Otherworldly landscapes and psychedelic botanical paintings, all created from the imagination, are the signature of Brooklyn-based artist Shara Hughes.
Her first UK museum exhibition at the London Garden Museum brings together four vast new site-specific flower paintings and a group of intimate landscape drawings, presented in the nave of the former church of St Mary-at-Lambeth.
Referencing various movements such as Symbolism, Fauvism, and Surrealism, Hughes’ paintings centre around different flowers, ranging from umbrella orchids to poppies and dandelions. The naturally diminutive plants are scaled up in her gigantic paintings that are hung between the arches of the church building, resembling floating angels.
The colour bursting red flower petals of the poppies in Pop (2021) are of striking beauty and appear strong but delicate at the same time. Hard Hats (2021) radiates an eerie atmosphere and the dark colour palette of the sky suggests the arrival of a threatening thunderstorm. However, when it rains, the large leaves of the umbrella orchid move over top of the tiny flower to protect and shelter it from damage. Soft and Strong (2021) depicts the lifecycle of dandelions and focuses on the resilience of this humble plant. Hughes, for whom the flower paintings are a reflection of her inner emotional state whilst working through the pandemic, states:
“To me, the dandelion is scrappy, beautiful, resilient, soft, fun and strong. I definitely have felt like a dandelion during the events of the past year. When the wind blows too hard and you feel like you are falling apart, new seeds are dropped, and you can grow in many other areas and still find strength and beauty.”
When working with these enormous canvases in her studio, the artist starts with water-based colours such as acrylic for the background, but later adds different layers of oil paint on top, creating a powerful tension between abstract and figurative areas.
The small and intimate landscape drawings that Hughes made when travelling to upstate New York, or whilst at home during the Covid 19 pandemic, are presented in close proximity to the flower paintings in an adjacent space. The dreamlike images in bold and clashing colours don’t depict any real or distinctive place; they play with shifting perspectives, challenging pictorial conventions of space. Combining a number of art techniques such as oil paint, crayon, spray paint or colour pencil results in different surface textures, which gives the kaleidoscopic landscapes a tactile quality and a sense of immediacy.
Hughes’ exhibition, integrated in the nave of the former sacred space, forms a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total artwork) that completely draws the viewer into the artist’s psychedelic world of nature, myth and magic. The display does not feel like an obtrusive intervention into the space, but rather emanates an active calmness that allows the viewer to not only admire the paintings, but also the church building with its colourful stained-glass windows at the same time.
No interpretation labels are provided, which allows us to solely concentrate on images and their powerful explosions of colour. Flowers, which are often classified as dainty and soft, turn through Hughes’ lens into symbols of strength, power and danger. Whilst being intimate portraits of the artist’s psyche, Hughes oeuvre reinvigorates and reimagines the traditional genre of botanical and landscape painting. Her intuitive paintings and drawings are radiating with the vibrant energy of nature and seem to reflect unknown spaces that exist inside us. In this quiet space of the Garden Museum’s nave, they invite us to confront ourselves with our own feelings, but to also find solace in nature in our unprecedented and unpredictable times.
Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB. Open Monday-Saturday 10.30-17.00. Exhibition continues until 5 June 2021. www.gardenmuseum.org.uk