And when at last the glorious days arrived I unobtrusively went on my way
– Hugo Ball
Ian Hughes and I first worked together in 2002, just before the Afghan war. During a mind-numbing nightshift in an Edinburgh drug project (while residents furtively satisfied their poppy-love) Ian mentioned he “did a bit of painting”. Next evening he hesitantly presented his portfolio. I spent the next hours wondering why a poster of his portrait of Kafka wasn’t pinned above students’ beds from Prague to Palookaville.
Art historian Robert Hughes, refers to “a lightfoot Messiah” in his book The Shock of the New. This captures the spirit of his namesake as if he knew him, as if he’d stumbled across Ian’s Testaments Betrayed exhibition at Phoenix 369 Gallery but couldn’t congratulate him because he was nowhere to be found. His phone rings and he stares at it until it stops. Ian has told me he “sometimes found the human voice painful to hear”.
Fortunately people can approach Ian through his art, and we can develop understanding by considering how he manipulated paint, his obsessive touch: eyebrows that take longer to paint than to grow. Or, from 2002, a free-flowing, expressionist seascape with lava tipped waves breaking over indigo land. Top left, an ashen sun burns its way through the back of the canvas. The main attraction of “After the Deluge” is its location: on my wall. A frame of two halves, the lower portion a turmoil of cardinal-reds streaked with mud-brown and pure white. Then, above a curving horizon in unremarkable green, a random constellation of pale dots appear from the dark, scrubbed backdrop. That frail balance compels the eye to move restlessly over, and into the scene.
In his latest body of work Ian offers himself, in self portrait, as an incomplete Judas. His fleshy brow, moist with sweat, dissipates into vague outline and raw canvas in a deliberate betrayal that allows the other portraits to have their say. In Testaments Betrayed, Ian has produces collective power in a marginalised, misunderstood group of men. More importantly, he gives them individual voices, painful to look at. At the exhibition opening I saw a woman turn abruptly away from the deep focus of “Doubting Thomas” - an iconic image, almost, of a virgin father.
Obviously, from the biblical hints, Ian’s artistic impetus comes from some spiritual corner, an inner sanctum he admits he doesn’t understand, and isn’t interested in exploring either. “The worse the work is the easier it is to talk about”, is a favoured quote that could be his motto.
Testaments Betrayed will show in London soon, and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Then there’s Ian’s back catalogue and the surprises it will hold. For me, the “lightfoot Messiah” has resurrected the art of painting. Perhaps Messiah’s should always be hard to pin down.
— George Chalmers
First published in Chapman magazine, February 2005