When the Photographer met the Painter…

Our photographer Steve Iles muses on preoccupations with light and gives his photographer’s perspective on the paintings of James Hugonin.

On the train to Berwick upon Tweed to take a portrait of James Hugonin, one of the artists nominated for the 2011 Northern Art prize, I gazed out of the window, watching not so much the landscape, but rather the weather and the deteriorating light. A constant preoccupation for the photographer.

Assured by Teletext that the clouds would stay away till early evening, I was beginning to feel cheated. They had been behind me on my journey as I travelled from west to east but as the route turned North they were now on my flank and making their presence felt earlier than had been promised. A flash gun always accompanies me, but the artificial zap of light is no match for the natural, and as I had been informed that James Hugonin had a wonderful day-lit studio, I had hoped not to require it’s assistance.

Light was on my mind even more than usual, having read how light and it’s effect on the landscape was of such importance to James’s painting. A choice of subject underlined by his decision to shun the metropolitan fold and to live and work in the borderlands amongst the rolling Cheviot Hills, close enough to the North Sea to experience that extra stop of light that a coastal location offers.

Upon arriving at the station and disembarking from the train, the grey skies had most definitely caught up with me. I had lost this particular race against the weather and the studio was still another half hour away. James was there to pick me up in person. Conversation ensued and I let my concerns for the light recede.

James is the first painter to be nominated for the Northern Art Prize, which can beg the question why? An attempt perhaps on the part of selectors to eschew thus far the traditional modes of production in favour of the conceptually based? Is the shortlisting of a painter a concession to the traditional? A nod of recognition to a respected and established artist I wondered?

To the studio then, and the paintings, a sudden burst of colour on a monochrome day. Tiny swatches of pigment, of equal size, arranged meticulously and democratically in mosaic, the rigidity and discipline of their placement at odds with the final result, a shimmering, rhythmic surface that pulsates and resonates, the eye unable to settle upon individual detail.

My mind wandered outside the confines of the canvas and I began to think of the work of James Turell. Whilst apparently dense, the work seemed to concern itself with the effects of light as a phenomena rather than the protocols of painting. They exude a freshness and contemporaneity that belie the fact that James had been making works this way for a couple of decades. A revelation came for me while observing them through the camera lens. Each brush stroke became a pixel.

The works spoke to me as photographs, super enlarged, exploded. I pondered further on the relationship between painting and the photograph, about the work of Gerhard Richter, the Dusseldorf school and the way in which the invention of photography 150 years ago both freed and revolutionised painting, setting the path to abstraction.

A happy coincidence? Maybe, as James’ method predates the advent of digital photography by quite some way, but, there’s never anything wrong with being just a little ahead of your time….

A free print by James Hugonin is included in the next edition of Corridor8.

Published 18.11.2011 by Corridor8

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