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Shara Hughes: Compelling landscapes of nowhere

David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, The Hangdog, 2023, oil, acrylic, and dye on canvas, 115 x 72 inches

Contributed by Jason Andrew / With her paintings fetching millions at auction, Shara Hughes has been on a tear. Since 2020, she has had nine solo shows, presenting work from Shanghai to London, Åalborg to Luzern, Aspen to Manhattan. All but three of the 17 paintings in her first show in Los Angeles, titled “Light the Dark” and presently up at David Kordansky Gallery, were made in 2023. Fueling Hughes’s remarkable pace is an unrelenting embrace of paint, with which she balances descriptive and imaginative motifs. Notwithstanding her commercial success, she retains a fearless approach to dismantling conventions, the paintings are cutting edge. As she noted in a 2020 interview, the more she attempts to control the creative direction in her paintings “the worse they are.”

David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, “A Forest for the Trees,” 2023, oil, acrylic, and dye on canvas, 86 x 78 inches

At Kordansky, Hughes explores the coupling and uncoupling of day and night in canvases that explode in brooding contrasts, dynamic brushwork, and overarching metaphors blurring the line between reality and imagination. These dreamlike realms evoke both eros and pathos, prompting us to delve deeply into our own experiences.

Hughes’s raison d’être is to redefine traditional landscape painting, and this exhibition epitomizes that pursuit. In A Forest for the Trees, she takes a cue from Monet, who in 1891 painted a series of poplars growing along the banks of the Epte River. Like Monet, Hughes uses the trees as a vehicle for exploring the relationships between light and color. Unlike Monet, Hughes doesn’t paint her trees from life. She paints intuitively from her subconscious.

David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, “True Colors,” 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 50 inches.

In True Colors, Hughes baits us with a meandering line cast into a swampy bayou. A green moon hovers small in the distance, its reflection spiraling outward by way of a thick spin of her brush. The soupy palette leaves us stuck in the muck.

In her imagined landscapes that feature flora, Hughes drives a stake through the heart of the symbolism tied to the traditional role of flowers in still-life painting. For Hughes, that genre “always seemed kinda boring,” as she explained in a 2020 interview with Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

“I wanted to change the symbolism to update it in one way whereas they aren’t just seen as a feminism – beautiful delicate thing. They can be aggressive, they can be scary, they can be sad. They can have a different personality than just one thing. So how far can I stretch that symbolism of the old flower paintings and still life mostly and still use them in the landscape, so in their natural habitat? But also bring them into an updated sphere about how we think about things.”

David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, “Float Along,” oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72 inches

The title of The Hangdog is telling. A single flower, maybe a rose, droops left of its dwindling stem. In the midnight air, hot chromatic tachés sporadically light up a moody wood-lined sky like confetti. The painting seems to capture the very moment after the blossom has passed its prime. Two yellow trees frame the composition. Their limbs meander up, stretched into an archway shaped in the decorative style of art nouveau.   

Big flowers abound in big paintings titled Float Along and Trust and Love. Hughes flanks both with borders that fashion a portal into her world. It’s a visual trick she has mastered to immerse the viewer in her painted space “before even being asked to be in it.

David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, “Burn Out,” 2023, oil, acrylic, and dye on canvas, 72 x 115 inches.
David Kordansky Gallery: Shara Hughes, “Swelling,” 2023, oil, acrylic, and dye on canvas, diptych / overall: 72 x 174 inches.

Weather and temperature play pivotal roles in Hughes’s pictorial stories. In Burn Out, she effectively paints nine-and-a-half horizontal feet of sweltering heat. In Hot Coals, a pulsing sun, placed high-center, seemingly roasts the flora below. In Swelling, we get over fourteen feet of hurricane-strength storm surge, with its crushing waves threatening imminent destruction. But she can also lighten up. In I’m a Fan, Hughes manifests a sense of humor with thin palm trees bending in a tropical breeze, their leaves waving in front of our face – like a fan.

Hughes never ceases to remind us that her superpower is paint – its application, its directional draw, its invented color. It’s a medium she wields with extraordinary mastery in compositions laced with facts and truths, counterpoised by the medieval might of her nightmarish imagination. By challenging traditional definitions and symbolism and embracing the full spectrum of emotions, Hughes invites us into a mysterious and ever-evolving realm. The question remains whether she can stay creatively upright while surfing the swell of a demanding art market.

“Shara Hughes: Light the Dark,” David Kordansky Gallery, 5130 W. Edgewood Place, Los Angeles, CA. Through October 21, 2023.

About the author: Jason Andrew is an independent curator and writer based in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Follow him on Instagram: @jandrewarts

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