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Dominant Wave Theory: The Work

Chris Short on Andy Hughes' photographs


...Unlike Barbara Hepworth's social message that remains buried within the form of the work of art, Andy Hughes's photographs speak with two, apparently contradictory voices. The aesthetic dimension of the photographs is challenged the moment that each object, as waste, speaks. The voice with which it speaks is social and political: it speaks of responsibility, of economic excess, even of destruction. This conflict between pure form and political content, though, is not a relationship of either-or; the tension between the two is precisely what is at stake. In these photographs, pure form couples uneasily with the pollutants of an industrial society.

More troubling is what happens when the escapism and isolated pleasure in proportion and space, against which Hepworth warned, is isolated from St Ives modernism's radical artistic (sometimes social and political) ambitions and serves a merely economic one. This is precisely what has happened in recent years, as art has become a leading commodity within the tourist trade of St Ives. Thus, we arrive at our second issue of importance to understanding Hughes's photographs.

As one walks along Fore Street, St Ives and explores the alleys leading to and from it, one is presented, apart from the pasty and surf (clothing) shops, with a series of galleries and art shops selling images and constructions, most of which relate to the town and its surrounding country and seaside. From postcards depicting views and fishermen made of shells, to reproductions of paintings, original paintings by unknown artists and paintings by known artists, the variety of stuff - with prices to match every pocket - is extraordinary. Within these latter artistic forms, we identify the development of a kind of house-style of original painting, one which depicts the land and sea but deploys a near abstract manner. In such works, the radical ambitions of St Ives modernism, which had probably run its course by the early 1960s, are reduced to a completely formulaic enterprise. Thus, the only value attached to the objects is one of exchange, the imagery is reduced to pure surface that simulates art, that generates nothing other than profit. It is what one of modernism's foremost critics called kitsch, ersatz culture to placate the masses and to ensure that their meagre incomes are returned to the privileged minority.

Such art feeds off the tourist trade and, at the same time, becomes a tourist attraction. The broader effects of tourism are still more profound. Those who travel to St Ives bring much needed money to the region; the by-products of that spending are far less desirable. Through the summer months, vast quantities of food are consumed and converted into effluent which finds its way into the sea and, sometimes, the guts of swimmers and surfers. Other stomach-churning waste also finds its way to the sea via underground sewage pipes; thus the ubiquitous condoms and panty-liners that grace the shore. Like the beautifully described yet amorphous patches of white, cream and bright orange within the central orb of 91 - forms simultaneously reminiscent of bacterial growth and vomit - such waste suggests putrefaction and provokes a sense of abjection. Arriving more directly on the beach are fast-food and drink wrappers left after days in the (occasional) sunshine; plastic bottles, cardboard packages, tin cans and crisp packets. Residues of the residual fishing industry - broken nets, ropes, floats - contest this space; at least they have a rustic charm and seem to belong.

All appear in Hughes's photographs. They are, as it were, the visual culture of contamination, a culture that recurs in less visible form in the water and air as the pollutants of an advanced capitalist economy. Such culture would appear to be the complete antithesis of that which the town and country around St Ives is known for: man living and working in harmony with nature. Like the spectrum of light created by oil on water, as we touch that which seems most beautiful, we destroy it. In their sinister beautification of the visual culture of contamination, Hughes's photographs constitute a critique of the pollutant outcomes of our commodity culture. As representations of beach, sea and landscape, the natural beauty they offer is a spoilt one and thus, the photographs also constitute a critique of the purely aestheticising house-style of St Ives which contributes to the commodification (and thus destruction) of the landscape...


Extract Chris Short/Andy Hughes - Dominant Wave Theory - Pub - Booth-Clibborn Editions 2006

see also interview with Andy Hughes