A burned match rests on the edge of a cheap Formica shelf, the last speck of orange light glowing in its blackened head. We've missed the drama - the sparking and flaring into life - and we're left with a dying glimmer. This is the moment. Not the dramatic white heat of its brief burning, nor the smoking charcoal carcass, but these few in-between seconds of an ember that will soon succumb to the inevitable. It is this moment, or its cultural equivalent, that Richard Hughes is fascinated by.
Hughes grew up on the southern edge of Birmingham: not quite the countryside, and only just part of England's famously second city. This peripheral position informs all of his work, colouring his interest in youthful idealism as it slips first into nostalgia and then, eventually, into fly-tipped plastic bags. But there is a certain wasted poetry to be had in the jetsam that shores up on the edges of cities, and several of Hughes' works celebrate this. Pit, 2004, for instance, is a faded, turquoise-blue mattress that curls over on itself, like a beautiful, breaking wave. Equally whimsical is Roadsider, 2003, a plastic bottle half-filled with golden liquid, or The Rising Sun, 2004, a mound of spilled chips coloured with the glowing gradient of a fiery sunrise. These apparently simple objects are, however, typically laborious Hughes constructions. For example, the mattress is dyed and hand-stitched, the bottle is actually solid resin, set in three parts (yellow liquid, clear bottle, blue cap), while the chips are painted casts.
The impressive showmanship of his craft is, for Hughes, an extension of youthful one-upmanship, and another strand of his practice gleefully explores this. The childish suburban bravado of a bicycle tyre hoopla'ed round a lamp post is trumped by Hughes' Goldenboy, 2002, a tyre that lies on the floor circling a gallery's structural column - an apparent impossibility. In fact the tyre has been painstakingly cast in this position. The same goes for Stuntnutter, 2003, a double-take-inducing photograph of a roadside verge where three discarded tyres interlock like a Venn diagram. It's the high-art equivalent of those impressively useless skills kids spend hours learning because, well, what else is there to do? The skateboard flips, the football juggling, the street-long wheelies.
But sometimes Hughes' interventions are more subtle than bravura. Clean Protest, 2003, repainted the gallery walls with trainer whitener, giving the space a look that the artist remembers as being 'better than new' in his teenage years. These years, for Hughes, included the Second Summer of Love in 1988, when night-time adventures involved searching the countryside for a rumoured sound-system surrounded by miscellaneous loved-up ravers pounding the dark. This brief moment of youthful utopia, so popular and notorious that it was effectively dead by the Autumn, is fondly remembered by Hughes as a period of hippy-like idealism, however second-hand and misunderstood: a road to unconventional wisdom that wound through country lanes, suburban backstreets and brownfield warehouses. This searching is hinted at in Missing in Action, 2002, where an old plimsoll hangs high-up by its laces over a gallery wall. The hole worn in its sole reveals a slowly spinning vortex (constructed out of Fimo), which may be a rubbish vision, but is a vision nonetheless.
Yet while the 1988 scene sparked only briefly, social consciousness has real inertia. So what happens when your self-identity is tied to a movement whose moment has passed, the Punx-Not-Dead syndrome? Do you give up on it? Dad's Bag of Rags, 2003, consists of a pile of stuffed bin bags, one of which is clear plastic and contains rags neatly tucked into place to make up an image of the 'Forever Changes' album cover, 1967's seminal, end-of-the-psychedelia-era LP by the Californian band Love (including the track, Bummer in the Summer). This art that had once meant so much ... now ready for the charity shop.
Hughes asks us what it is we give up. It's not just fashion, but ideas - idealism. If we accept change, he wonders, is this a defeatist acceptance of a status quo that we had once railed against? A new, as yet untitled work consists of protest placards in a street bin, their oddly melted poles having buckled and drooped so that the placards wilt to the ground like dead flowers. Pffist, 2003, also uses a street bin, but this one has been burned out, its plastic outer skin a bubbled black mass at its base. Billowing like smoke from the bin's metal core is a dirty old duvet resembling a raised fist - a defiant protest salute now impotent.
But the fate that awaits us if we slide into the comforts of acceptance could be Dave's Hill, 2004. Named after a member of Birmingham's glam-rockers, Slade, this gate-post finial is a ball of mossy grey stone, covered on three sides by pigeon shit so that it resembles a balding, lank-haired rocker. It is far from the flamboyance of glam-rock, and part of what Hughes calls 'the creeping crapness of everything'. (Hughes once re-exhibited all of the work from his 2003 Goldsmiths MA exhibition as a huge heap of junk, and titled it Dunbreathin', 2003.)
Whilst it may be better to burn out, it's clear that Hughes is interested in the increasing desperation of the fade away. This is the pathos that informed his version of a mirror ball, when he took hundreds of photographs of the gallery from where the ball was to be hung, cut the images up into little squares and stuck them on the ball in place of mirrors. The final sculpture bore an uncanny resemblance to a glitter ball, but had none of the glitter and none of the life. Morosely invoking the long-passed glamour of the New York disco scene, the piece is titled Studios, 5 to 4, 2003 - slow, grey afternoons spent alone with cutting mats, contact sheets, and cow gum.
But let's get back to the dying match on the Formica shelf. Of course it's not really a match, but a sculpture - aluminium and modelling clay with a pin light buried in its head - hence its perpetual last gasp. So, now we can see that it's not matches that Hughes is interested in, but culture: the flowering of a subculture into the mainstream as the attitudes and beliefs of a small group chime with a changing society, then the slow death as the trappings of the subculture become emptied of their original beliefs and slip first into parody and then irrelevance. The suspended ember of a match is simply a metaphor, but a useful one.
If today's media-centric culture is obsessed with exclusivity (in order to keep the so-called 'aspirational' audience hungry), then Hughes' work explores the fringes of this culture, where the circumference of the flywheel is spinning just too fast to grab hold of, occupied by neither well-connected insiders nor those wilful enough to be outsiders, just those who don't really have the energy to make it as wannabes. Perhaps Hughes' most poignant expression of this position is Let's Not, and Say We Did, 2003, a wall-painting of hundreds of fake corners from torn off posters - complete with trompe l'oeil staples and shadows - like those to be found in the corridors of any active student union or club. This is an ode to all the underground events that we've missed, some of which could have been seminal, and that one day we might have to lie about and say, with a false nostalgia that we'll end up believing, 'Yeah, we were there when ... '
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