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Exhibition Essay

Jack Hughes: New Paintings
December 5, 2008–February 1, 2009

Left: Jack Hughes, And If ... #3, 2008; acrylic on board, 36 x 31 inches; Courtesy of the artist

 

 

 

Images flutter down like confetti. Images, images everywhere. On the ceiling. In the armchairs’ wickerwork. In the glasses’ drinking straws. In the telephone switchboard. In the sparkling air … Snow down, images, it is Christmas.

—Louis Aragon1

As children, we are given conflicting messages about where the boundaries of our imaginations really lie: “There is no tooth fairy,” but “If you don’t clap hard enough, Tinker Bell will die.” “There are no monsters under your bed,” however, “There is a monster at the end of this book!”2 Eventually, we are taught that visits from magical creatures are just rites of passage. All Lost Boys—and their tiny, twinkling sidekicks—have to grow up at some point or fade into oblivion. And the thrill of finding a monster at the end of a bedtime story gives way to the reassuring reality that the monster is just the narrator, a loveable, familiar face from television’s Sesame Street. Figures of authority—parents, teachers, supervisors—often try to keep our creativity on a straight and narrow path and our heads out of the clouds.

In art history, the Surrealists valued keeping their heads in the clouds, both literally (in their work) and figuratively.3 The intersection of dreams and reality was the main source of inspiration for Surrealism, and childhood was valued as a time of potent creativity. Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), an artist affiliated with Surrealism, cited childhood as a key source of creativity and a time period when the imagination found its roots. He once described a child’s life as, “to live in the world as an immense museum of strange things, of curious variegated toys that change their appearance, which we as children sometimes break to see how they are made inside, and, disappointed, we discover they are empty.”4 Surrealism, which began in the early 1920s in Europe, drew heavily from the psychological studies of Sigmund Freud, particularly Freud’s concept of free association, or allowing random thoughts and ideas to surface from the subconscious to form irrational juxtapositions with surprising, unexpected meanings.

Fast-forward forty years to America in the 1960s, when a burgeoning counterculture enabled people to revisit and revel in the free-spirited creativity of youth and redefine the world around them on their own terms. Rebelling against the repressive norms of the 1950s and set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of American leaders (John F. Kennedy [1963], Malcolm X [1965], Martin Luther King Jr. [1968], and Robert Kennedy [1968], among others), the 1960s became a cultural moment of questioning authority and exploring new ways of living and thinking through heightened political activism, experimentation with drugs, music, and sexual freedom.

Using hints of Surrealistic imagery, children’s book illustration, and a medley of pop-culture characters and icons from the 1960s and beyond, Jack Hughes creates free-form, shape-shifting paintings in which anything goes. With a chameleon aesthetic that rarely stays put in any one place, Hughes’s works become invitations for viewers to find their own stories, truths, and myths. Hughes confirms this open-endedness, saying, “Curiosity is probably the biggest component in my art.”5

Protecting his own curiosity and artistic autonomy are strong elements in Hughes’s brightly colored scenes. He studied both formally and informally in a variety of different media with various mentors and enjoyed his hippie lifestyle during the 1960s. Over the years Hughes has become comfortable following his own creative compass. He cites Leon Berkowitz (whom he affectionately calls Leon “Berserk-owitz”) as a key mentor and influence, someone who encouraged him to believe in his own abilities no matter what anyone else said. A key figure in the Washington Color School and one of Hughes’s former teachers, Berkowitz once told him, “The first thing I’m going to teach you is don’t listen to anything I’m going to say.”

Several of Hughes’s paintings seem to reiterate this message with student-teacher motifs. In Poor Bobo Was Completely Unprepared for the Holy Metallic Invasion (2007), toy robots systematically file forward out of the ocean and place apples on a desk, their mechanical uniformity making them predictable teacher’s pets. The scene (in which Hughes has inserted his alter ego, a man in a hat and two-tone shoes, as an observer—one of many “Where’s Waldo” appearances in his works) includes a lounging gorilla with a gun in his hand, perhaps ready to blow the little robots away. The scenario suggests the tension of feeling out of place in the classroom, or perhaps just being annoyed with all the clones too afraid to express their individuality.

Hughes revisits this teacher theme again in Without a Net (2008). This time, his fictional identity is performing a death-defying feat on a tightrope while a costumed bunny creature wearing a horse mask jabs a pointer at a giant ear. The pedantic pointer gesture suggests an authority figure hammering points home while Hughes is off having fun taking creative risks, despite the endless drone of instruction.

Perhaps the ultimate triumph of imagination over rigid rationality and overbearing authority is found in And If … #3 (2008). Hughes, who cites “3” as a magic number symbolizing his wife, his son, and himself, pays homage to all of their lives with a spectacular torrent of fantastical creatures and cultural icons in a whimsical, time-travel parade that streams out of a fairy tale mountain. A big, purple numeral in a cowboy hat references Hughes’s appreciation of the Beatles song “Revolution 9” and his personal connection to1960s counterculture. Kyle, Cartman, and Stan, characters from the current-day television program South Park, join forces with Santa Claus and “Speedy,” Alka Seltzer’s television icon from the 1950s and 1960s. This multigenerational visual synergy suggests that Hughes, his wife, and son share their lives with love and respect, and are interested in each other’s cultural histories as individuals; they are not separated and isolated from one another by their respective family roles or age differences.

The emergence from the landscape in And If … #3 also provides an interesting visual counterpoint to the story of the Pied Piper, which famously ends with the Piper robbing a town of its children when the mayor refuses to pay him for his rat extermination services. To get revenge, the Piper lures the children away with the magical sounds of his flute and leads them into a faraway cave inside a mountain, where they are never seen or heard from again. Rather than kidnapping the dreams of childhood and keeping them hidden away, Hughes brings all the colorful creatures, magic and memories back, affirming the importance of lifelong creativity and a sense of playfulness.

Hughes also celebrates childhood through random appearances of familiar imagery from cartoons and beloved children’s books in many of his paintings, which typically feature depthless horizons and a primary-color palette reminiscent of children’s book illustrations. The award-winning children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs springs easily to mind when looking at the pie-in-the-sky clouds and the falling showers of shellfish in No Matter What They Did It Always Seemed to Rain Lobsters on Their Afternoon Walk (2007) and the oversized sandwiches and hotdogs floating in the water of Without a Net. And isn’t that the Runaway Bunny’s reassuring, ever-present rabbit mom in her storybook cloud form, watching over the landscape in Things Always Seem to Get a Little Weird When the Carnival Comes to Town (2008)? These subtle cues highlight memorable imagery of bedtime stories that filter through our imaginations and linger in the subconscious.

Cartoons also appear as friendly apparitions in Hughes’s fantastical assemblages of colors, characters, and objects. Cloud versions of Mickey Mouse and hippos reminiscent of Walt Disney’s Fantasia float above in Things Always Seem to Get a Little Weird When the Carnival Comes to Town. Again, Hughes summons a highly imaginative cultural moment in America’s history—Fantasia and its one-of-a-kind blend of classical music with otherworldly animation. This reference also invites more reflection on the teacher-student dynamic: During Fantasia’s celebrated “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence, Mickey Mouse appears as a wizard-in-training who steals his master’s hat and wand to create his own magical world of wishful thinking. At the end of the story, the stern sorcerer appears to clean up Mickey’s magical mess before total chaos ensues. The dancing mushrooms in And If … #1 (2007) also echo the wildly creative dance of flora and fauna in Fantasia’s “Nutcracker Suite,” and offer a caricature of 1960s drug culture.

 In addition to picture-book and cartoon imagery, Hughes also peppers his paintings with suggested art historical references, most often quoted from works by artists associated with Surrealism. The out-of-context lobsters raining down from the sky in No Matter What They Did It Always Seemed to Rain Lobsters on Their Afternoon Walk share affinities with Salvador Dalí’s surprising use of the shellfish in Lobster Telephone (1936; Collection E. F. W. James Esq.). Hughes’s bright blue cloud-strewn skies and giant, sideways ear in Without a Net seem distilled from Dalí’s own recurring use of cloud-and-sky landscapes featuring distorted, oversized body parts often stretched out sideways. Neo-Pop art also makes an appearance in Hughes’s works—the army of balloon animals in And If … #2 (2007) is reminiscent of Jeff Koons’s conceptual sculptures. Indeed, Koons’s own reverence for Dalí and the irony of everyday kitsch through toys and cartoon imagery seem right at home in Hughes’s imagination. Whether he is citing Neo-Pop art, Dalí, or something he learned in class, Hughes’s overall interest in creating a dreamlike, dissociated jumble of objects he describes as a “pinball machine for the eye” springs straight from the Pandora’s box of Surrealism.

By freely and fearlessly combining random toys, food, animals, references to other artists, cartoons, and storybook characters all into one cauldron, Hughes proves he’s a lifetime learner of what his own creativity has to offer, a Merlin who creates his own worlds without hesitation. He refuses to close the book on what we learn in childhood—that by playing “I Spy” with our little eyes and spotting all the everyday things around us, we ensure a lifetime of fun, define our own day and age, and most importantly, live happily ever after.

1. Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Boston: Exact Change, 1994), xii. 

2. “There is a monster at the end of this book!” is a recurring theme in Jon Stone’s popular children’s book, The Monster at the End of this Book (New York: A Sesame Street/Golden Press Book, Western Publishing Inc./Children’s Television Workshop, 1971).

3. Various artists closely associated with Surrealism often used clouds in their works, including René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. See Magritte’s Napoleon’s Death Mask (c. 1935; Collection E.F.W. James Esq.) and Dalí’s Man with His Head Full of Clouds (1936; Edward James Foundation).

4. Giorgio de Chirico, cited in Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco,   “De Chirico in Paris, 1911–1915” in William Rubin, ed., De Chirico (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1982), 31.

5. This and all quotes from Jack Hughes are excerpted from a phone interview with Becca Ramspott, for the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, September 12, 2008.