Marshmallow World: Henry Hudson At Hannah Barry

Allan Gardner steps into a winter wonderland at Hannah Barry Gallery, Peckham

nothing sticks to nothing, 2018 – 2019, 135 Scagliola floor tiles (detail) Dimensions variable. Installation view. Credit Damian Griffiths

Henry Hudson’s new solo presentation Nothing Sticks To Nothing, in the ground floor gallery at Hannah Barry, is one that takes on strong identity. Consisting of a series of figurative paintings (some more abstract than others) and an artist-designed faux-marble floor (the largest contemporary Scagliola floor ever made). The four large paintings making up the bulk of the show primarily depict snowy alpine landscapes, with the narrative figuration set in something resembling a ski resort. They make use of Hudson’s typical textural application of plasticine as well as introducing the use of encaustic wax, spray paint, and plaster.

The dominating hue of the exhibition is baby pink, spreading a haze throughout the gallery, settling into a dreamlike atmosphere. The content of the more figural images conjures EH Shepherd’s illustrative landscape, a psychedelic fantasy of a place, or the distorted memory of one. The floor installation does a lot for the show, separating it from the gallery in context and making for an inviting, personal space.

On arrival, the exhibition was empty and I was entirely alone, until after about twenty minutes. A group arrived and spread into the gallery. As they talked about the work and took what seemed like a genuinely endless stream of pictures and Instagram stories, the space felt compromised. A conversation was being interrupted or that information was now out of reach.

The work feels like a sincere presentation from Hudson, a very personal one. Hudson’s work is described in the press release as often attempting to reflect specific “mental states”, a vague statement in that any action or image could be regarded as a reflection the mental state of whoever is doing it. With that being said, this vague aspersion actually does do the work justice. As opposed to picturing “reflection of mental state” to mean a painting produced as a didactic representation of a way one feels, I would instead interpret it as the artist allowing the viewer an opportunity to see their impression of a psychological experience. This is what makes this show feel particularly personal. It really isn’t reflective of a utilitarian emotional aesthetic. It feels instead like an invitation to experience someone else’s interpretation of their own mental state, provoking empathy.

Aesthetically, I found the more abstract works (primarily untitled) to be the most engaging. The heavily textured paintings, built up with plasticine and pushed back with what appears to be wax lead to a surface resembling a relief on a landscape. They almost give the impression that if they were laid flat on a table they would look like a diorama, a candy floss coloured terrain for a model train set. Whether intended or not, this reconsideration of landscape painting is something that gives the work a sense of duality, a multiplicity feeding into Hudson’s use of the space for performance pieces and layered pictorial language.

Nothing Sticks to Nothing. Installation view. Credit: Damian Griffiths

The first painting on the left as you enter the gallery (untitled) is comprised of two panels installed vertically. A snowy landscape and ski lift, the image sinks into the painting, so much so that I prefer to ignore its content completely. With these paintings, looking too hard at the image feels a little bit like spying, like we’re interrupting a conversation before immediately changing the subject to talk about ourselves. I found this work to be particularly interesting (probably the one with which I spent the most time) because of the amount of agency it allowed in the viewer. It gives a great breadth of interpretation, allowing for a depth of consideration perhaps unexpected from what is essentially a landscape painting. With that having been said, the longer one spends with these works, the more they seem to emerge from within the abstraction. The narrative reveals itself through the materiality.

This exhibition was dedicated to a late friend of the artist, which I imagine coloured my perception of this work in no small part. But the separation of the image into two panels (one ground, one a ski lift moving across an unencumbered sky) seems significant. The fact that in the bottom panel, the trees sink mutely into the landscape, whilst in the upper panel the ski lift moves through the clouds, implies a degree of separation. Almost that rather than being part of a single scene, these are two separate pictures placed together by the artist and his desire to have them be closer, to minimise the separation. The panels are touching.

The less abstracted paintings can veer aesthetically into an unusual combo of airbrush street art and EH Shephard. These weren’t as immediately engaging for me but maybe because they felt much more like a depiction of a fanciful space as opposed to the sharing of an idealised one.

On the back wall, another ski-scape is viewed through the trees. This was the most challenging picture for me because the textures push the viewer out of the psychological space that the less immediately pictorial works occupy. In the more abstract works, everything has this cloudy feeling. It’s like a hazy memory or a flashback. I was motivated to spend more time with the more abstract works because they held the impression of an interaction between the work and the viewer, a sharing of experience. The other works felt more didactic, particularly in the use of material.

The untitled painting on the back wall of the gallery features carved tree trunks jutting out from the surface. Rather than being the implication of a tree, or the impression of a trunk within this landscape, they appear more like an active effort to depict the tree through the use of a particular material. It’s this sort of dutiful craftsmanship that takes them from implied experience to art object, most clearly in this particular painting. A wax (or something similar) on their surface to create the illusion of frost. Instead of putting the viewer in the position that they feel like they’re actually looking through the trees, instead it makes you aware of exactly how much these are works of art. Whilst very impressive, this dutiful reproduction of surface did in some part take from the atmosphere of the experience. Even in the same painting, the clouds resemble marshmallows and the mountains foam. The ground becomes candy. It hints at the sort of captivating interplay of surface that makes some of the more abstract work in the show so engaging.

In Nothing Sticks To Nothing, Hudson creates a fantasy-scape. The works are atmospheric, alluding to an unspoken relationship with the artist. They present landscapes of possibility, working most effectively when muted slightly.

Henry Hudson, Nothing Sticks to Nothing, is at Hannah Barry, London, until 16 March

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