Hugo Wilson: Panacea, | Exhibition Essay for Project B Contemporary Art, Milan

Dearest Hugo,

I trust this email finds you healthy, happy and raring to grab 2018 by the bollocks. I have a feeling this year is going to be momentous for you and your career.

Now, as promised, I have written my essay for your catalogue and I hope that you like it. Except it is not, technically, a catalogue essay. One of those fuddy-duddy introductions at the beginning of a book. It's this. This email. Which, I hope, you and Emanuele will publish in its entirety. I somehow found it easier to write to you about your most recent work than to write about you and your work to an imagined audience. I have your handsome face, and all those wonderful paintings and drawings, in the forefront of my mind now as I type away. I also like it that I'll use a modern means of communication to discuss your work which, as we both know, whispers the state of the present and the portents of the future in to the ears of those phantoms of the past.

So, here goes.

There's only one thing better than going to an artist's studio and that's being invited to their home. Especially when it involves lunch. Imagine, then, my enormous delight, after spending a splendid hour with you in the studio exploring your new work for this show (more of that later), at you inviting me back to your lovely home to eat a kebab and engage in a good old natter. Both of which I am very good at and both of which I enjoyed immensely. It always interests me to see what artists hang on their walls at home and how much of it is by them. Being married to another artist, I imagined your walls covered in art. And, indeed, they were. I loved your magnificent painting by Flora Yukhnovich. Your delightful little room adorned with fantastic John James Aubudon prints. I was, however, intrigued to see that you only had one work of art on display by you.

And this is where the catalogue essay really begins.

You see, when I saw the painting of the young man on your wall in question, I didn't know it was by you. In truth, it looked like an 'Old Master' painting. Probably, I thought, a nineteenth-century copy of a seventeenth-century original. You see a lot of these in London houses. It looked Spanish, articulating some of Zurburan's magical play with light on shade as well as exemplifying not a little of the piercing psychology Velazquez managed to slowly draw out of his sitters. Oozing towards us, emerging from a brooding, pregnant background of chocolates and charcoals, a bearded young man, with a proper-job barnet on him I hasten to add, is pushed to the front of the picture plane. Beautifully lit in a milky, gentle light that teases his features in to view, this awfully handsome man, in three-quarter pose, wears either an artist's smock, or a monk's tunic (sometimes I think they represent the very same pursuit). It is a very beautiful and a very well-executed work of art. A painting by someone who clearly understands the mechanics and dynamic of painting. How to conjure texture; suggest mood; handle pigment; work a brush. It is a painting that clearly declares that artist's faculty. And I didn't know that this painting was by you; that the sitter was your then drug dealer and that it was the painting you exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery's 'BP Portrait Award' in 2005.

You made that painting when you were just 23 years old. Most 23 year-old artists haven't got a fucking clue what they're doing, or what they want to do. And here's you exhibiting in the NPG. It's quite something, I must say. I chose to start my email to you with this painting because, firstly, it was such an unexpected surprise to see it; enjoy it and then learn it was painted by you. But, secondly, that much of what sits in the architecture of meaning of this work also, today, continues to inform your most recent production. And that consistency - albeit slightly tweaked over time - of enterprise, concept, trajectory and practice is something that, for me, marks you out as one of today's truly outstanding artists. Certainly working in London. Undoubtedly under the age of 40. You take the past; slap it round the face with the present and then throw it in to the future. And you do this very, very intelligently because when one looks at your paintings, one knows they're in the present (when are we never not - I digress) but looking at something that is new and fresh that pushes us in to that futuristic space of the unknown and which, for all of that, one knows is grounded in all sorts of traditions and canons of the past. You don't manage to make the old new. Or the new old. You manage to make objects that simultaneously vibrate in both those realms of meaning. Old AND new; past AND present. Whether you discombobulate the usual tenets of composition as adumbrated by artists such as Rubens or Leonardo or whether you purloin your protagonists from the digital annals of the internet, it is the combination of these exercises that becomes the bedrock upon which you build your artistic universe. And the works you will show in Milan (illustrated in the book this email is included in) clearly illuminate that practice and show how you have continued to develop this very clever and rewarding idea.

When I came to the studio the first works that struck me were the three smaller paintings "Derby Mushroom", "Pit Canary" and "Untitled (Red Bird)". All three have tiny birds as the little heroes of each of these compositions. All three doff their cap at the great British artist Joseph Wright of Derby and, I'm thinking, particularly his "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" (1768) in London's National Gallery. "Pit Canary" has the little yellow bird caged in these rings that don't necessarily enclose the bird, but they still effect a sense of its incarceration or paralysis. This paralysis is bookended by two distinctly eighteenth-century looking scientific objects, both of which, ironically, evince a sense of movement and change. One is a vessel for heating liquid in (transforming liquid in to a gas) and, of course, the other is the easily recognisable 'electricity ball'; that curious globe of glass that contained mini lightning strikes. Both are objects that engender transformation: from liquid to gas; from gas to light. That transformation, of course, informs the status (or, specifically, the future) of the bird which will, alas, inevitably die as part of the experiment. Or, as your title suggests, when it is brought back up from the pit in a cage, dead because of the poisonous gases that lay down below in the coal pit. Furthermore, this sense of transformation, of movement, is continued in your composition. A diaphanous background of rich, oily tones releases a subtle, nocturnal glow. You seem to capture the dying light of that glow and use it to create these irradiating beams of darkness that seem to come out of the canary at the centre of the composition. Dark comes from the bright, yellow light of the bird so, already, you've thrown the painting rule book out of the window and, rather cleverly, done it appropriating an image by an artist renowned for lighting his scenes with the High Drama spotlights of the tenebrist. These steely, grey rays do, however, create a scaffolding for the composition: interlocking and interconnecting grounds, objects, colours and planes in to one sophisticated, choreographed space.

If the yellow bird of "Pit Canary" is doomed in an almost prosaic way then the slightly more exotic golden cockatoo of "Derby Mushroom" sits in an environment that is clearly not of this place. Placed inside that Joseph Wright of Derby air pump (a direct quotation, no less), this bird rests next to a large green mushroom. In the Joseph Wright of Derby source there is, of course, no such verdant fungi. In its colour and amplification it looks like a Triffid or an accident of some strange experiment with DNA - a hybrid born to be destroyed - and, as such, this form speaks to that debate between science and religion which, of course, Joseph Wright of Derby's painting directly engages his viewer with. The shape of the mushroom, however, somehow strikes a chord with the shape of the woman's headdress standing next to the scientist conducting the experiment in Joseph Wright of Derby's masterpiece. In any event, it is a wild, strange and seductive motif to include in a composition that seems licked by flames of fiery reds, lava oranges and hot yellows. These remind me of another series of paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, namely his "Vesuvius in Eruption" works he made whilst in Italy between 1773 and 1775. Again, as is the case with your painting, light informs the work, this time in tandem with a bright, hallucinogenic palette. Together they swirl around the surface, vortex-like, energising and accelerating a sense of impending danger and change. One painting seems to have interested you in terms of its compositional framework; the other, it seems, has piqued your interest to experiment with strange colour juxtapositions and to feed those in to equally outlandish and ethereal motifs. We become a little bit like Alice peering through your Looking Glass.

The third of this trio of bird works seems to take both those concerns and marry them together. The stunning "Untitled (Red Bird)" now has a red canary at the centre of the composition. Out of it beams of bright ultramarine zip off it into every corner of the surface. The bird is surrounded by a golden ring but, now, it does not feel incarcerated. It is almost as if the ring is the bird's own nimbus. The background of the composition is, again, a diaphanous, smoky, gaseous curtain of colours that drift off in to a background that lends extraordinary depth to this small(ish) painting. It is, in many ways, a startling departure from the other two and yet it is the love child of them both. Colour and structure are here bold and energetic. You have shied away from neither. Now the paradigms of the past - be they prior paintings or ways of painting - have been driven, full speed, in that DeLorean DMC-12 back to the future. There is less of Joe from Derby in this painting and yet, ironically, it is the one that speaks the most of any number of past moments of art history; from the Biblical paintings of the Renaissance through to the nineteenth-century passion for creating new taxonomies (we're back with your Aubudon birds again, my friend) to more recent investigations in to perspectival depth which, by extension, question the mechanics of the truth and fiction of painting.

The background of "Untitled (Red Bird)" could be a quotation from your fantastic painting "Damned". Now, immediately, I start to think about the fall of the damned from any Renaissance depiction of 'The Last Judgement'. Are you channeling Michelangelo? No, you're being much looser, much more fleshy here than usual and the motion of falling, from top to bottom, is very clearly pronounced. It's much more likely that you have looked at dear Sir Peter Paul Rubens and, perhaps, his mind-bogglingly good "Small Last Judgement" from 1619 and now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Rubens' shower of fallen angels is translated by you in to wisps and plumes of smoke (no doubt prefiguring their imminent arrival in to the flames of Hell). I absolutely love this painting because, for me, of all the works in this show this is the one that best evokes the chaos of life; the madness of the rather fucked-up world we live in and yet there is not one registered figure or 'being' in the painting. The idiom of abstraction now supplants that of the vernacular of the human form and the viewer is, in turn, given much more room to play around with possibilities and boundaries of meaning. Likewise, I think this absence of any 'protagonist' - a figure in space - has allowed you to think differently about your practice and indeed your concept. I'm not saying you're 'more abstract' or 'less figurative', but just that you constantly challenge yourself to interrogate the basic act (and art) of painting - that synthesis of the conscious and the unconscious; the pictorial and painterly ramifications of one artistic or aesthetic decision over another; of your choice of colour, depth, shape and intensity. Sometimes you don't need a hero in a story to make the story heroic. I think that's what you have achieved with "Damned". It's the most narratological of all these works in this show and, yet, there are no actors on your stage.

I guess the Big Daddy of the exhibition is "Troop". It is the largest painting in the show and it incorporates eight simian protagonists (many of whom we have seen in earlier work) that effect the form of a large 'X' against a sunset sky of golden clouds set against a blue, mauve end-of-the-day. In fact there are two 'X's here; one generated by the monkeys and the other, much more subtle, by the clouds. Nonetheless, out of the organic, joyous abandonment of nature (in the form of monkeys, literally, monkeying around) we arrive at an artificial shape; one that carries with it its own lexicon of various signification but which, traditionally, has been a compositional anchor for any number of artists' works. I think the painting is ravishing in person. Not just because of the way you have painted it: glaze after transparent glaze of colour shines the most delicious light across this aluminium support. Each brushstroke is clearly visible up close and you can see, with your nose to the painting, how much time, care and attention you have paid to gradually building up your surface. What also interests me, however, is how you arrive at the composition and the image you create before you put brush to surface. You have spoken often of the work you do on your computer, utilising Photoshop, to begin and nourish an idea in to a workable composition. Which, of course, you have done with "Troop". It's at this stage that you get to carve out the basic shape of the painting - the composition; the number of protagonists or characters; the colours. The actual act of the painting becomes less about fashioning something - a scene or a statement - and more about the art of execution. Brushstrokes; hairs filled with paint stroked on to a support; the resistance against your hand of that support. Albeit always with the possibility of change invested in you. This strategy interests me because it means you are always in the painting - even if you have already preconceived of its design or content. Being a painter is allowing yourself to fuck up the plan - accidentally or deliberately - and to just keep going. To make the pentimento your best friend. Which you do often. I also have to mention that it is somewhat comforting to see you continue to paint monkeys. I like to think there is a little of you in these cheeky, frivolous, amusing little fellows. Monkeying about they are, but wise monkeys are they also (I really must stop writing like Yoda). Of course these monkeys serve the purpose of helping you to explore the interrelationship between forms; it is just that these forms are, here, monkeys. And, after a while of being 'in' the painting, you start to have a little fun with these characters who make up this visual formula. And therein lies both the wit and the wisdom of this 'Double X' painting. "Troop" is a commanding, assured work that I think shows you at your very best.
Another animal that you have chosen to bring to life for this show is a dog. A rather special dog, if you ask me, since it is a hound that evokes any number of dogs, painted directly for their important or rich or aristocratic owners, that somehow exemplified and confirmed the status of their owner. You have titled this work "Groomed" which is a clever title given that the word can take you in to a number of directions. Groomed, as in manicured and well-presented. But also groomed as in prepared by someone to force you in to something you do not want to do. One is positive; the other negative. I think a little bit of both informs this work. Words like breeding and pedigree come in to play and from several different perspectives: social, economic, political. This dog is the fiercest pooch I've ever seen and, with its curious, crazy and fabulous coat, begins to unravel and question the tenets of those loaded words 'breeding' or 'pedigree'. The dog looks like it belongs to those Dames Vivienne Westwood or Edna Everage. Or those Queens Marie-Antoinette or Liberace. Bearded with a beard that belongs on a musketeer, the animal's front half is pink, painted in a manner that makes the dog look like it has had its skin flayed. In contrast, its back legs evoke the form and possess the colours of a macaw parrot. Its tail is dark green. Even though you have clearly fucked around with the design of the dog and, specifically, the tradition of this artistic trope, you have still created an image that, in its nod to the past, portrays the very characteristics you so playfully tease. You have deliberately pushed the embellishment of the dog to see how it affects both the status of the composition and the trajectory of meanings that it follows. Yet still it functions in the same way as a Gainsborough painting of a dog would. Just much, much darker.

One painting that does feel like a departure from the others is the rather wonderful panel called "Sumaria". When I saw it first in the studio I remarked that it looked like a cubist or, more specifically, a Futurist portrait. Out of this cloudy ground of sapphire blue, one could decipher a circular form, fleshed out with passages of rust, caramel and tan, that looked like a turning head. It was a little bit Braque, Boccioni and Bacon. In fact, you had arrived at this image because you had taken five X-rays of five different paintings, as well as an X-ray of a Mesopotamian object, and layered them one on top of each other. Multiple layers of history, meaning, surface and signification seep in to one another to create a form born of several pasts but one most distinctly looking at the future. Sumaria is, of course, the ancient Palestine city that was also considered the capital of the northern kingdom of the ancient Hebrews. It is, even today, a site of conflict with, most recently, Jordan laying claim to it in 1948 and Israel occupying it in 1967. That conflict of identity is one mirrored in your painting. What it is is, of course, up for discussion. Is it a face? A head? Is it even figurative? How it has become what it is is, in many ways, a more penetrating conversation to have. I like it that you used X-rays as your source material here because, in a strange way, an X-ray is a little like an archaeological excavation; they serve to unearth the truths of the past and the passage of time. And Sumaria has, likely, been excavated to within an inch of its life given the treasures that lay under the ground there. You employ that to arrive at a coagulation of any number of hyper-referential forms and languages which, because of their initial bastardised X-ray form and your layering of them, transmogrify in to something else. Something new and something wholly unexpected. You eked out the inherent abstraction within these forms and vocabularies, making something very new out of something very old. Of all the works in your show it is this one that is perhaps the most satisfying mainly because it presents itself in a completely new way within your usual vocabulary. It feels strange, enigmatic, outre and yet completely resolved. And I love that you can make something so elastic and malleable out of something so fixed and concrete.

I have always loved your works on paper in charcoal and the three that you have in this show are superlative examples. Of course, "Last Supper" immediately recalls the Leonardo fresco from the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Enclosed in the same space - one devoted to examining the rules of perspective - the chief protagonists of the Last Supper now become ghostly, centrifugal swirls of charcoal. Their plasticity feels meaty and heavy set against the dark, granular ground of the drawing. These headless torsos - twisting tornadoes of flesh and drapery - also appear in "Dancers", their movement (and particularly given that it is choreographed up and down a vertical axis) echoing the compositions of Paolo Veronese or Luca Giordano. Differing slightly from these two drawings is the magnificent "Vanner". The black and white coat of the working horse (one specifically used to pull vehicles) - its pose taken from George Stubbs' "Whistlejacket" (1762) in London's National Gallery - blends in to a background that seems to breathe in and out of the pictorial space. Zebra-striped, these forms evoke the animal's pattern but in their format, you have also referred to the design of original world maps. Those lovely medieval mistakes that, at the time, everyone believed so truly and deeply. The myth of the past confronting the proletarian truth of the present and yet, as ever, that truth is itself a fiction given that it is communicated through the form and pose of, perhaps, the most revered horse in all of art history.

Your art is a world made up of facts and similes, not facsimiles. In many ways I liken this journey you take, meandering between these islands of the past and present and in to that unknown space we call the 'future', like that which David Mitchell takes us on in his wonderful novel "Cloud Atlas", where topographies of memory blur landscapes of truth. Paradigms and patterns pretty much remain fixed throughout history; it's just the cast of characters that changes. But these characters can paint the past in any number of different ways. The fixity of meaning is always articulated through, and problematised by, that mercury-like ineluctablity that is one's personal circumstance, context and weltanschauung. The way you see and feel the world; your truth is not necessarily the same as mine. And neither should it or can it be. So you and David Mitchell ask the same question: what is truth? And what is remembered, recounted truth? So it is that fallen angels become plumes of smoke; the ruff of a woman watching an eighteenth-century experiment becomes a bright green mushroom; an elegant hunting hound representing its aristocratic owner now speaks more of punk than privilege. There is the truth (and fiction) of the past, and there is the same of the present and you seamlessly weave both of these together: intellectually, technically and conceptually in to your achingly beautiful work.
These questions of truth, fiction and belief are crucial to any understanding of your practice. I have spoken at length with you, and you with others even more, about how your work bridges these columns of belief - be they scientific, cultural or religious - and how your painting aims to question the often nebulous, wobbly states of these so-called 'givens' and, furthermore, how they are constantly shifting, evolving and transforming themselves. Water to gas. Water to wine. Gas to light. Let there be light. All of the works in this new show of yours continue this conversation except, now, this notion of 'belief' is extended in to the mechanics of your own praxis. This is an exhibition that will show how you have moved further down the rabbit hole of your own artistry, pushing the envelope and experimenting like never before. The work is much more 'dimensional' now and yet it feels less 'referential'. You have truly fused the fixity of the past with the flux of the present and now your works bounce about, intellectually and freely, in that space. That 'bouncing' is glorious to see in these new works: it has allowed you to put together a show that sees you much more invigorated, lyrical and brave as a painter, certainly. It is a show that clearly displays how much you believe in art; the vernacular of the Sign and the Signifier and, most importantly, yourself as an artist who is able to pull all of that in to the here-and-now. And it is a belief that I share in. I hope others do too.
Congratulations on this new body of work. It is absolutely fantastic and I am sure they will look phenomenal together in Emanuele's gallery.
Print every word, I double dare you. Even these.

Keep on believing.

As ever, your friend,
MCW xx