Shara Hughes | Imagined Lands Untraveled

by Kate Jackson Sabelhaus

COME. FROLIC. PLAY. LETS GO. Thus is the siren call of a Shara Hughes painting circa 2016-2018.

Google the words “carving out fresh options shara hughes” and you’ll find one of her most notable works—a sweeping, swirling landscape that was translated from the original diptych into a large-scale public mural along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. A red-hot portal carved from rock grabs the eye before sending it down an azure river, teeming with energy and flanked by a fjord that leads to the sea, the bright sun radiating in the distance.

When taking in one of Hughes’ saturated landscapes, first there’s a reaction that stirs the gut—rousing something deep and dormant—then there’s a second response, more thoughtful and tinged with longing for worlds we believe in, yet haven’t actually seen: figurative Edens, visionary landscapes, and trips we’ve taken. Though, these aren’t trips Hughes has been on either. Her 2016 show at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan, aptly named Trips I’ve Never Been On, consisted of 12 works that Hughes describes as “psychological landscapes that were conjured in real-time. The scenes weren’t based on journeys I’d physically taken, but rather invented.”

SHARA HUGHES. “PEEP SHOW” (2018). OIL, INK, AND ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. 58 X 50 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY

SHARA HUGHES. “PEEP SHOW” (2018). OIL, INK, AND ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. 58 X 50 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY

The Marlborough show marked a decisive departure from Hughes’ earlier work, which was centered on dark interior spaces where slim slices of the outside world could be seen in the background, as if daylight were attempting to break in and shine light on the subject. Her pieces “It’s Safe Because We Make the Rules” (2013) and “Boo Hoo! I’m in Love” (2013) are possibly the best examples of her work from this period where, looking back, Hughes says, “I was searching for ways to incorporate symbolism, like including a dog next to a female figure as a sign of protecting oneself. But over time, I’ve been able to remove these traditional symbols and create meaning more freely and naturally in a language that’s my own.”

Hughes’ works, a selection of which are on display now through January 2019 at Arts Club London, are markedly devoid of human figures and other animals, yet they’re bustling with movement and life. For instance, in Gusto (2018), the beach is vacant, but the viewer can’t help but place themself in the scene alongside the sway of the trees, the rush of the shore, and the brewing tempest at the horizon line. There’s a sense that one could get lost in this made-up place but only as a means to finding oneself. Come. Frolic. Play. Let go. Let go to get back to yourself.

SHARA HUGHES. “NO TOUCH OF GRAY” (2018). OIL AND DYE ON CANVAS. 40 x 36 IN. (101.6 x 91.4 CM)

SHARA HUGHES. “NO TOUCH OF GRAY” (2018). OIL AND DYE ON CANVAS. 40 x 36 IN. (101.6 x 91.4 CM)

After moving to New York City from Atlanta a few years ago, nature started figuring prominently in Hughes’ work. Now she’s recognized for her exterior spaces—landscapes that spring from her subconscious as she works in her Brooklyn studio, not while painting en plein air in the Yosemite Valley. Though she does list David Hockney as her greatest influence, and the connection between Hockney’s Yosemite Suite—created on an iPad with vivid colors and jaunty “brushstrokes”—and Hughes’ psychedelic pastorals is immediately apparent.

Around the time Hughes moved to New York, she began painting landscapes, not out of any great affinity for the natural world, but as a rejection of subject matter and an opposition to premeditation. She wanted to see what would happen if she approached the canvas with an unfettered mind.

She found the release freeing, opening her up to the kind of organic play that occurs when any human being is met with jewel-toned pigments and a fresh, blank surface. She began to trust her instincts and let the process unfold naturally—over time, broken brushstrokes became untamed foliage.

SHARA HUGHES. “BAD MOOD RISING” (2018). OIL, ACRYLIC, AND DYE ON CANVAS. 78 X 66 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY

SHARA HUGHES. “BAD MOOD RISING” (2018). OIL, ACRYLIC, AND DYE ON CANVAS. 78 X 66 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY

With several solo shows behind her, acquisitions by major museums, and a room of her own at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Hughes’ work has seduced modern audiences, evoking an emotional resonance at first sight. When asked what this success can be attributed to—and why the attention has come with her foray into landscapes—Hughes cites her honest search for simplicity and a raw energy that people can relate to.

“You see success and failure in the work. My hand—with its trial and error—is on display, and yet something beautiful emerges from it,” says Hughes. “There’s also a sort of ease and freedom visible in my paintings. I’m not trying to come up with layered messages of meaning. I’m doing what I want in the moment and viewers connect with that.”

This last statement struck me as Hughes and I spoke. Her language was so relatable, her intentions so pure—it was refreshing and satisfying, and yet I kept making feckless attempts to press her for more. In advance of our conversation, I’d prepared questions about women’s role in art—referencing a recent article in The New Yorker, which asserted that women are just getting their start after centuries of being overlooked in favor of male artists—and I planned to ask her about our current political environment, wondering whether climate change was the driver behind her preoccupation with nature. I was sure that Hughes’ primordial scenes, sometimes seen through a portal that functions as a sort of peep show for the human gaze, were a metaphor for the social systems that are being upended, leaving us to grapple with how we might rebuild what’s being torn down. When I started down this line of questioning, Hughes asked, “Can’t someone just make a good painting?”

SHARA HUGHES. “JAGGED LITTLE HILLS” (2018). OIL AND ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. 84 X 70 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY.

SHARA HUGHES. “JAGGED LITTLE HILLS” (2018). OIL AND ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. 84 X 70 INCHES. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND RACHEL UFFNER GALLERY.

This question, posed rhetorically and without guile, reveals the innate strength of Hughes’ work. In stripping herself of the pressure to come to the canvas with a polemical blueprint and symbols passed down through the art history canon, she creates good paintings, even ravishing paintings—art that draws the viewer in with utopian playgrounds for the human spirit. In her latest incarnation as an artist, Hughes has stopped trying to be creative, and simply is.


Written by Kate Jackson Sabelhaus