Rising Star Shara Hughes Paints the Twisted Landscapes of Her Inner Psyche

"Shara Hughes: Tree Farm" is on view at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Waldmannstrasse, Zurich.

Visitors huddle to see Shara Hughes, Some Flowers Get Trampled in Basel, Switzerland, 2023. Photo: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images.

The plants in Shara Hughes’s mind-bending paintings export the viewer far from reality. The American artist’s forms seem to be plundered from the depths of her imagination. Towering trees are depicted in spidery strokes of yellow, green and orange (Wits End (2024)), or with vibrant, fluffy blue dots embellishing their branches (What Nerve (2024)). Her works are often so loaded with energetic marks and organic forms that the background and foreground converge, leading to a rich tangle of dynamic visual material.

Hughes’s natural scenes can be read as psychological renderings of her inner world. “These landscapes are my present moment,” she said in an interview ahead of her exhibition “Tree Farm” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich (on view until July 20, 2024). “They are very real to me. They are about relationships, reactions to the world, and other things that might be going on in my personal life.” She began to paint these extravagant pieces after moving to New York in 2014, having previously worked on highly considered interiors which housed personal objects. Her “imaginary landscapes” now are a vehicle for her to convey her own subconscious, and a means to explore color and shape. They rethink the landscape genre, reworking a well-worn creative subject with vigor.

Interest in her paintings has boomed over the last decade, following a successful inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial where her work was highlighted by critic Roberta Smith. She now has a thriving market and is held in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fondation Louis Vuitton, and Dallas Museum of Art. Hughes has also had solo institutional exhibitions at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, Aalbord, Denmark (2023); Kunstmuseum Luzern (2022); and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2022).

Portrait of Shara Hughes at her studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The title of the artist’s Presenhuber show follows the name of her family’s farm in southwest Georgia. She would visit frequently with her father, brothers, and friends while growing up, and describes it as remote, surrounded by dirt roads, inhabited by snakes, deer, and a host of pine trees. “Without much outside stimulation or access to TV or internet, we all learned to be creative and independent, to make do without much else besides ourselves,” she said. “It inspired me to rely on what I already have instead of looking elsewhere. It really shaped me into who I am today. The whole show isn’t based geographically on the tree farm, it is more about that act of reliance on the internal self.”

an abstract painting of a colorful tree agianst an orange background

Shara Hughes, What Nerve (2024). © Shara Hughes. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Presenhuber.

While she has warm memories of this childhood farm, in some paintings, its emotional resonance has led to conflicted results. “What’s funny is that I associate our tree farm as a place of freedom and happiness and stillness, yet some of these tree paintings are individually somewhat troubled,” she said. “Harder Core and What Nerve were the first paintings I made in the series, and they were both about recovering from stress and having debilitating back pain. ‘Come and Get It’ also has a provocative title as if I’m asking for a fight. Maybe there’s some push and pull trying to subconsciously connect me back to that stillness that I used to feel at my family tree farm.”

a table in an art gallery is filled with small sculptures

Installation view, “Shara Hughes: Tree Farm” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Waldmannstrasse, Zurich, 2024.

The exhibition also features a selection of paintings created by the artist’s father, Joe Hughes. These will be displayed in a cabinet adjacent to the main gallery. He has returned to painting on and off for almost seven decades, and his daughter notes the personal meaning these pieces have for him, portraying the story of his life with humor and thoughtfulness. “I love that his paintings are genuine and raw,” she considered. “They are not attached to any outside reason why he needs to make a painting. Formally I’m not sure we have parallels, but I admire his work because the approach is completely free from expectations.”

This also marks the first time that Hughes will be showing her ceramics in an exhibition. The small scale of these tabletop sculptures invites the viewer to move around and observe them from multiple vantage points. They evoke the organic, plant-inspired shapes in her paintings; some have branch-like prongs covered in spherical forms, others are cocooned by petal-like borders. Each were glazed and fired without searching for a specific outcome. She has only recently begun to work with clay and has been intrigued by the strict process and timings involved in its creation. This has been an experimental play with patience for the artist, who describes an immediacy that’s possible in painting, as opposed to the long wait for results when working in ceramics.

Installation view, “Shara Hughes: Right This Way” at Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, Aalbord, Denmark, 2023.

“There were a lot of surprises,” she said. “One hard thing was the shift from making environments to making objects. With painting, you can only see it in one direction so there can be many illusions inside it that suggest context, feeling, or mood. I think these sculptures can do that too, but it was a shift in thinking for me.” This exhibition marks a return to the places of her childhood in many ways, from the locational, to emotional and experiential. “The ceramics gave me a different kind of freedom,” she said. “They brought me back to being a kid and exploring and letting myself make mistakes.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.