Analyze This – Eoin McHugh takes us behind the scenes of his art

Marta Gnyp for Zoo Magazine #28, August 2010

In the world of the Irish artist Eoin McHugh, nothing is what it seems. His meticulously painted or drawn images trigger our fantasies and challenge the limits of our interpretations. McHugh, who studied 17th century Dutch painting in Holland with the leading scholars of this period, refers its tradition of the virtuosity of the painted image in his own artwork. At the same time, his masterly paintings and drawings depict a modern world where the individual feels loneliness, moral uncertainty, and questions social values. We analyzed with McHugh several of his works to reveal the meaning behind the images.

Section, 2010, watercolor on paper, 29 x 37.5 cm unframed

Section, 2010, watercolor on paper, 29 × 37.5 cm unframed

Marta Gnyp: This beautiful girl drawn in profile and looking straight ahead makes me think of some of the paintings of Vermeer.

Eoin McHugh: It is definitely related to Vermeer and other 17th century depictions of women writing and or reading, also in terms of its simple depiction of someone absolutely concentrated at a simple task. I was thinking of this period of painting compositionally as well, aiming to obtain an absolutely controlled, balanced and ordered composition, and trying through this to achieve something in moral terms.

MG: How do you achieve a perfect composition?

EM: If you examine the piece closely, all perspective lines lead to a vanishing point directly in the girl’s eye [an old Dutch technique] that is important in highlighting the girl’s attention and act of judgment. The fact that she has yet to write, hopefully, also points to a desire to create a particular meaning or judgment.

MG: How could you translate this composition into a moral meaning?

EM: I was originally working with a right to left composition but then inverted it. I’m not quite sure exactly why yet. I think I wanted the girl to assume a different stance to the traditional to define her as active and not as a passive figure. You could imagine that her gaze is as important as that of the viewer in this regard, implying an active female gaze to counter the traditional male gaze. Then the work could ultimately be seen as an allegory of moral viewing.

MG: Word and image have a long and complicated relationship: a title can empower a work but it can also make it banal. In the case of this work, the title intensifies the mystery of the image since it consists of two words that are almost contradictory in our time. Today’s science should be all but romantic, since we associate the romantic idea with personal feelings, anti-rationality and admiration of eccentricity. Your image shows this sweet little cat in a transparent box put in an aquarium with various sorts of fish. It is an absurd image, the lonely sad cat surrounded by water and fish. What kind of experiment were you thinking while making this image?

EM: I think title and image play especially important roles in defining each other with this piece. The title comes from the late Russian psychologist A.R. Luria. He had been studying a mnemonist for years, but the usual tests proved useless because the mnemonist appeared to have a limitless memory. As traditional science had failed, Luria had to create a new form of study necessarily incorporating a subjective viewpoint: a romantic science. There seemed to me to be quite an interesting parallel between this type of study and the relationship between visual art and writing (as well as it being quite a nice oxymoron for a title): visual art being seen as extremely subjective and writing being seen as far more objective, quantifiable and rational. The two are nearly seen in counter-definition—writing being used as a necessary, objective means of explaining subjective imagery. So, the title points to something quite programmatic in my work. On the one hand, I am attempting to create a pictorial language which can be deciphered in a more objective manner, and on the other, I am trying to create a purely visual language which is not reliant on writing to decipher it, but in fact opposes verbal language. This painting is such an attempt to confound verbal language. The imagery is painted in a very straightforward manner but it is difficult to decide and to describe what is going on. This is really the experiment I was thinking of while making the work: seeing how an image can be read visually versus how it can be written about or spoken of.

Patterns of tension and discharge, 2010, watercolor on paper, 57 x 64.5 cm unframed

Patterns of tension and discharge, 2010, watercolor on paper, 57 × 64.5 cm unframed

MG: You provoked a traditional flower still alive by cutting the flower open and showing the inside of the flower body. At first sight, it is a very erotic image.

EM: It is true; the piece has very strong erotic overtones, but this erotic attraction is slightly misleading.

MG: The open cut flower wants to tell more than being pleasing from the aesthetic and erotic point of view.

EM: I think firstly it is a violation of traditional imagery: physical violence against a somewhat traditional genre image. It is also an attempt to counter rationality, the act of cutting open a plant in an effort to gain scientific knowledge revealing the violence and limitation of any such attempt. I think what is also implied is the violence and limitation of interpretation and any moral stance behind it.

MG: A lonely hotel room with almost identical beds, identical armchairs and identical lamps; the keys on the table and a pair abandoned shoes on the floor insinuate that someone is living here. It would be a quite normal hotel room except that there is a mysterious hole in the wall, like a whirlpool that can kidnap you into another world. You often draw or paint similar, slightly old-fashioned rooms. Thanks to the beautiful rhythm of the colors and your virtuosic play with the perspective, you make the space a strange and dizzy place where something incomprehensible is going on. Why are you fascinated by these kinds of empty living spaces?

EM: My interest in interiors is founded in a kind of reverse portraiture. I use rooms as a novelist might—to define the life of the people who live or work in them; to set a scene for an event or describe the aftermath; to envision the mood of the person using the space; to show the affect of environment on the individual. With this work I was trying to picture a psychological state or feeling, somewhere between ennui and angst. I enjoy working with very formal means to achieve something expressive—in this case, subtly altering the forms within the room and the perspective to suggest the pull of a black hole. None of the individual changes I made to the space are immediately noticeable but cumulatively alter one’s perception of the space. Together with the muted and rhyming color scheme, and the duplicated objects, these changes allow the room to be easy to project oneself into.

MG: This idea of a blown-up image of the fly is very simple but extremely powerful.

EM: It was an attempt to re-imagine a traditional genre [animal painting] while playing with anthropomorphism. I wanted to paint something instantly recognizable and commonplace, yet alienating and shocking. The fly is a common symbol of banality and the everyday used by Blake and others. It is so commonplace a creature that it is somewhat ignored or repressed.

Romantic Science, 2009, oil on canvas, 46 x 51 cm

Romantic Science, 2009, oil on canvas, 46 × 51 cm

MG: It is uncertain what this fly is doing in this sea of red waves. There is something apocalyptic about this image; you can almost feel the joy of destruction. Is the fly a symbol of metamorphosis for you?

EM: Seeing an image of a fly enlarged is actually quite an affecting experience—its glistening iridescent coloring is as beautiful as its hairy legs are repulsive. Seeing the fly up close we get to see its environment as it sees it, we can try to project ourselves into its position, imagine what it’s doing etc. This attempt seems doomed to fail however, as if we reject the possibility of such an existence. We are faced with a life fed by rot and decay which is certainly an apocalyptic vision compared to a Disneystyle ladybird or butterfly flitting from flower to flower. In a sense, the fly does have to do with metamorphosis, with the change in perception of the work as it is examined.