Critique | Helen Hughes ‘and Yes, daydreamer SurRender’

Roscommon Arts Centre, 13 November 2021– 15 January 2022

Helen Hughes, ‘and Yes, daydreamer surRender’, 2021, installation view, Roscommon Arts Centre; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artist and Roscommon Arts Centre. Helen Hughes, ‘and Yes, daydreamer surRender’, 2021, installation view, Roscommon Arts Centre; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artist and Roscommon Arts Centre.

‘And Yes, daydreamer SurRender’ by Helen Hughes is the fourth exhibition curated by Naomi Draper, who is undertaking a two-year curatorial residency at Roscommon Arts Centre. ‘And Yes, daydreamer SurRender’ marks a distinct shift in Hughes’s practice. Whilst the exhibition contains a number of works that are more typical of her intimate process-driven sculptural output, others have been developed with collaborators outside of her studio, with these forms only partially shaped by her own hand. 

Hughes’s practice generally involves a process of engaging with industrial materials that are volatile, wilful and difficult to control, like balloons, fast-cast resins and foams. The resulting artworks act as forms of three-dimensional slippage; a dynamic flux made manifest, visceral and mysterious. They are the outcomes of a process of improvisation between the artist and her materials – sculptural objects captured in a moment of transitioning, both fixed and fluid.

This exhibition contains a series of works made with outside expertise, embracing contemporary technologies and processes. It integrates works in glass, bronze, machine formed Styrofoam, 3D printing and an augmented reality work. Several of these collaborative works reveal or aesthetically instrumentalise technological processes, including Photogrammetry – a process that involves taking overlapping photographs of an object or structure and converting them into 2D or 3D digital models. The exhibition integrates a film and digital print out of the Photogrammetry mapping process. Hughes presents a 3D model in its unfinished form, revealing its complex internal grid structure, and an image of multiple renderings of a data accumulation process.

This work and implicit generative processes involve a material reassigning of the designated potentials of manufacturing and mass production. Through her interventions, the artist interrogates the latent qualities and concealed agency of a material. Specifically, she questions how her improvised, human engagement with a material transforms our comprehension of its potential, and how this differs from the prescribed associative possibilities of industrialised processes. 

The implications of these new processes enable a compelling diversification to occur. Her artworks transform industrial materials but never fully disregard their conventional uses, thus acting as a link between the artist and broader society. Hughes perceives this as a kind of expansion of the industrial process. She recognises where the accidental or incidental occurs within manufacturing and embraces these potentials, while acknowledging the aesthetic detritus it generates.

The recently deceased art critic Dave Hickey suggested that “Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” Whilst Hickey was speaking about the value structures we bring to artistic engagement, one could also apply this quote to Hughes’s engagements with materials, since her work questions the associative opportunity ascribed to a material and the formation of hierarchical structures. Her interventions are disruptions or transformations of a material’s behaviour, which in turn queries how this impacts a material’s privilege. 

‘And Yes, daydreamer SurRender’ enables a joyous dialogue to occur between materials, processes, signifiers and space. It is a progressive embracing of contemporary technologies; however much of the exhibition’s concerns are also resolutely formal and modern. The collected artworks question material hierarchies and capital, as well as the relationships between forms and between physical and social space. 

The exhibition includes a metallic blue balloon-like object, fixed to a wall, which seems to have somehow been contorted to become three interconnected forms. The work appears to have a viscous material dripping from its base that has been captured in stasis. Both seductive and disconcerting, it is an exquisitely confusing sculpture that produces a distinct gap between the seen and the felt. This apparently weightless object is in actuality, a spraypainted bronze casting and is indicative of the enabled contradictions at play in ‘And Yes, daydreamer SurRender’. The presented works are paradoxically honest and deceptive, real and beguiling; they generously allow us to participate in conversations previously held between materials and the artist’s hands. 

Mark Garry is an artist, educator and occasional musician.