Hugh Mendes: An artist of 9/11
by Matilda Battersby The Independent, 7 September 2011
The immediacy of live film footage and gruesome photographs in the press are among the many elements which forced the shape of the 9/11 attacks so forcibly into the minds of the world. Ten years on, an artist who responded to the tragedy in its initial aftermath and has been cataloguing the ensuing conflicts and political machinations by painting precise copies of newspaper cuttings in oil paint is exhibiting his work at a London gallery.
Coincidentally, the date of Hugh Mendes’ MA graduation show was 11 September 2001. On that day his tutors examined a painting of Osama bin Laden pointing a gun at a triumphant George Bush which he’d painted earlier that year following Bush’s second election win.
When Mendes turned on the TV at home and saw the second plane flying into the twin towers he started videotaping. Immediately realising that his earlier painting, prompted after he found a newspaper bearing the image of bin Laden blowing in the wind, was shockingly prophetic.
The hugeness of the subject matter Mendes chose to explore has had a violent ripple effect across all art forms as Tom Sutcliffe wrote in The Independent today. But isolating your work to an event of such magnitude and emotionality is not without its repercussions, as the artist explains here:
“I did receive a bit of ‘outrage’ when I first exhibited 9/11 based paintings in 2001, just a couple of months after the event. On the whole there was more outrage, and certainly more consistently, in response to the subject matter itself in some of the work,” Mendes said.
“That is partly what I hope the work does: to draw attention to some outrageous events depicted, Abu Ghraib being an obvious example. I like the fact that my work provokes a strong reaction sometimes. I think that with the killing of Osama bin Laden the whole thing has been rather neatly packaged, and is therefore somehow more acceptable [to the public].”
Using images (such as the front page of The Independent, pictured) which a chunk of the public will have come into contact with in newspapers but quite possibly given little attention to – perhaps throwing them away after a glance or flipping over them to a more interesting page – and cementing those images in the permanency of oil paint is a clever technique. As Mendes remarks (above), the public sometimes responds to the neat packaging of what goes into the newspapers in a sanitised manner. Presenting that same snapshot in a totally different setting, such as an art gallery, may well provoke a different reaction.
Given the gruesomely timely killing of Osama bin Laden, this memorial exhibition represents a selective history of the last decade and how it has been described to us through the media. It is a Mendes’ own “newspaper” in art form.
Matilda Battersby The Independent, 7 September 2011