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Spins from Swiss

Spins from Swiss
signed, titled and dated '"Spins from Swiss" SHARA HUGHES 2017' (on the reverse)
oil and dye on canvas
78 x 70 in. (198.1 x 177.8 cm.)
Executed in 2017.
Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
I. Alteveer, M. Locks and S. Hughes, Shara Hughes: Landscapes, New York, 2019, pp. 11 and 79 (illustrated).
T. Bradway, ed., Landscape Painting Now, New York, 2019, p. 303 (illustrated).
North Adams, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, The Lure of the Dark: Contemporary Painters Conjure the Night, March 2018-March 2019.
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Shara Hughes: On Edge, September 2021-February 2022.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Known for her psychologically-charged tableaus that border on abstraction, Shara Hughes is quickly becoming a formidable force within a new generation of forward-thinking painters. Realized the same year as the artist’s inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, Spins from Swiss is a magnificent example of her whole-hearted transition into landscape painting. Lauded early in her career for interior scenes that mixed personal objects with tumultuous architecture, in 2014 she left the heavy symbolism of these rooms and traveled through the open window into a fantastical outdoor realm. “Within an interior, you can make a landscape through a window or you can make another person’s painting within the painting, or you can paint figures or not” (S. Hughes, quoted in “Shara Hughes by Rachel Reese”, Bomb, April 9, 2013). Feeling a certain restriction in her previous setting, venturing into the time-honored format of the landscape afforded a new freedom and helped push Hughes to the very brink of abstraction.

Revealing a mountainous region not unlike the towering forms depicted in traditional Chinese landscape painting, Spins from Swiss offers an elevated view onto a series of winding roads snaking through an impossibly-colored vista. Bleeds and stains of color combine with expressive strokes that morph from pure paint into roads, rivers, and wooded hills. A central outcropping is peaked with orange while a number of diaphanous pillars reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler’s stained canvases hover in the background. The entire scene vibrates with light, movement, and a sense of wonder. One gets the feeling that they have stepped through a wooded screen and are witnessing this miraculous sight for the first time.

“I think that nature reflects emotions in so many ways,” Hughes has confessed. “Beauty, pain, peace, sadness can all be seen in one day with the passing of time or with a weather pattern. Nature is constantly changing, you will never see the same flower twice in the exact same way. The light changes; its growing, or dying, and moving. The very reflective of humans and psychology” (S. Hughes, quoted in E. Steer, “Shara Hughes Uses Painting to Reflect the Turbulent Human Mind,” Elephant, March 16, 2020). Using landscape as a thematic structure rather than a way of exploring actual space, Hughes often begins a canvas with errant strokes and builds on them instead of starting with a clear scene in mind. In this way, she is more able to let the emotional process of creating a painting let itself be known. Anchoring herself in the natural world helps to restrain and compose her actions, a fact which leads to a more considered output reliant not only on expressive gestures but also careful contemplation.

Working in the studio, Hughes echoes the jubilant color palette of Fauvist masters like Henri Matisse while also paying homage to the visual tenacity of David Hockney. However, whereas her early work might be more in line with pieces like Matisse’s Red Studio (1911), canvases like Spins from Swiss occupy a new space that combines a century of creative progress in a composition rich with allusions to the past as well as a plethora of future avenues. Writing about the artist for an exhibition, Mia Locks surmises, “Hughes’s foray into landscape painting is driven by a certain ambivalence — the tensions in her [work] are the result of Hughes both embracing and subverting a conventional artistic genre. In this way, her paintings are a feminist effort, consciously or not, putting pressure on a presumed neutrality of landscape imagery (the ‘happy trees’ of Bob Ross, say, or hackneyed scenic postcards) by inviting us to consider how that genre’s allure might be tested in various ways. Hughes is subtly upending paradigms to chart new territories” (M. Locks, “Working Tension: On Shara Hughes’ Landscapes”, in Shara Hughes/Landscapes, Rachel Uffner Gallery, 2019, p.13). Historically placed behind allegorical works and those with connections to literary or religious subjects, landscape nevertheless holds a rich tradition with which countless artists have grappled.

Noting her predilection for the en plein air work of historical artists the members of the Hudson River School, Hughes is quick to note that her work is less about actual locales and more about an internal examination. “No, I don’t paint from life at all, ever,” she expressed in an interview. “My works are more about painting than about nature or something in the real world. They always start from playing around with color and shape and texture. The landscape becomes an access point for the viewer, a lot of times” (S. Hughes, quoted in I. Alteveer, “Shara Hughes in Conversation”, in Shara Hughes/Landscapes, Rachel Uffner Gallery, 2019, p.15) In this way, works like Spins from Swiss are less traditional landscapes and more investigations into the ways painting can be used at the very precipice of abstraction. Looking closely, one could be excused for reveling in the myriad materials and techniques the artist uses to create an all-over composition. However, pulling back we see a definite horizon and a recession in space that holds true to the traditional tropes of the landscape genre.

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