Observed in a cozy SoHo boutique, the paintings of Hugh Hales-Tooke may be mistaken for decorative works with a certain historical bent. Look more closely. Taken out of this comfortable context, or on the wall of his studio, the paintings immediately resonate with meaning, both personal to the artist and specifically relating to the Enlightenment. Primarily a photographer, Hales-Tooke has drawn college buildings of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren as a relevant inquiry into science versus art and the possibly grey areas in between. The show is titled Micrographia, Three Buildings of The Age of Reason. This refers to Hooke’s amazing 1664 book about microscopic animals and magnification using lenses. Hooke apparently coined the topical term, “cell.” This fascinating project started in 1989 when the artist inadvertently made his first image of the Wren Library at Trinity College. It took a while before Hales-Tooke realized fully his personal connection to the buildings in Cambridge, England, where he was brought up.

How do these the studies of Enlightenment architects relate to an individual? Partly because the paintings are a link in a conceptual chain. At first, the interest is intuitive. Then, it become more technical. The paintings (aka buildings) plot points in an investigation tying together Hales-Tooke’s family history with the edifices he duplicates. He traces his lineage back through the Petyr family line to Elizabethan times. Lord Petyr was a Catholic after the unfortunate dissolution of the monasteries, a precarious position for a man of state. But how is this investigation of family trees relevant to architecture from the Age of Reason? There’s the rub. We have to work it out. It could be that family DNA is related to the proliferation of ideas through history. At the end of the process, Hales-Tooke has presented the buildings denuded of any fanciful perspective and context – no light, shade, or place – so the façade faces the viewer without blanching, much like architectural elevations. Full frontal nudity, you might say. The series conveys myriad questions and serves as proof of the initial process. By illustrating the famous buildings in such a way, Hales-Tooke implies a cultural lineage which is wound tightly, like cloth around a wire: the buildings are neo-classical, but with added elements of the period that embody the thought of the time.

The subject could become a doctoral thesis. The Age of Reason was not just about science, but an attempt to remove art from science. There was also some Medievil psuedo-science bordering on Black Magic. (I must be thinking of William Blake and the architect Hawksmoor, Wren’s eccentric student! He imagined that the Ancients filled the skies with human-shaped constellations for a good reason.) These stories are writ large in mythic form so we can apply the facts later, if we fancy. Perhaps the whole of the Enlightenment is about “cosmic” wisdom being strained through the eyes of burgeoning science? It’s amazing what you can discover in a tasteful, unassuming shop in SoHo.

Full disclosure: The author admits he knows the methods and preoccupations of Mr. Hales-Tooke. They both studied at Syracuse University during the fermented Eighties and played loudly in a local band.

The Micrographia exhibition closed November 5. Visit the Meg Cohen Design Shop’s Facebook page for up to date information on current and upcoming shows.

Mark Price

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