBC programs because some of them even had a sense of nostalgia about them when they were new. In particular there’s one called Bagpuss, and the story is about this shop. It doesn’t sell anything, and there’s this store window with a collection of objects in it. This little girl finds objects—this sums up my practice pretty much—and puts them in the window, just for passersby to look at. And if it’s theirs they can take it. The opening sequence is shot in black and white and sepia still images of the girl, and then the program starts, and it's the cast of characters in the shop window. Bagpuss is a stuffed cat. There’s a wooden owl. Each time an object is brought in, they all discuss what it is. Proper English folk musicians did the music for the show.
I was the youngest of five lads in my family. My brothers were all into different things at different times, a variety of different cultural movements. I remember when they were into their mod phases, and into ’60s music, and all the fashions of the time. There was always this kind of “retro glancing,” looking back to the past and turning it into something current. For me, nostalgia is a way to look back on times that seem finished and absorb them once more. Also, in my work, there’s always this feeling of being an observer rather than a participant. There’s always this nostalgic sense of being there but also not quite being there. Nostalgia can be a comfort thing too. I’m not saying the past is better. But I often find myself reflecting on times when I felt that things were always going to be better, whether it turned out that way or not. Drawing on that sense of positivity has been an ongoing aspiration for me.
Rail: Of course, being a parent means you get to relive your own childhood. You have how many children?
Hughes: Three sons.
Rail: Do you see them doing some of the same things you did and developing interests the way you did?
Hughes: Yes, there’s an interesting point where, after you’ve exposed them to things like the music and movies you’ve loved, they start developing their own taste. You feel a bit left out, but it’s great to see them get excited about things. You think, “Well, I’m irrelevant now,” but it's great seeing them consuming culture. I’m envious because I see them getting so interested in things like skateboarding and hip hop. They’re at that age when things mean so much, and you identify yourself with the clothes you wear, the music you listen to. It’s brilliant, and it does make you nostalgic.
Rail: And your sons help you make the work from time to time. Can you describe what they do?
Hughes: The big one, he’s useful now because of his size and strength. So he's good for physical work like I'm doing casting stuff. He actually enjoys it, and I can talk to him about what I’m doing. What we discuss is very day-to-day, you know—where things come from, how to make them, which processes I’m using. Sometimes he’ll have very nuanced kind of insights, and I’ll think “oh that’s brilliant!”
Rail: I’m interested in your interior monologue. You’re a trained artist, you went to Goldsmiths College, but something about your sculpture reminds me of the work of self-taught or visionary artists who transform everyday materials into symbolic objects out of some deep inner drive. Some of your works have an obsessive quality, a lavish craftsmanship that makes the viewer think of you as deeply engrossed in what you’re doing, perhaps even channeling some different level of consciousness. What do you think about while you’re working?
Hughes: I don’t know whether it’s my internal voice or just a voice as an artist. When I was doing my bachelors, my first degree, I always felt like I was working to illustrate or resolve an idea. And it was quite sewn up in a way. As the years went by I kept making work like that, and it always included a sense of humor or a kind of lightness. I didn’t want to take myself too seriously as an artist, and I didn’t want to come across as being too self-important. I guess this is a Catholic-y kind of thing. I wanted to find something where I felt I was making work that was very much about me, and I could show it to people and be happy to expose myself in that way. Once I got to Goldsmiths, I was surrounded by work that seemed self-important, bombastic, ambitious, dealing with apparently big issues. But I just wasn’t feeling it. So I tried to make these very small objects as a reaction to that. I made life-size objects that could sit on a shelf. I made a match stick with a fiber optic light that looked like it was just burning out. I made a coin that spun very awkwardly forever.
Hughes: I made this trompe l’oeil painting with small staples and bits of post-its painted across a wall, with all the undershadow highlight. Very invisible work, but with a lot of time invested in it. I wanted to prove my prowess as a maker, but not in a way where I was stating my presence physically. I wanted something that was a bit more delicate, a bit more poetic, a bit slighter. I think that through those works I started to find a voice. And I suppose that’s when all this stuff, my life experiences, suddenly found a place in my work. It wasn't going to be about me making work about me and my mates, but I found that within that stuff I was able to start picking out these details and to observe the current world. Putting things together, assessing them. If there is a voice in my head, it’s a very quiet one that nudges me along gently. And sometimes it’s full of doubt and questioning. But I think once I start to hit upon something I’m going to use for a work I’m quite at peace, and it's just a case of going through the process and seeing what comes along when I’m finished.
Rail: You’ve said that your number one goal as an artist is to communicate. And it seems like much of your work is about trying to get out of your own head, attempting to escape solipsism.
Hughes: Yeah, that’s true. It’s about communicating contentment in the everyday, finding comfort or inspiration or beauty in these small overlooked situations. I suppose the reason why it sometimes works is—even though when I started I thought it was very personal and irrelevant—that I found that some of my subjects were universal and happen everywhere across the planet.
I guess it is about finding a voice. You're able to let the work represent you, to be out there on your behalf. I’m more happy for the work to do that than for me to do it. And when you hear someone say, “Oh I saw this piece a few years ago,” it's really exciting and you get a bit embarrassed and say, “Oh, well thanks.” When that happens, you think that on some level it’s working, and it's out there, even though you don’t know who's coming to see the show.
Rail: That sounds like a great feeling.
Hughes: Right. It’s brilliant. I suppose that musicians get that a lot more than artists because a song can make such a great connection. But you can get that thrill in a small way just hearing that someone saw your work or that someone is writing about it. It’s really flattering, and it makes you feel ok about this solitary studio existence because what you’re doing has become a little trickle into the world somewhere. That’s really satisfying.
Rail: I’ve been thinking about some of your titles. There’s Daydreaming Whilst Peeing which is this old, dingy comforter stuffed with down, in which the pockets of insulation take the form of letters spelling “Ooooookkkkkkkk” in a long string of “O’s” and “K’s.” Can you talk about that work’s inspirations?
Hughes: I’ve made a couple of comforter pieces in the past. They’re a bit like the shoes. They came to be when we were living in London. You’d see blankets in doorways left there by rough-sleepers from the night before. There’s also something that comes from Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures. They’re cloud-like, yet dirty, with all kinds of things going on.
Rail: You ran the title through Google Translate a couple of times to get the final version, right?
Hughes: Yes. I started with “stream of consciousness,” and eventually it became “Daydreaming Whilst Peeing.”
Hughes: I was trying to think of a text-based piece. And then what came up, “daydreaming whilst peeing,” I thought it’d make a great title. Sometimes I’ll be a bit of a collector with names for works too. I’ll keep a book of possible titles, or lists of some things I've overheard for future use. But sometimes, when I want something specific, I’ll think of a certain phrase that describes what I'm trying to get at, and I’ll run the words through Google Translate, which is a fantastic mechanical meaning-maker. It can give some clumsily brilliant poetic re-edits of the thing you're trying to say.
I was looking at “stream of consciousness” because it was one of the things I find difficult and because I don't trust my own consciousness. I wouldn't be able to just create my own prose. I’m a bit more calculating when it comes to writing. When this came up, it seemed like a perfect combination of eloquence and absurdity. There's an English Saturday TV show called Tiswas that some parents wouldn't let their kids watch because it was too ridiculous. It featured a bunch of British comedians. One, Lenny Henry, used to do a character that would say “o-o-o-o-kay” in a long, drawn-out way, and kids in the audience would come on and try to say “okay” as long as they could. I remember one episode in which he was wearing a tee shirt that said “Oooooookkkkkkk” in letters that covered whole shirt. This piece became a way of tying in with the idea of the “great perhaps.” Is everything is going to be okay, or is it all shit? Maybe that's my internal monologue: just this slow, drawn out positive affirmation of nothing.
Rail: Your work Woosah consists of a liquor bottle in the shape of an Aztec or Mayan head with a gnarly melted-plastic thought bubble above it. Can you talk about that work?
Hughes: That work was inspired by a Robert R. Crumb comic strip in a book I had open in the studio. It showed Crumb with his head in his hands with “Oh God” written in a worried thought bubble above him. But the way I saw the book, the bubble looked like a smiling face.
Hughes: I love that transformation from the depths of despair and angst. The little will o' the wisps and ghosts. I wanted to transform this into an object, and I’d collected old, burned rubbish bins that had been set on fire by vandals. I couldn't really think of anything to do with them when I found them, but I kept them as sort of a reference for an anonymous gesture—a formless melted blob. The bottle was something I collected from a flea market. It was from a Mexican alcoholic drink, definitely for tourists. I saved it and thought it'd be the perfect vessel for this positive, ghostly figure. “Woosah” is a meditative breathing sound. It represents exhalation becoming something positive—a kind of release. Combining these two humble, strange objects creates something oddly soothing, I think.