Florals, for spring? Groundbreaking. For painter Shara Hughes, the obviousness of a May exhibition filled with flower paintings is part of its intrigue. She is an artist with an affinity for making familiar imagery seem fresh and risky. The flower paintings on view at Rachel Uffner Gallery are aggressive in pallette, experimental in composition, and deeply abstract, staking out ground outside any art historical lineage.
On ViewRachel Uffner Gallery
May 3 – June 23, 2019
My Natural Nychtinasty (2019) centers a six foot high blossom that closes its purple folds over an inner sea of flesh. The figure’s insides are icy, both intimate and expansive in scale, and it looks less like a flower the longer you observe it. Across the gallery, Force Field (2018) has no central figure but a whole field of blooms receding into space. The close-up renderings of monocot flowers in the foreground are strangely dumb, painted with myopic or juvenile simplicity, pushing the eye backward to a hard-edged, golden streak of flower heads that seem to move like a sunbeam across the canvas. As its title implies, Force Field is all energy.
Flower imagery is a new focus for Hughes, who has become well-known in the past several years for her landscape paintings, newly compiled in a monograph by Rachel Uffner and Eva Presenhuber. These painted environments are populated by familiar landforms, foliage, and bodies of water that place them squarely within the visual language of “landscape,” and yet their scenery is never specific, never real. The images of nature fall apart relentlessly, melting into gestures and marks, thoroughly adulterating the line between representation and abstraction. The resulting vistas are uncanny—both familiar and wrong—which is why they read as distinctly psychological, and sometimes ominous.
I met with Hughes before the opening of In Lieu of Flowers to discuss the evolution of her work and her relationship to the landscape genre. Hughes is quick to confirm that her paintings aren’t really about “nature,” which begs the most interesting question: what are they about?
Alex Jones (Rail): You have said in previous interviews that you came to landscape by accident, while trying to get out of a rut, but it ended up really working for you. When was that?
Shara Hughes: That was when I moved to New York in 2014. At that point I was making figures in interiors that also morphed into figures outside in the landscape. They were very narrative, very symbolic, and I felt like I always needed a reason to make them, like they needed a sort of a storyline or a narrative. I was tired of thinking about how to make a painting before making it. I also disliked how talking about what I was making involved a lot of explaining— “They’re about this, and the title is this, and these symbols mean that”— and I could see people automatically turning off. I wished I could say something like, “I make landscapes!” so that people would just be like, “Got it. Cool!” [Laughs.]
Rail: Right, landscapes are something we immediately understand, and already have a vocabulary for.
Hughes: Right, even the everyday non-art person, like my family. So when I moved up here, I was frustrated with my work, and I didn’t have any shows coming up, so in the studio I decided I was just gonna make these dumb landscapes [Laughs]. I just started playing around, using the landscapes as an access point for myself to just be natural, to be a painter. I didn’t need to make a storyline before starting the work. Of course they’re not easy to make, they’re not simple at all, which I realized after I said “I’m gonna make something simple such as landscapes.”
Rail: Painting landscapes comes with a huge tradition behind it, for one thing. What kind of relationship to the history of landscape have you developed?
Hughes: I used to think about the utopian landscape painting, the idealized landscape, like Thomas Cole and things like that. To me that wasn’t very interesting as painting. I didn’t want to make pictures, or anything that you could just go out and see compared to actual nature. Because there’s no competition.
Rail: Emulating nature has not been such an interesting goal in art for a long time.
Hughes: Not since Pollock.
Rail: Another thing about the landscape tradition, and Cole is a good example, is that it was always quite a political or philosophical genre because it reflected and influenced the way that people conceived of nature—which is maybe what you mean by the “utopian” landscape. But your paintings don’t seem to be about nature at all.
Hughes: No, they’re not really about landscapes.
Rail: I get that impression immediately from them, partly because there’s very little specificity in the subjects—in the vistas or the actual plants and trees—there’s no taxonomical interest in depicting these subjects. They’re iconographic, or gestural. It is interesting that these pieces even add up to an impression of landscape. Do you think that is just our ingrained recognition of this visual vocabulary?
Hughes: Totally. I mean I feel like I’m surprised all the time whenever something works out, because I start super abstractly. Sometimes it might be as simple as, like, I just made a red painting so let me try to make a white painting. I rarely imagine painting a specific place because anytime I try to control the ideas, it changes. And the surprise of how it’s put together is more exciting for me than how it ends up in a lot of ways.
Rail: Before we went on the record, you spoke about the scale of many of your paintings being comparable to your own wingspan, and the process you’re describing sounds very physical. Like it’s not so much “painting from imagination” in the sense that there’s a pre-existing image in your head, but instead something that is being translated from your body onto the canvas.
Hughes: Yeah it’s super immediate, even the color choices. I don’t premix palettes or anything like that. I don’t even think about the paintings when I’m not in here.
Rail: Good for you! [Laughter]
Hughes: That was another relief when I started working this way…
Rail: You mean they don’t haunt you in the evenings? Does this way of working ever result in dead ends?
Hughes: I can totally strangle a painting, for sure. It drives me crazy when that happens. But I haven’t thrown away a painting in a while…
Rail: You have a lot of them hanging in here right now; do you work on multiple paintings at once?
Hughes: No, I have them all out to get ready for the show, but I’ll have usually just one on this wall, and then one that has just been finished so I can subconsciously “fix it,” looking at one area that's bothering me, then something needs to change.
Rail: How long do you usually work on them?
Hughes: Well, it varies. I heard somebody say recently, which I feel like was such a good answer, that a line takes a matter of seconds, but getting to that line can take months and months. But often people who aren’t artists love that question because they want you to say it took you months and months to make this one painting, where it could have happened in like two days, but if you say two days they're like… oh. But actually it took me like 35 years to get to this line!
Rail: [Laughter] The reason I ask in this case is sort of the opposite, because a lot of them have an immediacy that makes them feel as if they could have been painted in a single session, even though I know they’re not. That immediacy is powerful and difficult to achieve on a large scale.
Hughes: None of them are made in one session for sure, but you know, a lot of times the ones I struggle with the most are the ones I'm not even touching…
Rail: It's all psychic interplay. One aspect of them that is formally really interesting to me is the framing devices you create, and the emphasis on the edges. I’m interested in your relationship to the edge of the canvas.
Hughes: I like for you to be able to totally believe in the painting but then know that it stops at the edges, and going back and forth between something that feels real but that you know is basically talking about abstract painting. I like being able to have that kind of back and forth of yes and no. So the framing kind of pulls you in without really asking the viewer to be in it because you already know where you stand. It’s mimicking the idea of the painting like again here’s another border so there’s the actual border and then there’s another one that’s inside.
Rail: Or helps situate you within the experience of looking at the painting, as both a scene and an abstraction. The picture plane in the painting can never really function like a window the way that it once did, you know? We have an engrained modernist relationship to things like linear perspective and illusionism, to flatness, so that we can’t experience a landscape painting in the same kind of transportive way that people spoke about in prior centuries. We also have these digital screens that replace that function of the painting as a window. And yet you are actively engaging that idea of the painting as a window.
Hughes: Definitely. Even the interiors that I used to paint always had windows, and there would be paintings on the wall, so I’m interested in a play on that idea that paintings are the windows to the world—like there’s a window and here’s a window and here’s a window—how far can you go, how far can I bring you in and then pull you back.
Rail: It might be more relevant to think of “entering a painting” in phenomenological terms, more of a body thing, a more direct kind of encounter of the body. It's also where the idea of perspective comes in. I think your paintings have spatial depth and they don’t at the same time. There's a push and pull of flatness and illusionistic depth. That’s another thing I think people are really good at projecting onto things as spatial depth, because it's just the way we see.
Hughes: I know, I feel like sometimes I make paintings that you can really travel “through,” go down a river or something like that, and then the next painting everything is right up close in front of you. So I like being able to kind of like pull you in in one painting and push you way out and kind of like rattle you because I am actively always trying to do something I haven’t done before. I don’t want it to feel like “seen one, seen them all.”
Rail: I haven’t gotten that sense at all from your work yet [laughter], so, so far so good!
Another formal element that stands out is the intensity of color, which is probably the most obvious visual impression they make; there’s a huge volume of color, some of it mixed and some straight from oil sticks or spray cans. Again, there is not really a referential relationship to colors found in nature. Can you talk about your relationship with color?
Hughes: I don’t premix palettes or even look too closely at the color in the work of painters I admire. I want to have the same element of surprise with color. Sometimes the palette I end up with in a painting, like I Got You Babe, which is all yellow heats in the landscape and cools in the two protective flowers, aggressive opposites of purple and yellow. I would never expect it to work. I couldn’t have thought of it beforehand.
Rail: When I was reviewing the things that people have written about your work, it’s funny how easy it is for people to use the word “psychedelic” when they describe it. I'm curious if you have any relationship to that word? [Laughter]
Hughes: [Laughter] I know! I think once when I first started making this work I used that word, and then was like, “Oh no, this is gonna be like the trigger word.” Also, one of my first landscape shows [in 2016] was called Trips I’ve Never Been On, which was funny for me because I've never been on a trip but I also have never been to these places. If I could make these paintings on drugs that would be awesome [Laughter] but I have to actually be very serious and in the zone and ready to make the work. I had a show in Europe a few years ago and the dealer emailed me to ask, “What kind of drugs were you on?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t do drugs,” and he was like, “Haha no really, we really want to know!”
Rail: I think that’s another pitfall of a non-maker to assume that, because using drugs is sort of the easy way to encounter an aesthetic like this. The other way is through hard work, expanding your aesthetic horizons with intention and practice instead of with a chemical! But if there’s anything legitimately psychedelic about your work, I think it’s that in psychedelic experiences there is a precarity of mood. A trip can be very blissful or it can turn very sinister depending a lot on your mood. And there's something about these paintings that is delightfully ominous to me.
Hughes: Yeah! I've always made work that was a little bit dark. I like that there's something so inviting about the colors so that you kind of want to go towards the painting, it pulls you in, but once you're there, you see it’s actually kind of fucked up.
Rail: Oh I like that, it's like Hansel and Gretel. The candy house. And the world of plants is that way, it can be very frightening when you think about how full of life and death it is, and how vicious the pace of change.
Hughes: Totally. I feel anxiety a lot, and I think that’s part of what the work provokes. That’s the reflection it's shown me, at least.
Rail: One of your titles that I found pretty hilarious was Bad Mood Rising (2018).
Hughes: Oh yeah [Laughter] I felt like that one was perfect.
Rail: One of your new paintings here [My Natural Nyctinasty] really exemplifies this focus on mood and a sort of inherent darkness.
Hughes: “Nyctinasty,” I learned, is when flowers close up at night, and when I was making My Natural Nyctinasty, I was going through a time when I needed to protect myself, and I needed to make this painting about protecting yourself. The idea of flowers being able to do that at night, to preserve energy and protect themselves, was interesting to me. That’s also what we do.
Rail: This painting seems to strike out in a new direction for you with its emphasis on the singular figure of the flower, which kind of personifies the psychological overtones of the piece. The flower is like a psyche, maybe.
Hughes: Yeah it's bringing narrative back in in a way that they almost become figures again, but they can also still just be something in landscape.
Rail: It is not oppressively figurative, no. The inside of that form looks like a whole other scene, it looks aquatic or even glacial.
Hughes: Exactly, I mean there's something so nice also about using something close up like that to have it again be abstract and also like not being able to know what everything looks like all the time in nature, and love that idea. Because for me, as a painter, it just opens everything up.
Rail: You mean not being able to see everything because it hides from us?
Hughes: Or because it changes. Even if you go back to the same location that you love, it looks different because you're different, so nothing is ever actually the same.
Rail: The ecosystem is shifting and so are you. That’s the seed of the romance of landscape painting, and of painting flowers, right? The impossibility of stasis in something that’s beautiful.
Hughes: Right, even the weather changes, and then the light. And change scares people [Laughs].
Rail: It’s funny that now we are actually talking about nature after all [laughs]. Like you said, the paintings are and are not about nature. Can you talk more about your new body of work as a whole, which is all focused on flowers?
Hughes: Yeah, I still think of these as landscapes, I’m not done with the landscapes. I also still think of the work as ‘interiors’ in a lot of ways, which is what I was doing before. But I wanted a more specific direction for this show, and when I first started thinking about flowers, I thought it was kind of a funny idea. I don’t know how to make a flower, and it carries such heavy symbolism—but then I realized this is why I should do it, because I don’t know how, and it gives me a symbol to work with and to break apart at the same time.
Rail: What aspects of flower symbolism interest you?
Hughes: Well there’s the symbol of fertility, and the cup, the holder of something new and beautiful—always this beauty symbol—and how we’ve seen it portrayed in art history. When people think of flower paintings they usually think of the vase in the still life, and I wanted to do something different. What would I do if I was going to make a flower painting?
Rail: What is significant to me right away looking at your flowers is that they are alive, they're all growing in the ground, as opposed to, as you said, the art historical connotations of flower painting which are tied to still life, where the flowers are generally cut, and therefore dead. As with landscape, the aesthetic thing becomes about freezing a fleeting moment in time. But your flowers are growing.
Hughes: Yeah, I also feel like there’s also something rare about seeing flowers in the wild, especially in the city, it just doesn’t happen every day, to stumble upon a huge field of flowers.
Rail: I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the end of this winter to see the Orchid Show, and as I was walking through the grounds to the conservatory, I encountered all these snowdrops and hellebores and winter aconite. There was still snow on the ground, it was the first living matter of the new season I’d seen, just these little buds growing, and I was blown away. By the time I got to the orchids, I was disgusted by it [laughs], it was way too much—gaudy.
Hughes: Oh that’s funny!
Rail: The orchids aren’t dead, of course, but in the moment it seemed like the same thing, like artificial. But, either way, it seems like flowers are the easiest thing in the world to find beautiful.
Hughes: It's interesting how it’s the thing that kids will paint a lot of the time—when you take an art class or whatever—its often a flower and a vase, or even just a stick and dots.
Rail: Yeah, it’s instinctive. I guess I’m interested in the idea that flower art is not just a cliché, but that art is actually synonymous with flowers.
Hughes: I liked the idea of saying, “Oh I’m doing a flower show,” and it sounds like a cliché or a dead end, but again, they're actually not about flowers. Or, they are and they're not. They’re tougher paintings, they're aggressive, they're not delicate. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful, it’s wrong and it could be right—there’s a lot of back and forth.
Rail: I like that what you’re doing, maybe, is introducing uncertainty to a subject that we assume is all figured out.