After too many sunny days to count, it seems the rain has returned to London, so this morning I regretfully swapped a summer dress for leggings and flannel and trudged forward, once more, unto the gloom. Thankfully, the rest of my day was not to be so dreary as I finally made my way to S|2, Sotheby’s intimate St. George Street gallery, for their current exhibition, ‘Henry Hudson: The Rise and Fall of Young Sen.’
Having not done my proper research prior, I didn’t initially realise that this was a narrative series, so the first work I cast eyes on was in fact the second of the story. I stared in awe, whilst simultaneously gaping in horror at the sight before my eyes — heavily textured guts and curling intestines spilling out of a female body being dissected at King’s Cross medical school. The graphic nature of the piece is really astounding, and the detail Hudson achieves with the plasticine medium is ultra impressive.
I soon found my way back to the beginning of the series, and painting by painting, accompanied our protagonist, Young Sen, on his life’s journey, from his humble beginnings in a Chinese factory town, to fulfilling his parents’ dream of attending medical school in London, his decision to follow his own dream instead and become an artist, a love affair, a marriage, his first NYC gallery opening, drugs, parties, rehab and finally back to China to make a political difference through his art.
Sadly, Young Sen’s story does not end well, however, as in the final painting, he is executed by the Chinese government for his subversive and overtly provocative oeuvre. Staring at this devastating final image, which is also the darkest in colour of the series, one cannot help but harken back to the naive and slightly chubby boy from Plate 1, waving his family goodbye, presumably imagining his life to come, certainly never dreaming it would end in such terror.
Aside from the brilliant story Hudson has spun, something that makes this work particularly fascinating is how it draws heavily on iconic pieces by other artists. Plate 9, for example, entitled ‘Freedom of Speech‘, combines the exact layout of Da Vinci‘s ‘The Last Supper‘ with Sen and his assistants’ nudity, of course reminiscent of the photo taken in Ai Wei Wei‘s studio depicting the artist and all his assistants completely naked. You will recall that this selfsame photo got Ai’s assistant, Zhao Zhao, arrested by the authorities and interrogated. This is doubly interesting when we remember that the fictional Sen, like real-life Ai, is in fact a Chinese artist who spent time in the West and then returned home, risking his life for political reform.
Similarly, ‘Rehabilitation‘ draws on Van Gogh‘s work from his time spent at Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint Rémy, and the whole of Hudson’s series on Hogarth‘s ‘A Rake’s Progress.’ I also noted elements of Damien Hirst in the various pill cabinets found throughout the work, as well as of Francis Bacon in the distorted and troubled faces.
This nod to fellow artists makes the series all the more meaningful, as Hudson is seemingly not only telling Sen’s story, but also, in various ways, that of his own peers, both past and present.
There is so much going on in each of the paintings that despite their large size, no space is wasted. Every nook and cranny of board is filled, no detail spared; one could probably spend an hour combing over a work and still not discover every image depicted. What sadly fails to come through in the photos is the complex and layered texture of the scenes themselves. As mentioned previously, Hudson’s medium here is plasticine, so the feeling of the work is distinctly sculptural, brimming with depth, unlike any “painting” I have ever seen.
Something I especially appreciate in the series is the constant allusion to consumerism and popular culture — social media icons, McDonalds logos, currency symbols, pills, drugs, processed sugar and even a Jeff Koons balloon dog.
Despite my love for some of these things, they are nonetheless the chains that bind us, the temptation we cannot escape, and Hudson acknowledges this tenfold. In the end, it is perhaps not only the Chinese Government that brings down Young Sen, but also the world around him, a rip current of greed, vice and excess, too strong to break from.
Leaving the gallery, I couldn’t help but wonder, in a world such as this, can we ever be truly free?
– India Irving
‘Henry Hudson: The Rise and Fall of Young Sen‘ is on view at Sotheby’s S|2 until 29th May; 31 St. George St London, W1S 2FJ; Open Monday-Friday 10AM-6PM; Admission: FREE