It’s quite an achievement to make photorealist painting interesting nowadays. What it seemed to present from its inception – an occasionally diverting strategy of tension-building between the instantaneity of a photograph and the time-intensive labour of an oil painting – quickly looked like a weak gag, hemmed in by self-imposed limits. Flip through a book of twentieth-century art and you find yourself easily bored by an approach with a diversity of practitioners – Close, Estes, Bechtle – but a paucity of scope, like watching a roomful of people do the moonwalk. Contemporary photorealist paintings are too often presented as achievements in themselves: you’re being asked to applaud a steady hand and superhuman patience, as though that were enough. There’s something of the virtuosic excesses of late-seventies prog rock about the worst photorealism, something emptily show-offy and self-aggrandising. Hugh Mendes’ work takes on this troubled legacy, and by nudging it into new territory offers it some sort of guarded redemption.
Mendes’ paintings reproduce, in 1:1 scale, fragments from British newspapers. The paintings divide, roughly, into two categories: obituaries and world news. Some approximate a torn-out jaggedness; others seem snipped with relative care. The collection of newspaper clippings – the retention of something knowingly ephemeral – implies a discriminating eye. Mendes’ focus on the photographic image over the text suggests a fascination with the role of imagery in print media, and its ability to evoke the end of life. A snapshot used to epitomise the subject of the obituary – Anna Nicole Smith beaming with a clutched puppy, Richard Pryor grinning into a mike – is isolated, stilled, its pretensions to last-word-on-the-subject status thereby opened up and questioned. Text appears – the page header, a headline or caption – but is, for the most part, elided: Mendes generates a mystery and ambiguity not otherwise present (actively avoided, in fact) in his source material. Boris Yeltsin, pouting in a cocked hat, is rendered first comic, then oddly distant, as though receding before your eyes. Mendes makes you look, and the act of looking becomes, as it always does, transformative.
Painting stops time. Not merely in their trompe-l’oeil credentials do Mendes’ paintings draw from the 17th century tradition of the memento mori and its fascination with the reproduced surfaces of skulls, spilled fruit and resplendent fabric. By ossifying the temporal in spare, brushy paint, Mendes calls up painting’s perennial trump card: its ability to freeze the act of seeing, giving us the luxury of suspended animation. Applying age-old painterly strategies to the frenetic pace of contemporary mass-media, Mendes locates a hidden melancholy in a society awash with imagery, and by doing so provides photorealism with the get-out clause it’s always needed.
- Originally published on the Saatchi Gallery website