A Review of Henry Hudson: Sun City Tanning at Sotheby's S2 Gallery, New York
When asked about the title of his exhibition at Sotheby's S2 Gallery's headquarters in New York, Hudson responded, "Sun City Tanning is actually the tanning salon next to my studio in East London. When I Instagram, it always comes up as my location feed. But I thought it worked well for the title of the show in regard to ayahuasca being the drug of the "kale" age, and how churches and public buildings in urban cities are now being rented for people to drink this toxic drug to purge themselves to create the most perfect inward tan and bathe in the drug’s glory in a small gathering among bankers, lawyers, and vets. It is urban city escapism via a tropical plant, the latest fad."
If you were to read the exhibition's catalog, you would read three very different essays. The introduction, written in high art speak by an unnamed Sotheby's staffer, refers to Georges Bataille in the first sentence. The next page invokes Joseph Conrad, making a rather grave literary connection. This is a bullet between the eyes. Hudson’s own explanation is much more engaging and true.
The second essay is a vaguely romantic piece written by Hudson's aunt Cressida Connolly, an award-winning author and journalist. The piece is written in an ekphrastic manner (a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, real or imagined), weaving an engaging story about Hudson’s real and, perhaps, imagined adventures. We learn of Hudson's exposure to Henri Rousseau at the age of six at the National Gallery and about an encounter with Paul Roche, who acquainted Hudson with the "benign and healing aspect of plants and forests and jungles." (Sun City Tanning, p. 12.) This is where "the story" gets interesting, particularly as Connolly recounts Hudson's affection for the films of Werner Herzog.
The catalogue ends with an ecstatic, but overreaching essay by David Risley, who mentions 17 different artists, ranging from Jasper Johns to Jayson Munson, from the eccentric Victorian painter Richard Dadd to the American Conceptualist Bruce Nauman. The focus on medium and process actually undermines Connolly's affectionate and insightful essay. But, no one really clarifies Hudson's exhibition as well as Hudson does himself.
If, in addition to going to the Sotheby’s S2 Gallery, you add a visit to Hudson's Wikipedia page and if you also visit the artist’s Instagram account, you get a more personal picture of Henry Hudson the explorer and adventurer. On Wikipedia there are sentences about close encounters and mishaps in Congolese jungles, along with hints of shamanistic self-explorations. On Instagram, there are also tender photographs of Hudson’s family and banal observations on everyday life. Consciously or not, Hudson projects a persona rather like the 19th-century explorers Sir Richard Burton or Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Knowing all this, the paintings and ceramics have a different presence. Imagine a Dutch still-life from the 1600’s painted under the influence of shrooms. This would certainly fit with Hudson's tropical pictures mediated by his chosen material. Each of paintings in the gallery depict a jungle scene at 8 different times of day. They are labor-intensive confections made from color-mixed plasticine, a petroleum-based, nondrying version of PlayDoh. They will always be juicy, perhaps dangerously so. The paintings are like a gooey, oily, over-frosted sheet cakes in lurid colours. They are visually compelling, but very, very weird. Imagine a Claymation portrait of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. As a defined body of work, any more paintings in this series would be too many.
In contrast, the hand-coiled, pit-fired, and hand-painted bisque ceramic pots are entirely seductive and magical. Hudson works collaboratively with his brother, Richard Hudson. At Sotheby’s they presented 8 pots, each representing a different psychotropic drug or indigenous medicinal plant. The pots' interiors are loudly painted in near DayGlo oxides. The hand-waxed exteriors have deliciously iridescent and opalescent surfaces. They are sublime. Initially they might be overlooked because the paintings on the wall shout so loudly, “look at me,” but they could have starred in a room of their own.
To read the catalogue essays, one might conclude that Hudson embraces a Victorian-era eccentricity. He is actually a rather normal 30-something. His work is different and original, but the paintings are idiosyncratic because of his chosen medium, not the imputed subject matter. With some persuasion he should translate his work into other media, like painting, tapestry, and installation. Medium alone is not enough. The Hudson brothers’ pots should quickly disappear into smart collections. They are that good.
Henry Hudson: Sun City Tanning runs from September 14th until October 14th at Sotheby's S2 Gallery, NYC
Written by Clayton Press, contributor to Arteviste.com