Works in the exhibition
Simon Hughes’s contemplative paintings fit securely into the canon of Canadian art, though whether as landscape, abstraction, or pop remains enigmatically unclear. If anything, Hughes’s work disposes of such distinctions— its unique blend of tenderness, erudition, and wit a rebuke to pat categories. His new exhibition—a meditation on mountains and caverns—is both personal and universal in scope, examining (through references to art history and popular culture) the intimate realm of the artist’s studio and our broader climate of social, political, and environmental change.
In Black Studio, #1, #2, #3, a large, lovingly-painted portrait of his studio, Hughes envisions the cave not as Plato’s allegorical oubliette, but as a sanctuary. With its lone light bulb and a diorama of self-references, the work suggests the eurekas borne of solitude. As in Courbet’s masterpiece, The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, time has been compressed. A grab-bag of distinctly Hughesian objects reveals his private world—from drawings done by his own children (scribbled on the work itself) to the Miller High Life by his easel, presumably sustaining him through the Winnipeg winter. One’s thoughts ricochet from Matisse’s The Red Studio to Courbet’s cave paintings to Albers’s finely-graded colour studies, until, borne aloft by these enchantments, the prosaicism of the studio disappears.
Hughes’s alchemy continues in the show’s two other grand triptychs. In Yearboats, Hughes has trimmed boatloads of middle-class kids from his junior high yearbook and set them loose in a wasteland of toothy icebergs, the most central of which references Arnold Böcklin’s forebodingly titled painting, Isle of the Dead. Dories of hale young volleyball teams evoke exactly what they are not: imperiled refugees, displaced amid a global trend toward nativism, nationalism, and mass-migration. In The Blue Canadian Rockies, mountains of all shapes and sizes clamour for pride of place. Hughes performs a boggling inventory of peaks: Everest, the Himalayas, and the snow-dolloped mountaintops of Lawren Harris all make cameos, yet none stars. Only the triptych’s lone moon, distant and serene, whispers of new conquests beyond the earthly realm—a space-travel taunt in the age of Elon Musk-style wanderlust.