Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld
Fiery shrapnel frames a lone refugee silhouetted against a smoldering desert. You’d never guess it was a busted shovel and what might be an old car part.
The painting titled “Ashes” is a prime example of Jason Hugger’s work. He has been turning trash into surrealist paintings for decades. A solo show of his art opened at Exposed Studio and Gallery on the first Friday of 2020. Hugger uses scale, lighting, and texture to infuse metal scraps with powerful emotions. His journeys across Iraq with the National Guard echo throughout his imagined dystopian landscapes.
Hugger’s artistic odyssey began in the seventh grade. An observant art teacher noticed his pupil’s natural talent. The educator encouraged Hugger to practice often and stick with art. The future artist enjoyed learning about perspective by sketching buildings. He took more art classes over the following years and doodled constantly in his free time. As soon as Hugger finished his first landscape painting in tenth grade, he made a fateful choice. “I decided to do this full-time,” he said.
Hugger asked his high school art teacher how one goes about becoming an artist. She wrote him out a list of what he would need to apply to college art programs. He worked on developing his first portfolio over the next year. When Hugger felt ready, application packets went out to three schools. Back then, students had to apply via mail with the art included on slides. One school never responded. Hugger decided another wasn’t the right match. A third school — the Columbus College of Art Design — accepted him. Hugger was also awarded a $10,000 scholarship.
Everything seemed to be going well in college until his Sophomore review. Hugger’s teachers savaged his still lives and portraits. They pushed him to push himself. The undeterred young artist walked the railroad tracks and streets of Columbus seeking inspiration. He ended up discovering it in the most unlikely place: all around him. “I found tons of junk everywhere,” Hugger explained with a laugh. “I set it up on tables. I embellished them with perspective and dramatic lighting.”
After graduating, Hubber visited Phoenix for an art show in 1996. He exhibited in galleries across the country, but the sparse aesthetic of the southwest proved magnetic. Arizona became his new home. The Valley of the Sun was fertile creatively, if not in terms of profit over the next couple of years. Sales were slow and his side hustle at a framing show paid peanuts. Hubber joined the National Guard to serve his community while earning an extra paycheck. Then, 9/11 occurred. Soon after, the U.S. invaded Iraq. The artist found himself headed to a warzone.
Hugger was a motor transport specialist, military jargon for a truck driver. He traveled around Iraq, mostly in the southern part. His convoys rolled past Mash Arabs and their reed houses clinging to ancient riverbanks. Hugger marveled at the lighting as dark storms rolled past. It somehow seemed more dramatic than back home. This part of the fertile crescent was beautiful, yet the ravages of war were ever-present. “In Iraq, I saw these desolate landscapes with oil refineries falling apart and smoking tanks that are on fire. These heavy metallic objects and landscapes,” Hugger said. “I thought I could make something surreal and mystical out of this. I sort of added into that my passion for the surrealist painters.”
More than a decade and a half has elapsed since Hugger’s tour overseas. Still, the paintings filling Exposed Studio and Gallery bear the impressions of those experiences. Now Hugger frequents junkyards seeking lines that inspire a flash of memory or new idea. He enjoys walking through stacks of old vehicles spewing engine parts like bloody guts. Always with him is a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and a crate to carry his prizes. He haggles for the prize, often donating the parts back after finishing a painting anyways. Many times, the owners are eager to be rid of what some might call junk. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I imagined the images as what an ant on psychedelics might see at a landfill.
The gallery at Exposed is spacious and well lit. Its brick walls complement the warm autumn hues and industrial aesthetic of Hugger’s paintings. Curious works of art at a range of price points fill the front of the shop, such as a cyclopean mannequin and oversized ceramic fruit. It’s located on Seventh Avenue, a little north of Indian School Road in the Melrose District. Gregg Edelman is the owner and gallery director for Exposed. The gallery opened in 2004 and relaunched in 2018 after a hiatus of several years. Edelman is Echo Magazine’s in-house photographer, and his work has also been featured in Out Magazine and many others. He’s already making big plans for the annual Melrose on 7th Street Fair Festival occurring on March 7.
Next month, Edelman is hosting another painter at Exposed, David Allan Paul. Like Hugger, Paul creates imaginary desert landscapes on larger canvases.
Hugger also has work on display at Modified Arts in Phoenix and at Iron Key Studio in Peoria. Besides his painting “Ashes” sits “Monsoon”. The painting is dominated by a large hook of metal piping in the foreground. It’s named for the ominous character of its very dramatic lighting. Hugger said the piece evokes a sense of something ominous coming this way to him. As we sit on the cusp of another potential war in the Middle East, his work serves as a stark reminder of the last one’s cost.