Naked ambition: nudes appear on walls like magic

The Independent Online gets a glimpse of the unusual world of Walter Hugo's 'photographic frescos'

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The Independent Culture

“It’s incredible how time changes shape in complete darkness,” Walter Hugo said turning the lights out on a small posse of journalists wearing gas masks huddled in a basement room. Time stretches out and, after seven minutes of straining our eyes toward the unseen activity in front of us, the room is illuminated by the hellish glow of a red light bulb. Hugo then squirts a substance onto the blank wall to gradually reveal the image of two entwined nudes, as if by magic.

The subjects are proudly naked modern Adonises. You can see visible brush strokes and smears on their sepia bodies. But the texture of the work is flat and perfect, like a photograph - which is precisely what it is. The technique is what Hugo calls “photographic fresco”. Like Italian frescos, for which bricks and mortar are the artist’s canvas, Hugo’s art is executed directly onto the wall. Bar painting over it, the work is indelible.

In this new age of digital art, 29-year-old Hugo is doing something quite interesting. He has taken some of the earliest photography techniques, including ambrotype and daguerreotypes, and put his own spin on them. Messing around with silver nitrate emulsion and other noxious chemicals, his mistakes and experimentations have given him the technical skills to make quite beautiful one-off pieces of art in an age when using a camera that isn’t digital is unthinkable to most of us.

In the basement room of the Cob Gallery in Camden where Hugo’s latest solo show, “Developing Shadows”, is due to take place, 20 volunteers have recently posed for Hugo au naturel. For obvious reasons, onlookers were not admitted to the nude shoot, which included the public relations man who arranged the press visit (he got a bit embarrassed when we were shown the negatives). But we were there to see the place transformed into a dark room and the triptych take shape.

Hugo works alongside his girlfriend and agent Zoniel Burton. This time, she was in charge of making everyone feel comfortable stripping off for the photo shoot. “People came in scared to pose naked, so I took my clothes off in solidarity and basically ended up being naked all day,” she said. Something which Hugo professes not to have noticed, “When I’m working I’m oblivious. You might be naked or hanging from a tree for all I know.”

Nonetheless, creating the triptych in front of a small audience is understandably daunting. Particularly as the nature of the thing means you can develop each negative only once. Luckily, the duo did not falter and another impressive piece emerges. Other works, which had been chain-sawed out of the walls of the derelict East London studio Hugo recently vacated, testify to their skill with their luminescent beauty. They are like smeary mash-ups by Michelangelo and Man Ray.

Working indoors like this is new territory for Hugo. He is better used to pitching a small blackout tent and making his photographic frescos in public spaces like any other street artist. Outdoors, gas masks to shield against the chemicals are less urgently required. And the pictures are so conventionally attractive that I doubt the council or any other street art naysayers would have the heart to remove one of these smudgy large-scale visions of physical perfection from a scabby tunnel or scuffed high street wall.

Cob curator Victoria Williams isn't sure what will be done with the triptych once Hugo’s show closes in three weeks’ time. “We might paint over it,” she said, smiling at Hugo in response to his look of alarm. “We’re definitely keeping it for our next show, but after that we may have to saw them out of the walls. We’ll see.”

"Developing Shadows" is at the Cob Gallery until 28 October, www.cobgallery.com

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