PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 16
INTERVIEW BY JESSICA KIRSH
Rolling hills and winding roads, crowded forest and crashing waterfalls, sunrises and sunsets…we’ve seen it all. And Shara Hughes knows it. Her paintings act as heartfelt citations to art history, memory, and lived experience—assuming that all places are already known, already visited, already remembered. Rather than trying to reinterpret someone else’s vision or narrate a personal journey, she intuitively marks a pre-prescribed world. As spectators, we are invited to dwell in these life-sized portraits of idiosyncratic paradisiacal clusters, where caustic primaries clash with milky pastels and swirly clouds dance above dewy ferns. Framed as both a window and a mirror (distant yet familiar), Hughes’ paintings present encounters with the natural world as intangible and rote, with no need for further explanation.
Your paintings appear to be layered in both a technical sense (experimenting with oils, acrylics, spray paints and dyes) as well as an aesthetic one (juxtaposing the surrealist clouds of Magritte, the plant life of Rousseau, and the winding roads of early Hockney). As a landscape painter, how is your style informed by other major players in this genre— both classic and contemporary?
I look at many other artists and painters all the time. I look at different artists for different reasons. Maybe someone from the Renaissance for composition and detail and someone Postmodern for color and crudeness. Many times I’ll look at something but make the exact opposite. It’s more about sparking something intuitive inside me. A splash mark made with a brush may make me think to make something more angular. Many times, it’s about inventions working together in some kind of surprising harmony.
You mentioned that the scenes you depict do not refer to real places. Having never visited them in dreams or in reality, where do these images come from?
I’ve been starting the work with abstract shapes. Many times it comes out of how I’m prepping the canvas. I’ll stain the raw canvas in some areas but highly gesso others. I’m usually concerned where I want the viewer to focus and where I want their periphery to become activated. This kind of painting aperture I’m using is how the shapes happen on the canvas. After that I have to figure out what these shapes are going to be. Sometimes they turn into something you can name like grass, sky or water and sometimes they are more abstract. I like activating the part of the brain that fills in the abstract part of the picture. To me it’s as if I can paint the periphery that we can’t really see but know is there.
Throughout your career, your work evolved from early figurative studies to a complete absence of human form. Your current series of paintings conveys a phenomenological engagement with its audience: at 68 inches tall (almost life-size), hung in portrait as opposed to landscape orientation, the spectator is invited to insert him/herself into the scene. How much does corporeality, as well as personal and collective memory, play a role in your work?
The size of the canvas is something I want the viewer to feel like they can step into. The orientation emphasizes the feeling of it being very much like an interior; doors, and windows. As far as personal and collective memory, I’m not really thinking of my personal memory. I’m thinking more about inventing memory or inventing a new space that feels familiar in some ways, but maybe only through materials, color or shape. I think the issue of collective memory is probably touched on through recognition of shapes in a landscape…there’s something interesting about landscapes in a way because they are always changing. They are never the exact same, so you can play with invention and recognition of something without actually knowing you’ve been there or seen it. I think there’s a lot of freedom for play in that sense not only for me as the maker, but also for the viewer. I’m really interested in suggestions instead of specifics.
One of the paintings that really stuck out to me was of your pine tree farm in Georgia which, as you revealed to me, is the only landscape that bears reference to a specific location. What is your relationship to nature in both your personal and artistic life? Also, to what extent do these two worlds intertwine?
I definitely have had a good history with nature growing up. I went on several outdoor expeditions and felt a real connection to the outdoors. However, this work to me isn’t really about that. It’s more about access to another type of space. Maybe it’s a dream, maybe it’s a wish, maybe it’s a fear. Landscapes can be very giving but they can also be really scary. The painting I made about my tree farm is interesting compared to the other works because it’s pretty abstract in the center of the canvas. The only thing that really gives you a sense that it’s not just vertical brush strokes is the ground. I took a video of my tree farm this summer while riding through the rows of trees. I used that to refer to and no other still images. I thought that gave me more of a sense of something unattainable since it was moving. I had to see it almost as a strobe light since the sun was dancing in and out of the gaps of trees. The video gave me access to a specific feeling for that piece that is more about a true beauty that I know exists. The approach to that painting could only be accessed this way because illustrating that place wouldn’t give the feeling justice.
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