Hannah Hughes, Mirror Image

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Jane & Jeremy (here). Open spine hardcover, 145×200 mm, with foil debossed front cover, 66 pages, with 4 die cut pages and 33 color reproductions. Includes an introductory essay by Elizabeth Fullerton and a signed special edition print. In a hand-numbered edition of 200 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A clever conceptual inversion stands at the center of Hannah Hughes’s photobook Mirror Image, a single provocative idea providing the foundation for an entire body of work. It starts with the relatively straightforward observation that in many fashion and commercial product setups, a model or an object is placed in a studio setting surrounded by emptiness, often in the form of a plain or colored backdrop. Hughes’s insight was that this repeated vacancy could be a subject in and of itself, and so she began cutting out shapes from fashion magazines, catalogs, and other printed materials, isolating and removing the negative space left around the main subject.

Hughes’s artistic practice is rooted in collage and assemblage, and so the next step in the process was to take this raw material and build the images into new artworks, where each individual fragment of color or texture then becomes part of a larger sculptural form. In this way, photographs of “nothing” become collages of “something”, with their own physicality, depth, and presence. Hughes’s unlikely insight was triggered by a book of photographs by Constantin Brancusi, where she noticed that the space in his studio took on an active presence of its own in relation to his sculptures. “That’s when I realised how much photography could be a tool of sculpture to transform essentially immaterial matter into a sculptural element,” she says.

There are almost no sharp edges or pointy protrusions in Hughes’s compositions; instead she has honed her fragments into softened textural rounds, squares, cones, and other bulbous forms, as if weathered and blunted like ancient stones. Her collages then bring together between three and six of these massed shapes, gathering them into overlapped piles, in some cases evoking cairns or other jumbles and volumes of rock, in others settling into more recognizable still life forms, like Morandi arrangements abstracted to the point of approximation. Each work takes shape within a broad color family, with harmonies of subtle blue, orange, green, or brown coming together and matched by a similarly mottled backdrop.

Much of the visual confusion that can be found in Hughes’s compositions comes from the position of the shadows. Each fragment has its own light and dark zones, which are leftover from the original source imagery. And the background has its own shadows, likely cast by objects Hughes has photographed and then obscured with her collages. The misdirection comes about when the shadows in the fragments and the shadow in the background fail to match, the light source seeming to shift around or conflict. Edge points and overlaps between individual “stones” are particularly confounding, making the depth and balance of the collages feel uneasily out of kilter. And of course, when we step back and consider that “emptiness” is actually casting the shadows, the mind bending gets even more resonant.

The strongest of Hughes’s works in Mirror Image create a delicate balance between grace and confusion, the initial viewing of any given work offering a pleasing arrangement of abstract formal elements and textural subtleties, which is then slowly upended as the strangeness of the tonal gradations and cast shadows becomes more apparent and the conceptual inversions of the voids becoming material twist in the viewer’s head. Erin Shirreff has explored similar ideas in her collages and assemblages of sculptural image fragments drawn from books and magazines (as seen in a 2021 gallery show, reviewed here), but Hughes pushes further toward the conceptual limit, making the nuances of the vacancy itself her subject. Jessica Backhaus’s 2021 photobook Cut Outs (reviewed here) also bears some resemblance to Hughes’s body of work, but with an entirely different sense of activation and intent.

As a photobook object, Mirror Image has been lovingly designed and constructed. It’s an intimately sized book, and the image reproductions inside are similarly small, with ample white space around the works, giving them a jewel box feel. The light green cardboard cover features four debossed rounds, subtly introducing the kinds of formal elements found inside. Four die cut pages in mottled grey and brown interrupt the flow of the page turns, the curved edges of the pages mimicking the forms in the collages and the overlapping pages creating a sense of physical echo. Even the short introductory text has been shaped, the words arranged into a lop-sided oval. With an actual print included at the end, the photobook has the feel of a small treasure.

Part of what makes the photographs in Mirror Image so compelling is the back and forth of deconstruction and reconstruction that is taking place before our eyes. The clarity of Hughes’s execution strips away any surrounding distractions so that we can better wrestle with the visual dilemmas she has so carefully presented. Each picture then becomes a puzzle to be analyzed and decrypted, the contradictory “answers” almost always elegantly confounding.

Collector’s POV: Hannah Hughes is represented by Robert Morat Galerie in Berlin (here) and has shown work at Sid Motion Gallery in London (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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