In his epic poem Paradise Lost, the English poet John Milton describes hell as a place of “no light, but rather darkness visible.” It’s a powerful image, largely because it, literally, does not make sense. Darkness isn’t visible, but by labeling it so, Milton makes it something tangible, powerful, frightening. It isn’t the only time the poem employs paradox for dramatic effect: In one particularly visceral passage, a flock of “ravenous fowl” are drawn to the “scent of living carcasses.”
The living death, the loud silence, the vivid darkness: These are some of Patrick Hughes’s favorite things. “I’m opposed to common sense,” the 73-year-old painter says, emphatically, over the phone. “I was always looking to do things like gray rainbows, what I call ‘visual oxymorons.’ I like doing things the wrong way around.”
Hughes’s wrong-way, inside-out, upside-down sensibility is on display at “Smallerspectives,” an exhibition of mind-bending 3D paintings opening this evening at Flowers gallery in New York City. Hughes has been doing optical illusions painted on three-dimensional surface, which he calls “reverspectives,” consistently for nearly three decades. (“Smallerspectives,” which runs through June 16, will showcase 60 new reverspectives, done in miniature form, especially for Flowers.) Hughes happened upon the trick accidentally in 1964, when he was 25—he had been trying to do a reverse-perspective painting, and was surprised when he hung it on the wall and discovered the image came out the right way—thought it was pretty cool and then moved on to other things. “It wasn’t until about 1990, that I realized that I have had lots of ideas, hundreds of ideas, but I only had one very, very good idea, and that was the reverspective,” he says. He hasn’t looked back since.
Hughes’s 3D paintings usually depict rather ordinary subjects—an empty main street, Brillo boxes (a nod to Warhol), bookshelves, dice, gallery walls—and when you look at them straight-on, they appear similarly unremarkable. But as you tilt your head, the images begin to bob, bend, dance, and suddenly you’re Alice going down the rabbit hole. “It’s an experience for the person who’s looking at it,” says Hughes. “The painting kind of comes to life.”
This immersive quality is crucial for Hughes, who had a rough, working-class upbringing and would find escape and solace in the written word. “I met so many people from so many different countries and so many different times,” he recalls of the hours he spent in the public library. “I didn’t like the people I was actually with, but I loved the people I could open the door of a book and go and see.” He devoured the works of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, and their topsy-turvy worldviews captivated him, and later informed his work. “[Opening a book] is a way out of the room, isn’t it? The doors of the room only lead to other rooms, but the doors of a book lead to other worlds, where you could be someone else and do other things.”
If Hughes’ work offers a door into an alternate universe, it is also grounded in the real. The cities he depicts—Venice, New York City—are real places; the gallery walls he paints include actual works of art, faithful reproductions of Matisse and Alex Katz. Indeed, it is their familiar subjects that make the paintings so profoundly strange. “When you look at one of my paintings, you can go up to it and touch it, and you know it’s a piece of painting wood,” says Hughes. “And then you can walk back a couple of steps and say it’s moving, but it isn’t. And it just goes to show how hard it is to know anything. You can’t be sure of anything in this world. So I hope it would make you think.”