Artist — Obituaries & World News

Portraits of the Dead Famous

by Sarah Mayhew-Craddock

Hugh Mendes’ exhibition of newspaper obituaries translated into portraits of the great and good, gives Sarah Mayhew-Craddock pause for thought.

A room of famous faces greets me, some staring wistfully into the middle-distance, others holding one’s gaze as I walk around the exhibition space. The faces are flat, one-dimensional portraits, some of them familiar, famous figures, while others are alien to me. But these intently observed, meticulously depicted painted portraits are not flat, thanks to the ability of the artist. On the contrary, this is photo-realistic painterly perfection. The paintings depict clippings of newspaper reports that have been visually transposed from the transient paper page and carefully committed to history. Preserved for posterity, this melancholic collection of hauntingly familiar faces retains a distinct distance, yet also has a sense of the celebratory.

Leap-frogging through time, hanging side by side in a roll-call of the great and the good we are greeted by the gay gaze of the glamorous swimmer and actress Esther Williams, while at the other side of the entrance hangs a pensive Bob Hoskins, void of his familiar cheeky charm.
The contentious character Philip Seymour Hoffman gazes out into the middle-distance from one wall, and Nelson Mandela makes two appearances in the room, once in black and white, the other beaming out from the canvas in full, resplendent colour.
This curious hall of fame appears to only have one thing that unites the sitters – all of them are dead. The paintings are Hugh Mendes obituary paintings, and the enlarged images are taken from newspaper reports from over the past 10 years.

By picking out and painting these portraits Mendes, pictured in his studio, has transformed ephemera into something that is here to stay. He explained to me that the group of actors, politicians, designers, musicians and artists are people he has had a special connection with, either personally, or from a distance. These are people that he’s admired and looked up to, and, appropriately, the portraits hang high on the walls just above eye-level, enhancing that feeling of greatness. For me, the paintings (and two pencil on paper works) present an opportunity to revisit names from history and the legacies they left behind. I might have thumbed past Captain Beefheart and Kevin Ayers on the pages of a newspaper, but, hung on the wall, they give pause for thought – what was/is their significance, and what has moved the artist to depict them out of the many names and faces that adorn these pages of remembrance? Boasting his own fanbase, Mendes exhibits internationally, his paintings are held in important collections worldwide and adorn the walls of the likes of Jerry Hall, Kenny Schachter, and Bill Wyman. Freezing ephemera in time through the act of painting, Mendes refers to his works as reflecting the 17th century tradition of still life paintings.

And so we progress through to the next exhibition space where a series of paintings of iconic images commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Great War hang on the walls. Captain Stubby, a dog laden with medals, stands opposite an image from The Guardian, accompanied by the headline “Anti-war activists battle to get their voices heard in events marking WW1 centenary”. These WWI related images command more time and space from the viewer, they are hung more sparingly, given more space to breathe and made even more poignant by the fact that Mendes was born on Armistice Day in a British military hospital in Germany: his mother a nurse and his father a British Intelligence code breaker. Using the same approach as with his obituaries, ephemeral newspaper cuttings are elevated to poignant memorials for those who served and died.

Hugh Mendes is a fascinating artist and this is a fantastic introduction to his work presented by the High House Gallery. The exhibition is one of the best I’ve seen in the area for a long time.

Oxford Times 19 June 2014

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