SECOND HAND NEWS
By painting obituaries, Hugh Mendes tackles mortality, apathy and 9/11
by Maria Raposo
Artist Hugh Mendes is not afraid of politics. Unlike many artists, he weaves current affairs flawlessly into his work – painting newspaper clippings and obituaries. From the death of Margaret Thatcher to the passing of James Gandolfini, he immortalizes what would be fleeting moments of remembrance. Capturing images from around the globe, Mendes reminds us that news does not come and go – it lingers; affecting everything for years to come.
KOD: Which newspapers do you read most?
Hugh Mendes: These days I mainly use The Guardian, particularly for the Obituaries. I used to work more with The Independent, especially as I had some correspondence with the Obituary editor, James Fergusson. They bought a couple of my paintings, one as his retirement present. Then the rest of the team went over to The Guardian, and I went with them... I also use any found newspaper, like from the tube.
KOD: How do your obituary paintings tackle issues of mortality?
Hugh Mendes: They are technically speaking 'Still Lifes' and refer mainly to Dutch 17th Century Still Life painting: the depiction of an object from daily life that reminds us of death. In painting Obituaries from the newspapers they also are a record of history, and a memorial to that particular person. I like the fact that I am using a very temporary, ephemeral source to make something more substantial and permanent. I hope there is a sense of poignancy to this process.
KOD: Do you believe people are numbed to what they read in the news?
Hugh Mendes: Some people lead their lives in a relative state of numbness, though I think if anything this is more induced by excessive television viewing... so much stultifying crap.
KOD: Is art the answer to apathy?
Hugh Mendes: Not necessarily. Though obviously one tries to confront people with images that make them think, or reconsider. If I paint an image from the news, it is presented in another format. A painting slows down the process and presents images in a way that perhaps is less easily ignored. I hope people will stop and look and see what I put out there, perhaps be moved by it. I have been fortunate in that a lot of very intelligent people have written eloquently and even with a degree of insight, about my work. Of course in some ways this completes a circle.
KOD: Your obituary paintings resemble early Christian icons. Do you believe our society treats celebrities like gods?
Hugh Mendes: I have heard this reference and comparison before. This is quite satisfying because it brings out another reading and dimension to my work that I had not been so conscious of myself. Certainly celebrities are contemporary Icons. It is one of the reasons I paint them; to reflect on what is iconic and why.
KOD: Can you explain your 9/11 paintings?
Hugh Mendes: It was a chilling coincidence that my MA graduation day was 9/11 2001. In my show was a newspaper piece commenting on the contested US election result that summer. The painting was a diptych juxtaposing George Bush with an Arab with a gun, as it were pointing at him! It was from a piece of Arabic newspaper I found blowing down the street on Brick Lane. I did not know when I painted it and hung it in the show, that it was an image of Osama bin Laden.
After that day I collected all the newspapers for a couple of weeks, and then painted a series of 20 paintings from those unforgettable images. I continued to follow the story: the 'War on Terror', Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. 10 years later I had an anniversary show in Hoxton, London at Schachter/Rove Gallery.
KOD: What do you have planned for 2014?
Hugh Mendes: This year is looking pretty good so far. I have a WW1 Centenary Show at Charlie Smith Gallery London, in February. I am also working towards two solo shows, including one at my gallery in Frankfurt, Braubach 5, in September.
I have another rather interesting project in the developmental stage. This is in conjunction with a Hollywood movie being directed by my friend Simon Rumley. Currently in post production, it is called 'The Last Word'. It is about a wrongful execution and the curse uttered by Johnny Frank Garrett on the gurney. It’s a horrific story and I am working from original newspaper clippings of the case. Simon wants me to do a show to coincide with the film's release...
Meanwhile it’s back to the easel and The Kaiser!