Hugo McCloud Turns Plastic Bags into Blossoming Paintings on Invisible Labor

Art

Osman Can Yerebakan

Portrait of Hugo McCloud with his work at Rockefeller Center. Courtesy of Rockefeller Center.

“Don’t let darkness be a running theme,” Hugo McCloud continually reminded himself while working on his solo presentation with Sean Kelly Gallery at this year’s Armory Show and his upcoming exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles. His latest figurative paintings, titled variations of “flores de mayo,” will be on view in the New York fair’s Focus section from September 9th through 11th, while the Vielmetter show will feature new versions of McCloud’s early-career stamp paintings.

“The context from which the paintings come may be dark, but my images are not,” he told Artsy from his studio in Los Angeles, where McCloud recently moved after previously residing in Tulum, Mexico. The protagonists of his Armory presentation underpin this visual optimism. Flowers—particularly those the artist photographed on sellers’ pushcarts in Mexico—are the subject of paintings that challenge the natural essence of botany through McCloud’s choice of artificial material. Single-use plastic bags replace paint’s established command to capture the elated hues and velvety lushness of flowers.

Layering pieces of plastic in gentle arrangements, McCloud orchestrates bouquets with silhouettes of trees in the background. The flowers’ demure elegance silently addresses the flawed network of commerce through which McCloud obtained the plastic bags. “They still do carry the weight of the individuals who push them on tricycles,” the artist added, commenting on the invisible labor veiled under floral beauty. “But my approach is a bit more bordering abstraction now, creating a language of my own with plastic.”

Entering his forties during the COVID-19 pandemic has given the artist a greater understanding of the different ideas he’s interested in. Labor has always been a subject matter—whether through his immediate and hands-on relationship with the canvas (or formerly with objects as a designer), or his observations of others working on the streets of India or South Africa.

Hugo McCloud, installation view of “Palindrome” at Sean Kelly, 2015. Photo by Jason Wyche. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York.

“I come from a family of laborers, from my grandfather who came to America and opened a metal scrap yard or my mother who is a landscape designer,” he explained. “I’ve always been humbled by individuals who try to create more out of less.” The stamp paintings that put him on the map less than a decade ago included materials used for roofing. “I started out frequenting supply stores to acquire industrial materials to make art,” he remembered. The material inspiration for his abstract aluminum paintings in “Palindrome,” his debut exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in 2015, was the fruit of his encounter with shanty houses in Johannesburg.

A similar curiosity for the overlooked has also guided McCloud towards the material he is perhaps best known for today. Single-use polypropylene bags initially entered his sight on the streets of India in 2013. The material did not cooperate for nearly four years until he figured out plastic’s chemical language.

McCloud began collecting discarded bags off the streets to make paintings of anonymous individuals pushing, carrying, or driving masses of goods, also on the streets. The iconography came to him around 2017 when he rented a 300-square-foot storefront studio space located across from street vendors in Mexico City. “I’m not focused on that exact individual,” McCloud said about his figures’ anonymity. “My attention is on the process and the willingness of the individual to do what it takes to work that day—there is beauty and strength there.”

Besides their sociopolitical undertone, the piles of sacks featured alongside the human figure offer the artist the painterly challenge of imbuing an undesirable material with emotion and intrigue. McCloud found himself captivated by “the value in the overlooked,” as he described it, and eventually expanded his investigation into the material on a larger scale.

Hugo McCloud, installation view of The Burden of Man: waiting to breathe with, 2021, presented by Sean Kelly and Vielmetter Los Angeles at Art Basel Unlimited, 2021. © Hugo McCloud. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York.

At last year’s Art Basel in Switzerland, Sean Kelly Gallery exhibited the four-panel, 90-by-282-inch painting The Burden of Man: waiting to breathe with (2021). Given McCloud’s later foray into still-life paintings, the work hinted at a divergence from figuration by radiating a more abstract visual lexicon.

And at Rockefeller Center this past April, McCloud returned to juxtaposing street workers in his largest public exhibition to date. Given Midtown’s complex relationship with class division and labor, McCloud’s Art Production Fund display of nameless workers from remote regions rendered in disposable bags embodied the intricacies of global economies.

Portrait of Hugo McCloud at Rockefeller Center. Courtesy of Rockefeller Center.

“I am not the painter people imagine—I don’t paint with a brush on a canvas with an easel,” he said. “I deal with materials through figuring out engineering and coming up with my own technique.” This path, however, requires compromise and patience. “Plastic is a material like no other because there is no fluidity—it is unforgiving and very fixed,” McCloud continued. Once ironed onto the panel, the strip of plastic offers no turning back. Therefore, each painting has to stem from a premeditated decision about its balance between sharp figuration and hints of abstraction. “I am still trying to figure out how to capture fluidity,” McCloud admitted.

His new “flores de mayo” works that feature trees in silhouette have imposed this challenge: “My trees are the same color as the sky because they are vague, undefined shadows, so I realize the key is to create another layer of sky but darker,” the artist said. Through his use of material, McCloud has proven that other possibilities of beauty can be discovered in what most may consider disposable.

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