Hugo Wilson has chosen “The Raft” as title for his upcoming Berlin exhibition. Of course, this immediately evokes associations with the most famous raft in art history, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa – and inevitably with the theme of “salvation.” So how does this tie in with this exhibition, the first in which his abstract and his figurative works are shown side by side?

Firstly, we need to understand the two poles between which Wilson’s work oscillates. On the one hand, there are the figurative, highly tangible compositions in which animals play a decisive role. They are metaphors of complex processes and moments – not in the animal kingdom, but in our highly technological human societies. The double monkey, for example, that we see in ReTro is the result of recent cloning experiments. The symbol in the background even refers to the corresponding laboratory. Wilson’s horses (State I and II) can also be read symbolically.

They are versions of the famous painting Whistlejacket (1762) by Georges Stubbs, which is now one of the icons in the collection of the National Gallery in London. It shows a proud, life-size racehorse set against a flat, monochrome background. It was a bold, highly unconventional picture in an era in which only high-ranking personalities were portrayed in such a manner. Stubbs’ masterpiece, which excludes any reference to a rider, became an emblem of British self-assurance and vigor – in other words, an image that definitely signified state power. Hugo Wilson has picked up on this, turning the animal that in Stubbs’ painting looks at us as it climbs so that it now turns its backside towards us, kicking at the viewer with its hind legs. The animal couldn’t care less about our metaphorical presumptions and its national significance. His meticulously rendered, masterful portraits show that Wilson has a contemporary approach: he is interested in what certain motifs stand for – and indeed why. How do certain images become symbols, a foothold, a saving raft in a sea of indeterminacy and ambiguity? And what happens when these symbols lose their clarity and certainty? How could this even happen?

Surprisingly, at the other pole, the artist’s abstract works follow the same path. These paintings and very large drawings have a figurative starting point, which in intensive over-workings are abstracted beyond recognition. In most cases, the viewer is unable fully follow this path that the artist has chosen. We happily pick up on the few clues that the artist gives us in his compositions: We make associations, try to discern what is intended and what is actually painted – and seek an interpretation for it. It’s our very human need for clarity, our quest for meaning and purpose – to escape the realization that we are, essentially, lost. So even the smallest clue can become a “raft” of our understanding. And this closes the circle of considerations that Hugo Wilson takes us on in this exhibition: Because the rafts we save ourselves onto are a shaky affair. As soon as we think we are standing on safe ground, they are certain to come apart again and our understanding is shattered. And that, unfortunately, is the somewhat disturbing conclusion we deduce from our journey through Wilson’s pictures: we will never quite reach solid ground.

Tap, 2024. Ink, oil bar, and pastel on paper, mounted on aluminum, 140 × 115 cm

About the Artist

The technical and motivic repertoire of British artist Hugo Wilson, born in London in 1982, seems almost anachronistic. Working in the tradition of the all-round artists as they emerged in the Italian Renaissance, Wilson moves nimbly between diverse artistic means of expression, creating paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures playfully, yet with absolute precision and stupendous craftsmanship. Wilson has recently added another facet to his spectrum of media in turning to the outdoor sculpture.

His masterly execution of various techniques reflects Wilson’s classical training for several years at the traditional Florence studio of Charles H. Cecil and the artist’s intense engagement with the Old Masters. The choice of numerous materials used in his work can also be attributed to this background. Wilson often paints appropriately prepared wooden panels. Numerous layers of paint that differ in their chemical make up and radiance ensure a vivid expression of color. These paintings not only reference the Old Masters in the technique used, but also in their motivic elements, such as hunting scenes, still-lifes and baroque draperies as traditional visual formulas of dignity. Wilson combines these artistic elements with the visual events of our age, from viral YouTube clips to computer-animated films with talking animals. The result is a fascinating updating of the European painting tradition manifested in dramatic and dynamic compositions.

Incarnate, 2023.
Oil on canvas, mounted on panel, 240 × 175 cm

Wilson has not only breathed new life into painting as a medium. In his paintings of recent years, the artist has also reanimated a genre of painting that had almost been forgotten: the game scene, which stages animals as an expression of trust and affection, as an emblem of Christ’s passion or (to teach) as a carrier of a moral lesson. After creating animal portraits full of character, Wilson has recently been developing complex group paintings that only rarely show a peaceful coexistence, instead depicting the pecking order or food chain, power relationships that the artist understands as a mirror of human society.

Colonnade, 2023
Charcoal, pastel, and ink on paper, mounted on aluminum, 510 × 150 cm

The varied oeuvre of this young artist has already resonated strongly with an international audience. Wilson’s works have been shown in group shows at the MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts in Debrecen, Busan Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and are also included in key international collections, such as that of the New York Public Library, the Deutsche Bank Collection, and the Janet de Botton Collection in London.

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