Saturday, January 06, 2007

E.J. Hughes - Farm Near Courtenay

Hughes, who passed away yesterday at 93, was as slow and steady as painters come. He produced, on average, less than a dozen paintings a year; and as legend would have it, only met his art dealer face to face 4 times in his lifetime. Like Emily Carr, the artist he's most often compared with, Hughes was obsessed with the B.C. landscape-specifically, Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley. But his paintings have a coolness-a once-removed quality-that is quite unlike Carr's work, and quite similiar to a lot of artwork that I hold in much higher esteem. A painting like the one above puts me in mind of Brueghel's Landscape With The Fall of Icarus, Rosseau's Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo, or even Ben Shahn's Handball. The flattened, almost democratic arrangement of space and subject matter, the naturalistic passages mixed with cartoon-like flourishes (trees! houses!) and the obstinantly bright colours-always masterfully countered at the last minute by a grey sky or a black sea- signal to me that Hughes not only knew what what he was doing, but was also keenly aware of what he wasn't doing (which is, I guess, the biggest difference between an artist who paints 'naively' and a naive artist.)
Hughes doesn't seem to have left much behind except his art. His wife passed away in 1974, he has no children, and he doesn't seem to have done many interviews. The following sentence is the closest I could find to an artist's statement:

"I have painted in the Cowichan Valley for fifty years and it is the most beautiful place on earth."