Patrick Hughes: Double trouble

His paintings are three-dimensional games which have dazzled fans as celebrated as Glenn Close and Oprah Winfrey. But Patrick Hughes is a bit of a puzzle himself, says Andrew Barrow. Is he one of our great, neglected artists? Or merely a dandy Surrealist who has learnt to pull the wool over our eyes?
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The brightly dressed man-at-work is a creature called Patrick Hughes and these unstable, sticking-out objects, which now sell for as much as £65,000 each, are his latest and most lucrative invention. Similar pieces by this prolific oddball now adorn private collections from Chicago to Cologne - including those of Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Close - and can also be goggled at in the British Library, the Birmingham City Art Gallery and other public spaces. An exhibition of six vast new visual shockers opens at the Flowers East Gallery in London on 20 January.

Who is Patrick Hughes? Is he an artist or an optical illusionist? Is he highbrow or lowbrow? An anarchist or a reactionary? An insider or an outsider? I have known this complex man for over 20 years but still can't answer these questions.

Is it significant that he had a wild past, running away from home at the age of 17 and not seeing his mother for 30 years? Or that he was once married to the femme fatale Molly Parkin and features in some of her raunchier novels like Up Tight? Surely it's more important that he is a writer and philosopher in his own right, author of Vicious Circles and Infinity: A Panoply of Paradoxes (1975), More on Oxymoron (1984) and other esoteric works quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary? And does it matter that he is also a fitness freak, a mad-keen cyclist, swimmer and occasional long-distance walker?

Probably not. Until recent years, Patrick Hughes's chief claim to fame was simply as the Rainbow Man. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he depicted the rainbow in innumerable witty and irreverent guises, once even as an arc-shaped stream of multi-coloured urine issuing from a man's flies.

Everything about Patrick Hughes is multi-coloured and difficult to classify. He is certainly not an artist's artist - never mind his period in St Ives and one-time chairmanship of the Chelsea Arts Club - and indeed has become an increasingly subversive force in the art world. From the very beginning, he was fascinated by paradoxes and visual trickery. "I always wanted to do things the wrong way round,'' he says today. Born in Birmingham on 20 October 1939, the son of a shop assistant, he sheltered from the German bombs under the staircase at his grandparents house in Crewe and was utterly riveted by what a staircase looks like from underneath, the reversal of its normal self. Even more spellbinding was the effect of the two mirrors in his Nan's front parlour. "If you stood in the middle of the room,'' he recalls, "you could see infinity.''

Inspired by Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte - George Melly later described Magritte as Hughes's "spiritual papa'' - he travelled down from his home in Leeds in 1961 to open his first one-man-show at the Portal Gallery in Mayfair. Aged only 21, he offered his own rude versions of the ouroboros, best exemplified by a snake with its tail in its mouth, along with pictures of Bassett's Liquorice Allsorts and the cartoon character Desperate Dan. In the catalogue, the critic David Sylvester marvelled at Hughes's ability to be surprised by what the rest of us take for granted.

In spite of this early success, Patrick Hughes remained in the North supporting his young family - his first marriage took place when he was 18 - by working as a teacher. But Surrealist works continued to pour from him - in 1964 he painted a door made of bricks - and he was soon sufficiently renowned to be sought after by the young would-be art dealer Angela Flowers. Hughes responded to her initial overtures with an arrogant "The person who gets me will be very lucky!'' but eventually acquiesced and, after many exhilarating ups and downs, the Flowers family reap the rewards of still representing him today.

In 1970, an exhibition by Patrick Hughes opened Angela Flowers's first gallery, up two flights of stairs in Lisle Street, Soho, and featured a toy fish bursting through some sea wallpaper and a ball-on-wheels now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. But by now, the artist's private life was as dramatic as his artworks and there were drunken scenes and violent fallings-out that a devoted friend describes as "diabolical'' and "frightening''. Hughes prefers not to talk about the 11 tumultuous years with his second wife Molly Parkin but did once boast to me that he had smashed Molly's yellow Rolls Royce - or was it a Morgan? - minutes after collecting it from the resprayers after an earlier accident for which he had also been responsible.

Was he rescued by his Rainbow Period? "A rainbow is a transitory event composed of water, air and light,'' he now says of this effervescent phase of his life. "I tried to give it a mass, permanence and personality." By all accounts he succeeded in this task and today claims to have sold a million rainbow pictures in postcard form.

I first met Patrick Hughes in the early 1980s. His interest in rainbows - and income from them - was waning and he was living and exhibiting his pictures in a squat on an Islington square. I bought a watercolour of a clown haunted by its shadow - all Hughes's pictures of humans bear a clownish resemblance to himself - and was struck by the cocky confidence with which he delivered devastating dismissals of contemporary figures. Wasn't it around this time that he made a passing reference on television to "that dreadful Princess Di" when the poor young woman was still in her prime?

I soon discovered Hughes's passionate interest in exercise. In 1986, he and a group of enthusiasts would do what is known as the End-to-End - another symbolic gesture in artistic terms? - cycling from John O'Groats to Land's End in 12 days. Shortly afterwards, he and I took up long-distance walking, striding purposefully out of London in four or five different directions.

In spite of his protests that walking was the most boring form of travel, we reached Hatfield in an afternoon, the source of the Thames in four days and, most memorably, sauntered to the south coast over a weekend. Hughes's habit of deliberately leaving hideous sweet papers and orange peel at beauty spots - he justified his behaviour on the grounds of the "pomposity'' of the anti-litter lobby - lent an extra frisson to these country rambles.

This phase of our friendship ended abruptly in 1990 when Patrick Hughes suddenly began developing the sticking-out pictures which now totally preoccupy his working life. In 1963, he had made a model of two railway lines meeting in a point and called it Infinity and the following year had constructed his first sticking-out room without recognising its full potential. Over the past 15 years he has produced 300 artworks whose weird mobility comes, quite simply, from the fact that the farthest points of the picture are actually nearer to the viewer, and vice versa.

Hughes describes this reversal of concave and convex as "a wonderfully simple device''. Others may see it as a triumph of geometry and perspective. The volatility of his artefacts is, alas, impossible to photograph. Indeed, though pictures of Hughes's work in catalogues have a fairground-like vitality - he uses delightful ice-cream colours - they give no clue whatsoever to the magical effect it exerts on the viewer when seen in the flesh. Those who have never seen these things face-to-face will have to trust me that they do indeed move around you. Shift a fraction of an inch and these massive objects throb, blink or wink at you. Take a couple of steps and they lunge at you with a force some viewers find physically upsetting. "They're perfect dance partners,'' argues their creator. "They move in direct relation to your own movements."

Only when you look very closely at them - in their naked, unpainted state Hughes's sticking-out pictures are simply truncated pyramids - do you begin to see how it is done. Even then dexterity of the execution and the meticulously worked out use of shadows makes them elusive, to put it mildly.

Hughes has now applied his money-spinning idea - even multiples of his work sell for up to £7,000 each - to a variety of subjects. Libraries and anything to do with books work well - he long ago learnt that books are also doorways - and so do mazes and arcades. A few years ago, he applied his technique to a vast cigarette advert on the upper reaches of London's Cromwell Road. He has also used skyscrapers, village streets, townscapes - often with an Edward Hopperish feel - and even a regiment of toy soldiers. A streak of childishness or friendly innocence runs through much of his work. And seen through the moving doors or other rectangles, Hughes offers us glimpses of self-consciously delightful scenery, snow-capped mountains, sea and cloud effects not dissimilar to the backgrounds Magritte used for his own bits of naughtiness.

Patrick Hughes welcomes me absent mindedly into his topsy-turvy inside-out world. He shares this former Shoreditch paint factory - irony of ironies - with his third wife, the writer Diane Atkinson, whom he met in the Chelsea Arts Club in February 1986, and married soon afterwards. Their first-floor living space is as full of odd shapes and angles as one of Hughes's artworks and a curious luminosity attends even a run-of-the-mill saucepan on the hob and the Philippe Starck-designed pissoir in the bathroom. In the vast white basement lives the Dawes tandem on which Hughes and his wife, whose book Love and Dirt caused a stir two years ago, sometimes cross London.

Hughes may have a distracted, professorial, even world-weary air but, at 66, is as fit as a fiddle. He gave up drinking nearly 20 years ago and a few days before our interview took part in a mini-triathlon, swimming 750 metres, bicycling 10 kilometres and running another five in the privacy of a local gym known as the Broadgate Club. His vigour also comes out in his clothes. This morning he wears a pink jersey, pink polka-dotted tie and the bottom half of a blue pinstriped £2,000 suit made for him by David Chambers, part of a huge theatrical wardrobe which includes suits by Vivienne Westwood and dozens of pairs of braces but not a single pair of jeans. "I'm not a cowboy,'' he explains. "I've never worn jeans in my life.'' His preferred underwear, he tells me is something called a tanga, "a slightly gay-looking garment," his favourite brand of which has recently been discontinued.

Enough of this nonsense. Hughes and I soon settle in the front window of his studio where he is still working on two vast stage-set picture/sculptures of Venice which will hang in his new exhibition alongside works inspired by Mondrian and Rothko and others featuring suitcases, Brillo boxes, children's bricks and a telephone kiosk. According to Hughes, the Italian city with its moving canals and classic vistas lends itself perfectly to his technique.

Hughes's language is as offbeat and homely as his artworks. He uses crude medieval expressions like "fumblebum'', lapses occasionally into charlady talk like "I mean to say'' and whenever possible replies with the mock-suburban, monosyllable "Naargh''. His utterances are sometimes self-mocking, sometimes breathtakingly conceited. Of his studio in full view of passers-by, he says, "I'm like a whore in an Amsterdam brothel.'' He describes himself as "a uniquely positive person'' but then launches into broadside attacks on some of the art world's icons. Of one of our greatest art critics, he says, "His ignorance is unparalleled.'' He speaks of the "maunderings" of Tracey Emin and when I ask him if he admires his near-neighbours Gilbert and George he says "Naargh'' so forcefully that I do not press the matter. I'm also sad to learn that he is indifferent to the genius of Little Britain but I share his distaste for the contemporary celebrity culture and all the fuss that attended the long-drawn-out death of poor old George Best.

But even Hughes's most damning observations are delivered with such ebullience and such a twinkle in his eye that you cannot take them quite seriously. He reinforces this impression over lunch in a local restaurant, Eyre Brothers in Leonard Street, a dazzling establishment dedicated to Iberian cooking. Here, Hughes is greeted like an emperor - or do I mean conjuror? - and we are shown to a luxuriously broad table where, over hare soup, Spanish-style scrambled eggs, grilled tiger prawns and a fillet of Iberico pork, he mounts various hilarious hobby horses. He talks about the menace of recycling, says how much he dislikes appellations like Mr and Mrs and argues in favour of alcoholics being given "shyness counselling''. And, finally, he speaks about lavatory lids. "A true gentleman not only lifts the lady's lid but also closes the top lid when he's finished. Why did God in his wisdom give us the top lid if we're not meant to use it?''

Sounds familiar? Aren't hinges the crux of the matter? Patrick Hughes's sticking-out pictures behave as if on hinges. They swing and gape at you like doors or windows but what do they tell us about the world they reveal? Or about Hughes himself? Is he himself ever so slightly unhinged? Is he an unsung genius or simply a self-taught geometrician who has struck lucky? His new exhibition at Flowers East, will, I confidently predict, dazzle the punters but confound the issue.

Patrick Hughes's show 'Permanentspective' is at Flowers East, London E2 (020 7920 7777), from 20 January to 19 February