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Joan Sullivan
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Infrared: an urban landscape brings Ilse Hughes' warmth to Red Ochre Gallery

Approach to Signal Hill

"Infrared: an urban landscape" is a new exhibition of paintings (acrylic on canvas) by Ilse Hughes. Most of them big, and some are very big.
The majority show a city of bare trees, painted red, a latticework through which areas of St. John's can be seen, like St. Patrick's Church, Signal Hill, or Hamilton Avenue. These are exterior, and urban, winter scenes with snow on the ground, and the leafless trees a glowing scarlet lacing, overlaying the view. They breathe a freshness, with big areas of aqua harbours and skies of a definite winter yellow adding to the crispness and scale.
Other scenes are large landscapes, like "Port Kirwen," which is so full of warm burgundies and cherries it just might decrease your heating costs this winter.
Infrared, as a term, also carries scientific overtones. It refers to red light emitted at a certain wavelength - think of the way the Terminator internally views and measures his surroundings in those very fine James Cameron movies. Employing such reds the way Hughes does with these paintings means playing outside some painterly rules, as red is so immediate, so hot, and so inclined to dominate a piece. Hughes was quite aware of this. But she went ahead and did it anyway.
Last March Isle Hughes was accepted for a self-directed residency at Banff. Her proposal was a series based on music. But she needed to do one landscape, so she tackled that first to get it out of the way.
She thumbed through her sketchbook, as she always works from her sketches, and found the image that became "View From the Cathedral," with its organic grid of crimson trees, and purple, white and yellow houses backed by the harbour and the Southside Hills. "Once I did it I realized I'd done something different," Hughes said. "I went back to my sketchbook and took out everything with trees."
So, trees it was. Hughes found it allowed her to play, in a new way, with the planes of a surface of a painting. "It was different because of the shifts between negative and positive space. Which was accidental. The trees were the negative space, and they were not three-dimensional but two-dimensional, while the landscape between them was three-dimensional. This created a tension, maybe even a little anxiety, and it makes the image move."
She was well aware of the potential pitfalls of using so much red. "When you dress in red there's only so much you can wear with it, you're limited to black, navy blue, white. I was always adjusting the background to the foreground. I wanted to emphasize the trees, it was a conscious choice. It may look spontaneous but there was quite a lot of thought behind it."
For example, there are those cold skies, often of a molten gold. The water is kept to fluid, stabilizing wedges of blue. And the house colours, which look like a fantastic radius of Impression, are of course the way they really exist, as intersecting blocks of orange, violet, and lemon.
"And I used a lot of lilac, which, surprisingly, goes well with red," said Hughes. "I was pushed to use a different palette."
Another reason Hughes pursued the theme of trees-over-cityscape was that it gave her such a different view of her city. "I hadn't realized how many trees we had! In winter you don't notice them, you see the structures behind them." In this exhibit, the viewer gives equal attention to both the anticipated scene, and the unexpected lens that focuses it.
"Infrared: an urban landscape" continues at the Red Ochre Gallery until Oct. 29.

Organizations: Red Ochre Gallery

Geographic location: St. John's, Signal Hill, Hamilton Avenue Banff

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