Over the arc of his career, Ian Hughes has honed a distinctive visual language in which paint reveals its lushest and most viscous qualities while simultaneously giving shape to bio-reminiscent forms that have a compelling life of their own. In Twisted Figures, his third solo show at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, Hughes’s latest series of acrylic paintings pushes this language into a new phase in which the shapes on the canvases continue to self-confidently assert their own presence, yet begin to move beyond an earlier, more matter-of-fact reliance on organic and visceral associations.
Twisted Figures reflects a subtle turn in Hughes’s paintings toward motifs that are slightly more elusive in content, while retaining the beautiful but vaguely stomach- churning core of his earlier works. Many of the latest pieces feature the same intense, warm palette and pseudo-anatomical imagery set against flat monochromatic backgrounds, such as Green Ovals, which presents a smooth fleshlike surface against which brightly rendered rolling forms in pink, white, and orange suggest intestines, buttocks, and/or reproductive organs. Yet patches of textile-like patterning and a handful of amorphous shapes scattered throughout hint at a much wider range of associations, from soft pillows to eerie but strangely inviting otherworldly landscapes.
In some of the new paintings, Hughes sets up a tension between more organic, down-to-earth colors-such as the duller hamburger/flesh pink in Untitled (Taupe) - and contorted masses that are much harder to pin down. Still other canvases veer in the opposite direction by merging undulations of vivid, carnivalesque blues, pinks, oranges, or greens with somber dark swathes into curves that evoke chaotic balloon sculptures or failed attempts to wring order from unruly sausages of brute matter. In Untitled (Golden Yellow) and Red Wrap, the brushstrokes begin to assert themselves in a way that seems to subtly threaten the integrity of the forms they comprise, thereby highlighting the importance of paint as the essential substrate for Hughes’s cheerful-yet-disquieting images. The juxtaposition of painterly effects (rounded forms and illusionistic volumes) with more graphic elements (flat, opaque backgrounds and sharp edges) strongly reinforces this message. The result is a potent comment on the powerful tension between medium and image that has haunted painting for as long as abstraction has existed, or perhaps since the first images were daubed on a cave wall millennia ago.