A fantastical landscape of vibrant hues, supple forms and freewheeling imagination, Shara Hughes’ High Waters (2016) is a bounteous spectacle. At the centre is a hilly woodland of blazing orange, green and blue brushstrokes; it is reflected in a cobalt pool before it, whose surface fractures the forest into a glorious fretwork of colour. The lake is ringed with feathery green grass. Behind the forest, more mountains of ochre, chartreuse and chocolate brown – perhaps they form an island? – give way to turquoise water and a band of wispy pink cloud, framed by distant mossy banks. While she works with the intense palette of Fauvist and German Expressionist painting, Hughes does not share her forebears’ concerns with capturing psychological experiences of real places: instead, she conjures every aspect of her landscapes from her own mind, exploring purely mental topographies of feeling. Seemingly opening out into infinity, High Waters glows with the joy of exploration and expansion.
As befits her interest in inward states, Hughes’ earliest paintings depicted interiors, rather than landscapes. She filled imaginary rooms with symbolic objects, creating a vocabulary of personal emotion and biography within enclosed, dreamlike spaces. Feeling restricted by these paintings’ sense of narrative, she moved onto landscapes, which she says ‘opened a whole new world for me, one that was awesome and exciting.’ The flux of the natural world – its shifting seasons and colours, its cycles of decay, death and rebirth – went hand in hand with her desire for constant change and fluidity in paint. As a time-honoured subject, the landscape also allowed Hughes to engage with the painting of the past, building layers of rich art-historical dialogue into her work. ‘I wondered how I could take something that is seemingly so known and make it mine,’ she says, ‘while still getting all the satisfaction of painting, and the history of painting, in one’ (S. Hughes, quoted in K. White, ‘“Landscapes Opened a Whole New World for Me”: Artist Shara Hughes on How She Subverts the Tradition of Flower Painting’, Artnet News, 17 August 2020). Voyaging into unknown territory, High Waters sees Hughes infusing the landscape tradition with a breath of fresh air.