Lore Of The Mountain: In The Studio With Simon Hughes

Looking out of the windows in Simon Hughes’ studio we see Winnipeg in two cardinal directions, its low-lying buildings and flat terrain stretching far into the horizon. Inside, however, the artist is painting mountains. Proficient in the medium of watercolor, Hughes is trying his hand at painting on canvas, a preoccupation marked as much by a history of male artists “conquering” new heights as the history of mountaineering. Hughes enters the territory cautiously, with a good dose of satire, and self-reflection.

A magazine page tacked to the wall beside his largest painting pictures the Sierra Nevada where the peaks of snow capped mountains kiss a peach-colored sun. Mighty nature is shown as dangerous, pure, desolate and awesome. But inside the space of Hughes’ paintings, the rugged power of the mountain begins to fall apart. Clippings from books and magazines mingle with painted triangle shapes on the canvas, like rows of shark’s teeth pointing to the sky.

Collaged inside the mountain are images of nearly all of human history – fighter jets, cityscapes, mountain ranges, vintage cars, a bulldozer, cave men, famous artworks and ancient pottery. Jutting out flatly like theatre set paintings, the kaleidoscopic pieces amount to everything the symbol of the mountain can offer, athletic challenge, resource extraction, and now, environmental collapse. Multiple realities coexist in the painted formations, competing and surviving all at the same time.

The history of Romantic landscapes collides with technology and industry in this series. “If you pan over from a Caspar David Friedrich painting,” muses Hughes, “you’d probably see an open pit mine.” Indeed the mountain – with its rich deposits of coal and slopes for skiing and climbing – has for centuries been the site of both heavy industry and fantasies of rugged untouched purity. In his variety of collaged imagery, Hughes shows these binary concepts without prioritizing one over the other. The manmade is now an inextricable part of nature, and there is no going back.

Simon Hughes’ upcoming exhibition opens June 23, 2018 at Division Gallery in Toronto.

Simon Hughes, Nocturne, 2018. Acrylic and collage on linen.

Simon Hughes, Vision Quest, 2018. Acrylic and collage on linen.

Simon Hughes in his Winnipeg studio, collecting found imagery from magazines and books, 2018.

Two paintings in progress and stacks of collage material at Simon Hughes’ Winnipeg studio, 2018.