Richard Hughes’ most ambitious paean to urban decay takes us further down his grey brick road of yesteryear, finds Moira Jeffrey
IF THE Wizard Of Oz was set in the West Midlands around 1988, it might look something like Richard Hughes’s new exhibition at Glasgow’s Tramway.
In this case a glum community centre, rather than Dorothy’s delightful house, has been blown off course and wedged perilously into the enormous space. Tilted and upended, one wonders what social hurricane has swept it there. Clearly we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Hughes has drawn on his own Birmingham childhood and this is a scale replica of a real building, but wherever you come from you might recognise the kind of place: dark-brown brick with creosoted wooden trim, tiled, anonymous and dank.
The white double doors are greying and decaying. The windows are bricked up or boarded. Moss creeps slowly up the building’s flanks; the downpipes slowly rust. A small flourish of graffiti is the only exterior decoration. This is not the full-blown romance of florid urban collapse, just the slow inexorable creep of everyday decline.
Leaning against the rafters, dramatically angled, the building has been torn from its roots, yet the exterior lights cast a pale, despondent glow, the rusting extractor fan threatens to whirr into life. The lights are on, but no one’s home.
Like the painter George Shaw, Hughes imbues ordinary suburban streets with a kind of forensic melancholy as though they were the scenes of crime. Maybe they were. Hughes’s upended community building looks like it might have been built during the fag end of Thatcherism. Perhaps it has come back to haunt us in the new conservative era.
This, Where It All Happened Once, is the most ambitious single work, indeed the largest show by Hughes to date. Hughes studied in London at Goldsmiths, but he has had a long association with Glasgow, where he shows with the commercial gallery The Modern Institute.
It was in that gallery’s old premises in Robertson Street, in a building that always threatened to succumb to its own age, that Hughes showed some of his more memorable small sculptures. Works like Roadsider, the plastic bottle of urine, that looked like it had been thrown from a passing lorry but turned out to be an immaculate resin cast. Or After The Summer Of Like, an abandoned sofa that, with its washed-out hippy tie-die upholstery and the tiny magic mushrooms that had started to grow in its puddles and creases, seemed like a sad coda to the hippy era.
This is Hughes’s thing: objects that look real and abandoned but turn out to be immaculately crafted fakes. It’s obvious after even a second that Hughes’s building has been crafted with the help of a set designer: walk behind it and you see the way it has been carefully worked into the gallery’s own industrial skeleton. But far more deceptive are the characteristic small sculptures that litter the gallery or nestle next to the community centre like so much abandoned refuse.
There’s a rusting cast iron lamppost on the top of which an old deflated football has been artlessly wedged, a rugby ball split by a tear, the corrugated cardboard that shockingly might serve as a homeless person’s bed. None of these things are quite as they seem – they’re cast or created in fibreglass, resin and wire. Handcrafted and carefully assembled by the artist rather than contracted out to a workshop.
But beyond that initial flicker of recognition, many of these objects have a second life: a hidden double image. Look hard enough and that deflated football resolves itself into a gaunt skull and the rugby ball grins a craggy smile, the tiny mushrooms growing inside it serving as jagged teeth.
Best of all, two fractured concrete lampposts which tumble downward suddenly resemble scissored legs running apace. Like the urban version of Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane, a whole streetscape has upped and walked.
The crumpled corrugated cardboard that leans against the wall soon resolves itself into a clenched fist. It might be a general symbol of resistance or a reference to the now exhausted Rock Against Racism movement that Hughes would remember from his childhood.
Like a number of artists of his generation (he was born in 1974) Hughes peppers his art with jaded allusions to lost idealisms and faded pop references. I’m never sure whether this is a forgivably nostalgic reference or a profoundly pessimistic one.
In the vast spaces of Tramway 2, the need for Hughes to scale up his practice risks losing the frisson of verisimilitude that his art often relies on. That vertiginous building teeters on an edge between cleverly uncanny and simply overblown. What I really like, however, is his comfortable grasp of the ordinary and the vernacular, and his habit of turning the real against itself, investing the ordinary with a perverse value.
The tiny spitballs of chewed tissue paper that stick to the wall are painted bronze. Squint at the pipework that reaches from top to floor of the huge gallery walls, looking every inch like rusting domestic downpipes. It actually spells out the word “NOWHERE”, or perhaps “NOW HERE”.
This is any old place, any old time, but it is also frozen in a kind of inescapable now. The best of Hughes’s works are those that you might pass without a glance, only to slow down and turn back. On a piece of cardboard lies a tiny abandoned cigarette that threatens to spark into life. Like all our pasts it never really will. «
Until 26 December
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 10 mph
Wind direction: North west