ORGAN THING: Hugh Mendes, twenty years on from that day, a powerful retrospective, a provoking exhibition, the role of a painter? A dirty job but someone’s got to do it…

Hugh Mendes2021: A Retrospective: It was 20 years ago today…

Hugh Mendes – 2021: A Retrospective: It was 20 years ago today…  – presented by Charlie Smith London at The Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, East London

It really is hard not to appreciate Hugh Mendes, hard not to like his art, hard to not really (really) like his work – is ‘like’ the right word? He is after all (mostly) dealing with death, the end of life, what is there to like about that? Death, a celebration of, a celebration of a life well lived, a marking of a life cut short – but it is hard not to like the paintings of Hugh Mendes  The thing about a painting is that it tends to be hundreds of moments of consideration, hours of time spent, emotion invested, you can’t paint George Floyd or Andy Warhol or Georgia O’Keeffe without really thinking about them. Those hours spent looking (even if the source material is a photograph), all that time thinking, it is one of the reasons why painting is such a special thing. This is by no means a first encounter with a Hugh Mendes show and yes, I guess anyone who knows his work does rather know what to expect (especially as this is a retrospective), but it is exciting, it does feel exciting to set out for Brick Lane for this latest show…

CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present a Hugh Mendes retrospective exhibition at The Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, London. Consisting of over 100 paintings and spanning 20 years of work, the exhibition will provide a fascinating overview of Mendes’ career. He is known for political and obituary paintings, where he adopts the visual language of newspapers and renders  in trompe l’oeil.  The day of 9/11 in 2001 was a significant one for Mendes, the events of which came to fundamentally inform his practice. Timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, Mendes will also conduct a ‘Meditation for Peace’ at 2pm on September 11th
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In his own words:  “In the summer of 2001, I was studying for my MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School. In my studio, I was  incorporating newspaper clippings into still life paintings, and was working on a memorial piece to mark the 20th anniversary of John Lennon being shot in New York: ‘20 Years Ago Today’. It juxtaposed a painted newspaper clipping with another object, in this case a green apple, relating to Apple Records.

That summer, I was also following the contested US election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. They were recounting  endlessly in Florida and arguing over ‘hanging chads’. Eventually, they fraudulently declared Bush as the winner. Walking down  Brick Lane one afternoon, I spotted a piece of newspaper on the pavement, featuring an image of an Arab with a Kalashnikov gun and some Arabic looking text. Back in the studio, I juxtaposed this clipping with an image of Al Gore and George Bush: ‘Gore Really did Win Florida’.

I hung both of these paintings in my MA graduation show, which opened on September 11th. That afternoon, while my show was being marked, I idly turned on the TV at home, to see the second plane flying into the Twin Towers in New York…  All hell broke out.  The next day, that same image of the Arab with a gun was in all the newspapers as it was the relatively unknown Osama Bin Laden. It was a chilling coincidence. I found myself propelled into making multiple paintings relating to 9/11, the ensuing ‘War on Terror’, and the wars in Afghanistan  and Iraq. My first solo show, post MA, featured 20 of these paintings and was called ‘Into Manhattan’s Memory’.  Now, 20 years later, to mark the anniversary of 9/11 and my graduation, I am returning to Brick Lane with CHARLIE SMITH LONDON to present a retrospective including over 100 paintings.

And yes it could be argued that it is, as a painter, hard not to react to world events, to the death of the universally known, the liked, the loved, the despised, hard not to react to the politics and the wars and the why and the how and yes, you could argue that it is indeed a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. And yes, if someone has to then, for the last twenty years, Hugh Mendes has been doing it rather well. As a very contemporary painter Mendes has been throwing out questions, both to himself and to the viewer who stands there looking at those faces, those lives, those people – a little bit more than a still life of an apple or a pear if you know what I mean.

Okay, it might be a little strange to stand there on a sunny September Evening (twenty years on from 9/11), cold beer in hand, politely chatting with the person standing next to you (over hearing conversation of conspiracy theories), looking at the faces of some rather evil people alongside some rather beautiful people. Actually are there any beautiful people? Are these the flawed? And there’s the Moors Murder again, that almost pop art 60’s looking face and did Adam West really want his obituary to be him masked as Batman? Of course there are heroes, or at least people admired, flawed genius? There’s Muhammad Ali, Francis Bacon, there’s Kevin Ayres, (pretty sure I saw Lemmy Kilminster in Hugh Mendes’ studio a couple of years back?). These are people who fascinate, some who on the surface at least might be seen as somewhat vile, are there any beautiful people in this show? Is anyone actually that beautiful? And that is the thing, all these questions flit around your mind as you stand there in the gallery in the sunshine looking at all these lives and all these bad things that have happened – that’s the other thing, was there anything good in the last twenty years that Mendes has considered painting? And then as you’re standing there considering a second cold beer and would it be rude, you’re thinking about what is going on with the artist that actually makes him spend twenty years of his life painting all this, I mean some of us just paint flowers for twenty years.

But there is something fascinating in terms of when a universally known actor or a musician leaves us, about how we all come together over it, especially in these days of social media and the rush to post about it (before everyone else) and well, you know.  Oh look, there’s whole layers to peel back here..

“During the last 20 years my work has continued to follow political global events, while increasingly focusing on obituaries, and especially those of artists. They epitomise a particular way of recording history, through the lives of individuals. But all referencing the world as viewed through newsprint, and subsequently through the painted image. This has led me to reflect on history through the lives of artists, and to meditate on the role of the artist in society. This necessarily includes my own role as an artist and my place in a long and glorious lineage. My artist obituary paintings have included many of my teachers, as well as mentors. The most recent development has been using and remaking the self-portraits of many of these artists as invented obituaries in a newspaper format—as if Rembrandt had an obituary in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. It has been a particularly fascinating process to consider the styles and techniques of so many artists, as well as reconsidering how they viewed themselves. 10 years ago, I made a work on paper, where I wrote out in pencil all 3,000 names of the people who died on 9/11. This piece is now part of the Sammlung Annette und Peter Nobel in Zurich. Writing out the names took six weeks at about 6 hours per day, every day, and 75 names per day—it was perhaps the most meditative piece of work I have made”.


It really is hard not to appreciate Hugh Mendes, his style, his questions, his questions about the role of an artist, I don’t know if it is right to say he’s an exciting painter, I’m not jumping around with joy here in the gallery (like I sometimes do), I am fascinated though, I was, I guess, already a fan, an appreciator, and yes I do find myself idly debating which one I’d like to own if ever I could, or wondering why he didn’t paint him or her or….  Yes, I really like Hugh Mendes, I like the role he’s taken on, I might even secretly like the idea that he’s doing it so I don’t have to.   

“As part of this exhibition, on the actual 20-year anniversary day of Saturday 11th September 2021, I will hold a memorial event  where I will conduct a ‘Meditation for Peace’, available to join via Zoom and in association with the nearby London Buddhist Centre. I have taught meditation there for many of the last 20 years and continue to do so. It will also be linked to Townsend  Gallery in New York and local Buddhist groups there. I will also read out the names of people who died on that day for 11 minutes,  echoing similar events which take place in New York every year to pay respect, as well as to reflect.  We find ourselves currently in somewhat unprecedented times, facing ongoing wars, a refugee crisis, potentially catastrophic  climate change and a global pandemic. I hope this retrospective exhibition and event will provide an opportunity to think about  global developments over the last 20 years and to reflect on our roles within it.”

It really is hard not to appreciate Hugh Mendes, he’s a provoking painter, an excellent painter, this is a fine show. The 9/11 aspect doesn’t dominate, not in terms of the actual work, not until you read the press release afterwards and somehow it all links together, even those pieces that might have very little to do with the events of that awful day. This is a strong exhibition, a powerful show, a show and a painter to really appreciate. it isn’t a show to excite, how could it be? But it was exciting to go to the opening last night, art does excite, even art like this. And then you think hang on, it was just like this in London twenty years ago on that day, on 9/11, a glorious day, a beautiful day, an ordinary day, a beautifully ordinary blue  skied hot late summer day and then the planes flew into the towers and then you step outside and take of your Covid mask and walk home and run it through your mind some more and… (sw)

The exhibition is at  11 Dray Walk, The Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London E1 6QL  Dray Walk is where Rough Trade Records is, the show is just across from Rough Trade and runs from Wednesday 8th until Sunday 12th September 2021 (11am until 6pm besides Sunday which is Midday until 5pm) 

Charlie Smith London / Hugh Mendes

Do please click on an image to enlarge or to run the slide show

One thought on “ORGAN THING: Hugh Mendes, twenty years on from that day, a powerful retrospective, a provoking exhibition, the role of a painter? A dirty job but someone’s got to do it…

  1. Pingback: ORGAN: Five Recommended Art Things – Jonny Green at New Art Projects, D*Face, Kai & Sunny, and Shepard Fairey at StolenSpace, Sara Barker at the Approach, that Hugh Mendes Retrospective, SAKI&Bitches at Sway, Late Works 4 at Gallery 46 and…

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