by Mary Ann Caws
Vues d’en Haut
MAISON DE LA TRUFFE ET DU VIN | JULY 8 – AUGUST 20, 2018
We know Ménerbes, in the south of France, as Nicolas de Staël territory, as a place haunted by artistic memory. At present, Philip Hughes, a British painter celebrated for his paintings of various walks, is exhibiting, in the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin here, some extraordinary works focusing on some “scenes from above”—in other words, scenes of the earth shot from the sky. They are based on his own photographs, and also on high resolution mapping photographs, so that from our terrestrial viewpoint we see patterns we might not notice otherwise. As Hughes puts it, he is “concerned with exploring and expressing the structure of the land.”
His sight of human history stretches ours, and the range of these works from the last twenty-five years includes patterns of cultivation in France, in the vineyards of Ménerbes and around—so that as you look out the windows of the very old building housing these works, you see those vines with the lavender fields around them. And then you reach out to grasp some scenes from afar as well as above, as Hughes tells and shows you, “walled fields in the Arran Islands off the coast of Ireland; shingle patterns of the changing coastline in Dungeness, England; a meteor crater in central Australia; and the ice and rock structures of Antarctica.”
What a series of athletic gestures is demonstrated here. A painter’s imagination merges with the structures of the real, patterns of history and human venturing merge with photographs of actual places and their past, as all this photography and art merge with the real-time walking and its notation—occasionally in text inscribed on the painting—so that nothing is forgotten of the actual and all is enhanced by the encounter of past and present, the physical and the mental, the views from above and below. Take those Shingle Ridges, Dungeness from a 1946 photograph, yielding a work in “print, pastel, & acrylic on cotton duck” of 2015 of a quite extraordinary detail in its tiny dots of color amid its diagonal sweep from the left bottom corner to upper right. So far away, all of that, and then right here and now, you see the straight lines of the Ménerbes fields, out the window and on the wall, in an acrylic on panel work, in lavender and assorted greens and the ochre of the fields, and then the sunflower streaks diagonally upward to the left, as in his Tournesols of 2014. Hughes brings so much of the past into the present, bringing the historical into the actual so that as we view his work, we are made to share in his exploring.
ContributorMary Ann Caws
MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.