The Showroom, London, UK
‘The screaming abdabs’ is a British expression for an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation, a slang term from yesteryear also used to describe the terrors of alcohol withdrawal: delirium tremens, commonly referred to as the DTs. Symptoms include confusion, disorientation, changes in level of consciousness, agitation, delusions, irrational beliefs and hallucinations. It’s fitting, then, that the window of The Showroom - host to Des Hughes’ installation The Screaming Abdabs (2003) - has been filled with hundreds of spent wine bottles. Sometimes the world makes more sense through the bottom of a glass.
In the first of two rooms plaster cast figures are frozen in contorted poses, either ducking for cover, balanced precariously against outsized saw blades, or up-ended, tugging at stubborn plaster-spattered jeans. Prone on its back, one of the figures has a bright red bird’s nest balanced on its crotch; a small brass object flutters above it. Another figure sports multicoloured garlands constructed from Hughes’ former paintings. These are crippled, absurd and dysfunctional characters caught in the cold fluorescent light of the gallery. Seemingly unaware of their comic situation, they struggle to make sense of their surroundings and their relationship with the world at large. Scanning the room, your eye settles on a cloth badge, safety-pinned to a plastered limb and inscribed with the words ‘shit happens’ - an abrupt, resigned-to-its-fate version of the 1960s slogan ‘let it be’. A reminder perhaps not to take the actions of this motley crew too seriously.
Moving through to the back space, black-gloss plinths provide the platform for a curious cottage industry. A mini brick chimney with gaping mouth and open eye sockets sits next to a small pile of cast bricks. Handmade implements sit in neat rank and file, from wooden saw and feather duster to a pink clay version of a 1970s Laughing Bag. The skylights and the floor, covered in brown tape, emitted a soft light. It’s a funky and somewhat disturbing collection of objects: a mise-en-scène somewhere between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940): an artist’s workshop with sinister intent.
Hanging from the ceiling was a makeshift chandelier constructed from balls of sticking tape and plastic drinking straws. Crooked plaster fingers screwed to the wall clutch at electrical cables. A series of green bottles diminishing in scale provide plinths for misshapen green orbs, an inverted form reminiscent of a snot bubble hanging from a child’s nose. Propped in a corner of the room, a foam hand with an extended forefinger reads, ‘Come on you’: a peculiar form of comic support for the unknown worker. Rather than the grand narrative, perhaps Hughes’ real pleasures are to be found in these supporting acts, moments of deadpan clarity in a world of uncertain purpose. Any grand utilitarian statement quickly has the rug pulled from under it as objects that suggest function only fall to the ground in silent mirth.
Hughes, it appears, enjoys the act of making, forming casual relationships between objects and utilitarian materials. His world is one of surreal and comic relations, a particular form of deadpan Britishness: Tony Hancock meets the black humour of A. E. Housman, with a Laughing Bag aftertaste. The punch line to last year’s gag has been reworked as an oversized plaster cast horse’s head sporting a winning medallion that reads, ‘Why the long face?’ If this is winning, then it’s no joke; after all this is art, the Mount Zion of seriousness. Hughes’ approach shares more than a little of the mocking bite of Surrealism. In a landscape of grey formality, rigor mortis and creeping fog thankfully there are always those who choose to cut off the nose and push apples in the face.
Arriving at a world of fractured connections, Hughes’ objects are a little like the hat that falls from the sky in the Richard Brautigan novel Sombrero Fallout (1976), familiar yet displaced - unexplained, open to suggestion and easy with it. It’s appealing to see an artist’s work that doesn’t feel like homework: ponderous pleasures, still able to breathe, not strangled through laborious process. A ‘screaming abdabs’ detox for the mind, a cottage-industry comic barbarian in a decidedly hand-built and conceptually hand-sketched environment. In Hughes’ workshop folly, populated by headless crippled figures whose curious relationship with the world is one of agitated confusion or simply playing dumb, there’s more than a creeping suspicion that the artist is having fun at the expense of the current generation of Neo-Formalist British sculpture. The self-assured pose of fading youthful ebullience is replaced here with the anxiety of certain knowledge. Recognition, perhaps, that cool material poise, candy surface and a dash of Pop culture can all too quickly feel like yesterday’s empty and radically conservative gesture. The party’s over, the DTs have kicked in and nervous anxiety is the order of the day. A mock sculptural crisis played out to comic effect.
Hughes’ crowning realization is that on occasion art is the joker’s joke. This is Hughes’ world, momentarily bathetic, rescued by pockets of comic understanding and giddy confusion. It’s a world where outcomes are uncertain, and nothing much is wished for or overtly challenged. For Hughes it seems it’s the dry chuckle of Hancock, the intake of alcohol and the desire to side-step academic seriousness that, as Housman states, ‘spins the heavy world around’.