Cast polyester resin and fibreglass
77 x 45 x 8 cm
Toby Kamps (Rail): Can you describe your overall project? What do you call the things you make?
Hughes: I make objects. I refer to myself more as a sculptor than an artist. I didn’t used to, really, because I didn't feel my concerns were particularly sculptural. I always felt I was resolving ideas in whatever way seemed appropriate. But now I realize that I make objects that are new versions of real-world things that I have an affinity with. They draw from the everyday and are somehow manipulated, enchanted, or reconfigured into something that elevates them from the way I found them. Hopefully there’s a kind of transformative effect. The process I go through, transforming them from the everyday into the””I wouldn’t exactly say extraordinary””involves trying to elevate them above their original status.
Hughes: Yes. Because of the level of representation I go for. The casting process and the other techniques I use are quite esoteric and archaic. They’re ways to put all that information in very specifically. It's a way of copying, but the way that I then paint or colour them, it's somewhere between strict and analytical. There's a slight generalization at times where I'll paint them until it looks like the thing I want it to be. Sometimes the real objects that I cast, they’re about freezing a thing in a certain state, suspending it. But in order for me to get to it there's a sort of sense of generalization that represents how I feel the thing should look, so there are some liberties taken there.
Rail: Why do you need to freeze a shoe, a recurring subject in your work? Isn’t it already a static thing?
Hughes: I think it is, but some of the objects I work with involve a kind of slippery formlessness. I'd started casting from found cardboard for example, which was already wet when I found it, and quite mushy. Once I went through a process where it had to stabilize and recreate this material, it gave me a real sense of ownership and affinity with the physical world.
Cast polyester resin and fibreglass, plastics, enamel paint
14 x 44 x 52 cm
Rail: It sounds like you’re engaged in something that’s a combination of both meditation and metabolism. Your subjects pass through your mind and your hand. Charles Ray, another over-the-top realist, talks about the psychological aspects of remaking things from the real world. In your work, it seems like this might be a form of reverse-transubstantiation, one that involves an exalted idea becoming a mundane thing by going through your body and consciousness.
Hughes: True, in that sense, very much. I feel remaking them allows me to take ownership of the objects that are my subjects. Of course, there’s also the other part of the process: deciding what the object is going to be. Sometimes that's very precise. Sometimes I chance across something that fits the scheme I have developed and the archetype of the things I’m looking for. But there are a number of stages. Sometimes I’ll collect objects when I’ve only got a half-inkling of how I’m going to use them, and they’ll sit around in the studio while I wait for the idea to come together. It’s an ongoing process.
Rail: Can you describe the range of things that you work with and how you find them?
Hughes: My collecting process is endless. It’s charity shops, markets, and car boot sales. I’m always going to these places. Specific things might be found on eBay or Gumtree [the UK’s Craigslist] too. There are also all sorts of things in the studio left over from other projects. I’ve done a lot of cast shoes. I’ve got shoes I’ve found on beaches. There’s a box with 20 or 30 sneakers or trainers I’ve found on beaches. Also old flip flops and work boots””things that have a history to them. I’ve collected plenty of blankets too. I made a number of works a few years ago where I was casting draped boxes. It would be a box containing objects draped with a blanket and then cast so that you get something that looks slightly like a ghost. I’m interested in stuff that gets stored away. And that impulse is something I’m guilty of myself. I say, “One day I’ll get around to fixing that myself” and keep things lying around. So I wanted to make this draped box where you might get a peek of something sticking out””the way unfinished projects become submerged in your mind. I’ve got piles of fabrics and blankets with great, substantial textures. These have what I call “proximal values.” They have a history of wear and use that comes from being on or near the human body. I've also used mattresses in the past, which are not the best thing to carry into the studio. Also sleeping bags, cushions and pillows, sometimes hats. I’ve got things like false teeth. I’ve got a few glass eyes. They’re a rarity. Whether they’ll ever get used remains an open question.
Rail: Wow. It sounds like you have assembled your own collection of holy relics. Shrouds of Turin from unknown saints. I’m reminded of David Hammons’s work with hair and discarded flasks of cheap vodka, which he says have power because of their proximity to the Black body.
Cast polyester resin and fibre glass, enamel and acrylic paint
175 x 40 x 38 cm 68.9 x 15.7 x 15 in
Rail: Your work sometimes seems forlorn, bordering on the melancholic. How did the shoe get washed up on the beach, one wonders?
Hughes: Yeah, there’s also the possibility of somebody walking home from the pub and losing their shoe, or having it pulled off and thrown. The stories the things in my work suggest are often slightly tragic but never super specific. The narrative, if there is one, or several, is that this solitary object has a very rich and human story behind it. The messages, I hope, verge on fairy tales or possible epics, but they’re generally anchored in the reality of the slight tragedy, the worn””things that have come to the end of their useful existence. But somehow, hopefully, the processes they go through to come into being brings in this sense of optimism. My reflection on this state of being is generally an optimistic one and looks to find glimmers of hope and magic.
Cast polyester resin and fibreglass
41 x 40 x 2 cm, 16 1/8 x 15 3/4 x 3/4 in
Painted cast fibreglass
Hand 28 x 55 x 4 cm, 11 x 21.7 x 1.6 in
Rail: You are deeply into skateboarding. Skaters I know have a different sense of moving through the world””especially when it comes to appreciating the grit and poetry of the street. Do you feel like skateboarding has made you able to see omens and signs and shibboleths all around us?
Hughes: Yeah, definitely. I think about those strange urban or suburban places from my own history: the idea of going out to find a spot. You might hear that someone’s found this great block or bank, and you get on a bus to go find it, and it becomes your own. These were generally in the in-between spaces that people just pass through. They'd be intended for something else, and they’d often be closed when you got there. Or they were where the deadbeats and the ne'er-do-wells congregated.
Rail: What do shoes on the wires mean?
Hughes:They’ve got lots of different meanings, don’t they? Loss of virginity, drug dealing, marking a spot as your own. I think it varies across the world. Or it meant gangs. I’m not talking about really big gangs; I’m talking about local. It was enough to make you think this is someone's turf, and maybe you should be careful. Graffiti also marks these spaces. This idea of looking for spots and reacting with your environment, I think that sense of being on the lookout was almost as important as being there. You'd be on the bus or in a car, and you’d be scoping things out.
29 x 20 x 22 cm
Polyester resin fiberglass, resin cast
105.4 x 166 x 65.7 cm 41.5 x 65.4 x 25.9 in
Rail: Oscar Wilde said something like “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us can see the stars.” I think every skater can relate to that. You may be in some grimy spot, but you’ve just done something incredibly beautiful: quick transcendence off a curb.
Hughes: And it's not for anyone else's benefit. It’s there for whoever is there at that time. A sense of appreciation, a sense of camaraderie that comes from doing something so futile and useless, but that means so much at the time. In terms of well-being and belonging and making use of commonplace things, that kind of appreciation is very hard to point to words.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including presentations at the Bergen Kunsthall (2015); FranÃ§ois Pinault Collection, Punta della Dogana, Venice (2009); the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (2008); and the Museum Abteiberg, MÃ¶nchengladbach, Germany (2006). Hughes was selected for the 55th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh (2008); the fourth Liverpool Biennial (2006), and the British Art Show 6 (2005). He was nominated for the Beck’s Futures award in 2006 and was the recipient of the EAST International award in 2003.
Polyester resin fiberglass, resin cast, motorized water system
Mattress alone 68.2 x 181 x 91.8 cm, Fountain: 15.3 x 3.5 x 31 cm, Overall install: 305 x 181.5 x 91.8 cm