The Impermanence of Everyone: The Art of Hugh Mendes (Paramabodhi)

Episode 449,   Jun 14, 07:16 PM

Explore the extraordinary work of Buddhist artist Hugh Mendes around death - 'Obituaries' - and watch the accompanying film.

We are sitting in an East End art studio talking about death. The London tube rolls by outside, surfacing momentarily from tunnels dark as Hades, trundling its occupants inexorably on to somewhere. You can hear at intervals its soothing, almost womb-like background rumble and hush as a reminder of sorts - fitting sound as backdrop to this conversation with Buddhist artist Hugh Mendes, whose celebrated series ‘Obituaries’ we are exploring in a new online ‘Story’ space: ‘The Impermanence of Everyone’.

Explore the work of Hugh Mendes and watch the accompanying film about the Buddhist aspects of his work

Far from being grim or at all didactic, these canvases light us up when we see them: whether with recognition of a famous face; startled apprehension that this is the artist’s dead father not long after the moment of death; or fascination at the mysterious techniques of oil painting and how on earth it survives and thrives as a medium in the contemporary art world.

Mendes - ordained Buddhist name, Paramabodhi (“Supreme Enlightenment“) - loves painting, loves meditating, and loves teaching both. His practice - as artist and Buddhist - is fused in the ongoing contemplation of impermanence as a core aspect of whatever it is we mean when we say “reality”.  Equally at ease immersing himself in the Satipatthana Sutta, with its exercises contemplating the decomposition of our own body as a corpse, or becoming deeply absorbed in the physical act of painting for hours on end every day, Mendes is usually in touch with something both intimate and detailed, vast and universal.

We hear about his time teaching art in in San Francisco, where he also co-founded the San Francisco Buddhist Center in the city’s Mission District. His years of training and counter-cultural experiment at Chelsea Art school in the 1970s, where he booked the Sex Pistols for one of their first ever gigs. And his return to London following the death of his father to focus on art practice and, latterly, public Buddhist teaching at the London Buddhist Centre. 

We also discuss the challenges for both Buddhism and art of reaching a more diverse group of people - finding ways to cross class, racial, gender and financial boundaries. One of Mendes’ great heroes in this is the Indian Buddhist leader and author of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Bimrao Ambedkar. It’s fascinating to watch the artist very much at home in his studio, surrounded by inspirational figures mythic and human, all looking back at him as he tries to capture both their own versions of themselves and our culture’s gaze as they exit life and are being memorialized. We get to dwell with Mendes as he continues his decades-long meditation on the elusive nature of selfhood and identity that slips in and out of light and shadow yet may - sometimes - be beautifully and usefully reflected in the eye of the beholder.

Show Notes

The Impermanence of Everyone: In Studio With Buddhist Artist Hugh Mendes (Paramabodhi)

 + Follow Hugh Mendes on Instagram

Visit Hugh Mendes’ website

Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness

Find out more about Dr. Ambedkar

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Theme music by Ackport! Used with kind permission.