You’re Highly Evolved and Beautiful, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
Shara Hughes could well be the best representational painter of her generation, taking the baton from David Hockney, with whom she shares an interest in brilliant color and landscape painting; which is not to suggest she is in any way a Hockney clone. And her new show, In Lieu of Flowers, which just opened at the Rachel Uffner Gallery and is running until June 23, underscores her genius. It’s a knockout.
Hughes began her career in the 2000s by painting wacky, almost surreal interior scenes that were indeed inspired by Hockney, but filled with personal symbols and metaphors. In 2015, she turned to landscape painting and her originality blossomed. The pictures can be placed in the color line established by Monet, Van Gogh, and Matisse by the beginning of the twentieth century, and run through German Expressionism, American Modernism, to Milton Avery and Alex Katz. But there was no mistaking her creations for those of her predecessors.
Earthly Delights, 2019, oil and dye on canvas, 94 x 72 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
Hughes’s reputation was launched in 2016 with a breakout exhibition of large landscapes at Marlborough Contemporary in Chelsea, which got a rave review in the New York Times and sold out. The following year, she was included in the Whitney Biennial and given an entire room to herself, which exploded with color. Since then she has been consistently showing in both America and Europe, in both museums and galleries, with such major institutions as the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Smithsonian acquiring her pictures.
What makes Hughes so good? First, the paintings are thematically very smart. This can be seen in the title of this show, In Lieu of Flowers, which takes flowers, obviously, as a theme. And it’s also found in the titles of the works, such as Pretty Prickly, Naked Lady, Earthly Delights, and You’re Highly Evolved and Beautiful. Unlike Matisse, Hughes is not making art that functions like a comfortable armchair. Yes, the works are beautiful, but they can also be unsettling, evoking a broad range of emotions, from joy to fear to distress to discomfort. Some are just topsy-turvy fantasy. These are not just pretty flowers; the works are fraught with meaning, which is immediately conveyed to the viewer, even if it cannot be verbalized.
Pretty Prickly, 2019, oil and acrylic on canvas, 78 x 66 inches, courtesy of the artist and the Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
In addition to the emotion, Hughes pictures are loaded with subtle references to the history of landscape painting. One work may evoke Charles Burchfield, another Georgia O’Keeffe, and a third Joseph Stella. Entire movements, such as German Expressionism, the Nabis, and Fauvism make appearances. But the result is always one hundred percent Shara Hughes.
The second notable quality found in her pictures is the structure. Her compositions are complexly constructed, the complexity existing down to every mark. This complexity can even be seen in the range of textures and mediums she uses in a single work, and the eye delights in every one of these shifts.
It is not surprising to learn that Hughes does not work from preparatory drawings, or even an idea of what she is going to paint. She will sometimes just put two brushstrokes on a bare canvas and let the picture develop from there, sometimes just staring at the canvas for hours before deciding on her next move. And when we look at the picture, we are drawn to every one of these belabored decisions, thrilling to each one of her moves as we feel as though we are reconstructing how she thought out the picture. If only everyone could respond to a bare canvas or, in the case of writers, a blank page with such triumph.
Shara Hughes, In Lieu of Flowers, is at the Rachel Uffner Gallery, 170 Suffolk Street, New York, through June 23, 2019.