How painter, Hugh Mendes, turns news into art
July 23, 2003
By Kate Quill
As a painter, Hugh Mendes has enjoyed a typically chequered career. He abandoned art as a young man and was prompted to return to it just a few years ago after a painful bereavement. Now aged 47, and back at his easel, his instinct has paid off. This former teacher has won the main prize at Fresh Art, the talent-spotting show for emerging artists which took over Islington’s Business Design Centre last weekend.
The bereavement is significant: Mendes paints still lifes in the venerable tradition of the vanitas, which uses commonplace objects to remind us of the fragile and transitory nature of life. But rather than hourglasses or flowers on the brink of decay, Mendes uses newspapers to make his point. He collects bundles of clippings from the day’s papers, combines them in playful or uneasy juxtapositions of headline and photograph, and records them with the skill of a trompe l’oeil painter.
It’s a simple idea, and it’s perfect for the genre. The newspaper, that man-made butterfly that ends its brief but glorious day-long life in the bin, the gutter, or floating piecemeal through a Tube tunnel, is offered up for the kind of sober contemplation that it rarely, if ever, enjoys.
The nuts and bolts of the medium are all put on Mendes’s dissecting table: typography, design, photojournalism, headlines, even the wafer-thin, muddy quality of newsprint itself. Elements that are put together at breakneck speed by armies of journalists — and consumed equally quickly — are brought to an arresting, deadline-free halt.
“Newspapers offer us strikingly beautiful images that people rarely stop to look at properly,” says Mendes. “I love typography, and am constantly struck by the high standard of photojournalism in the papers.”
Mendes’s big idea was launched, appropriately, on the day the biggest story of our lives broke. With unsettling foresight, he exhibited a diptych that juxtaposed a clipping of George Bush with another from an Islamic paper that he found blowing around the street near his East London home — a photo of a turbanned man aiming a gun. He placed the man pointing the gun directly at Bush. Mendes decided to exhibit the diptych on his MA graduation day: September 11, 2001. As New York entered a maelstrom, he realised that the turbanned figure was Osama bin Laden.
Shaken by this experience, it nevertheless spurred him on. His output is prolific — he paints about one canvas a week. He has his favourite papers and sections — the obituary pages of The Independent hold a particular vanitas-inspired appeal for him.
There is a notable streak of the unruly, provocative editor in Mendes. Thus a headline quoting the Pope’s dismay at the “culture of death” in the West is coupled with a photo-news item about an exhibition of electric chairs in the US. He is also a stern critic of the medium he examines so painstakingly. He is irritated by endless redesigns and groans at the preponderance of san serif fonts. “Heavy, horrible to paint, dead,” he says. He prefers the more delicate serifs, such as Century and our own Times Classic, for their “elegance, their emotional quality”.
A painter in an editor’s chair? What a thought. You certainly won’t look at your morning paper in quite the same way again. Mendes does what good painters — and good newspapers — strive to do: question the way we see things.