It is fitting, given surrealism’s fascination with psychoanalysis, that the British surrealist Patrick Hughes found inspiration for his best-known paintings in a memory that could double as a Freudian case history.
He recalls the nights when he would hide under the stairs with his mother as bombs rained down on war-time Hull. “We were looking at these stairs the wrong way round – stairs that only a fly could walk up. It made a strong impression: being bombed and in the dark and sleeping with my mother and seeing everything the wrong way round.”
Hughes’ “Reverspectives” could be a response to that childhood trauma. These paintings appear like normal canvases that draw the eye into deep perspectives: a room sliced by rows of bookshelves and end-stopped by a mountainous landscape; another whose internal walls are hung with Old Masters and divided by classical statues; canals that flow past serried ranks of Venetian palaces towards a fantasy La Serenissima on the horizon.
Yet as the viewer moves closer, those distant anchors – the snowy peak, the statue, the cathedral – leap out into the room while the foreground recedes. The surface itself is an illusion; in reality, these are three-dimensional objects – their maker describes them as “big lumps of space in perspective” – whose concertina-shape resembles the upside-down staircase of Hughes’ nocturnal refuge. The results are pictures that not only invert but also appear to move.
The “Reverspectives” are the centrepieces of a new exhibition at Flowers Gallery in east London. Although it is a commercial show, it is given the heft of a retrospective by loans from public institutions including Tate, the Arts Council and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. As well as paintings, there are sculptures, gouaches, watercolours and hand-painted digital prints.
Hughes’ rapport with Flowers dates back to 1970. By then the artist, who was born in 1939, had established a reputation for surreal visual puns whose charm lay in the games they played between word and image and idea and material. In “The Cloakroom Ticket, 1961” (2011), Hughes simply transforms his canvas into a painted version of the object; he carves the necessary slit in a red-painted board and calls it “Post Box, 1962”; the familiar shape of a clothes peg, perched on top of a white line across a blue ground and entitled “Peggy on the Line, 1963” (2006), is transformed into a female tightrope walker.
These works are all executed in the gloss paint whose smooth, shiny surface is usually associated with less exalted painters. By sullying the art of Titian and Velazquez with its lowly “other” of home decoration, Hughes shows himself as part of the mid-century avant-garde driven by a desire to collapse the boundaries between high and low culture.
British influences on Hughes included Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, yet those trailblazers of Pop concentrated on images, whether an Old Master or a movie poster, that bellowed cultural significance. Instead Hughes preferred subjects so ordinary they slip under our visual radar.
His predilection for discovering the paradox within the everyday shows him as the heir to Magritte, whose influence, along with that of Duchamp and – less convincingly – Paul Klee, he cites as fundamental. Yet for all their wit, Magritte’s paintings alarm too. Hughes never lets himself get so metaphysical. At times, his lightness is a boon. A series of works dating from the early 1970s sets a rainbow – bold and bright as a comic-strip graphic – in droll mise-en-scènes: piled in a heap on the floor, casting its own shadow, shamelessly surging from a male crotch and, with bashful poetry, draped over a crescent moon.
The wilfully downbeat quality of Hughes’ vision mocks his Pop peers’ attempts to leverage themselves firmly into the pantheon. When Robert Rauschenberg painted a grungy quilt he was heralded for making a daring, anti-painterly statement. But what are we to make of a Combine that sticks two children’s model sailing boats onto a glossy blue ground and calls it “St Ives’ Bay, 1978” (2011) or “Painting and Sculpture, 1985” that resembles a square of kitsch floral wallpaper sprouting three-dimensional roses? Devoid of narrative or symbolic meaning, these are minimalist sculptures mischievously masquerading as Pop-lite paintings.
The artist who appears not to take himself too seriously, however, runs the risk that others will follow suit. Hughes has never hidden his disappointment that he has not won more critical respect nor been awarded a major retrospective in a British museum. The “Reverspectives”, which Hughes began to paint regularly in the 1990s, are partly an attempt to grab some of this artistic high ground. In interviews, Hughes suggests these “sticking-out pictures” make him both the heir to the Renaissance masters of spatial depth and to Giorgio De Chirico and the Cubists.
Yet this bid for greatness is always in tension with Hughes’ own ambivalence about the canon. The paintings themselves are soaked in cheeky allusions to cultural heavyweights. In “Seaside Reading, 2008”, stacks of books are emblazoned with names such as Euclid, Heraclitus, Uccello – yet the presence of McGough, a reference presumably to the Liverpool poet Roger McGough, complicates the notion of homage to past greatness. A 2010 hand-painted inkjet print of a fantastic Venice is entitled “Turner, 2010”; the walls of “Living Room” – another inkjet print – are hung with a Rothko, a Matisse and a Warhol.
To watch these household names glide back and forth across the canvas is diverting. Hughes, excluded from high art’s Olympia, must have thrilled at making its members literally dance to his tune. However, the paintings themselves, once their sleight-of-eye mechanism is comprehended, are hampered by their slick, commercial execution. In a world where those masters of mass production, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, earn both millions and museum shows, one can understand Hughes’ frustration. Nevertheless it is his earlier work that deserves reconsideration as soon as possible.
‘Patrick Hughes: Fifty Years in Show Business’, Flowers Gallery, London until September 3 www.flowersgalleries.com