Seek ATL, studio visit with painter Shara Hughes

The second monthly studio visit I attended with Seek ATL as host, was to Shara Hughes’ third floor Telephone Factory space. She showed several paintings that will be in an upcoming exhibit this fall. This visit, coordinated again by artists Ben Steele and Hughes, included more local artists in attendance, some of whom I’d met at Marc Brotherton’s studio in early February.

Hughes moved back to Atlanta from New York about three years ago and has settled into her light filled studio with Chicken Nugget, her Boston Terrier.

The group launched into its usual routine of asking questions about the work and offering comments, always constructive, sometimes challenging. Hughes’ current work consists of medium to large sized paintings of interiors, packed with patterns and skewed perspectives; sofas, windows, chairs, altered or disjointed figures and spray painted slashes.

Some of Hughes’ influences are obvious in her paintings; Hockney and Matisse. The latter she calls her hero, and her sense of color and high chroma contrasts what may be darker subject matter in some of the work. Joan Mitchell was an early influence when Hughes experimented with more gestural abstractions.

I wondered about one painting. Like Francis Bacon’s central figures that appear to be trapped in a psychological battle that only the painter can elucidate, in one of Hughes’ more centrally focused figurative works, a defined head is missing, but the body’s pose in the chair was remarkable, not least for the uncomfortable sensation it produced in this viewer.

She talked about initially coming up with titles, and then proceeds from that starting point. Her intent is not to be necessarily narrative in a literal sense, at the same time surrealism and cubism seem obvious infiltrators in her perspective and recent subject matter. Hughes said she didn’t want the viewer to be faced with the responsibility of interpreting subject matter. In her painting process, she consciously attempts to alternate between “speeding up and slowing down”, in an effort at spontaneity.

As a mostly intuitive painter, Hughes says that she doesn’t work from sketches although there were several small paintings on paper tacked to the studio wall. The work may be autobiographical but her intent is to subsume that in the final composition. Her paint can be traditional oil, with the addition of house enamel alongside areas of spray paint and glitter.

An interesting comment was made that in Hughes’ paintings there is the feeling that the viewer is being pushed out of or trapped within the painting via her constructs. Beyond the window in one work lies a dull and dreary winter tree vista. Hughes explained that her concept for that title – “I don’t see like you anymore” had more to do with how others view one’s persona rather than the image one may have of one’s self.

In another painting the hint of a man is shown outside what could be a window frame; his fingers wrapped around a door, or his eyes peering between the leaves of a plant – and lends an ominous feel to the work. The title of the piece is “Shady”. 

The books on Hughes’ shelf show her interest in the gamut of art history; just a few noted are Egon Schiele, Francesco Clemente, Edward Munch, Clyfford Still. And as the controversial critic Robert Hughes said in an essay about Giorgio de Chirico, Shara’s personal iconography and symbolism may “condense voluminous feeling through metaphor and association. One can connect these magical nodes of experience, yet not find what makes them cohere.”

One painting I especially like is from her website, but wasn’t being shown. It’s a loosely painted gestural work that speaks to me of summer.

Thanks Shara and Ben – looking forward to the next Seek ATL salon.

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