The current display at Lexington’s most venerable of exhibition spaces, Institute 193, is the work of Atlanta native Shara Hughes. Hughes, a driving force of the Atlanta scene when she lived there, decamped to Brooklyn this year, where she currently lives and operates a studio. The show at ‘193’ (as the locals refer to the space) is entitled Midnight Snacks.  It consists of Hughes’ paintings augmented, or accented, with her smallish constructions or sculptures that refer to the domestic scenes she paints. My first impression of the work was Bonnard on acid. Wild, colorful and dripping applications of paint refer to domestic bliss and nightmare rolled into one. These magnificent paintings both surprised and enchanted me; they also propelled me into Hughes’ world, making me want to be more comfortable than I felt when I first viewed them.

The works in this show are interiors, snippets of the kitchen, views into the garden. People in them eat in contorted views, food explodes in a microwave, bananas hang from a stand so as not to bruise. Paper towels on a rack are at the ready. Disembodied limbs occupy the scene in Hughes’ works as casually as the cups and glassware she paints with streaks, drips, and daps of paint (I would describe Hughes as a current, very modern, Guston). I see her approach to painting as an attack on the canvas. Hughes isn’t suggesting the clichéd view of Van Gogh running out to the fields of Auvers, as he did while the light faded, but rather an attack in a very calculated, planned, efficient manner, drawing with both colorful and drab strokes to evoke her scenes—these domestic scenes, that shout ‘I’m going to shoot myself in the face if I have to cook one more meal’.

2014 Bananna Stand 36×32, Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193.

Banana Stand, a medium sized canvas (36” x 32”), was painted this year in oil, enamel, acrylic and spray paint. The work is divided by an open green window. The edges of the glass are marked out with red strokes. Two bananas are suspended from a stand. The fruit is speckled with brown spots, and needs to be eaten. Beyond the window a hedge is perfectly trimmed, the top of which dabs of impasto make it look like a giant cake ready for a party. A glowing orange sun rises from behind a field of undeliniated pink clouds or mountains or just Hughes’ dreams? The domed building with fluttering flag bordering the left of the painting makes me think of Greece, and makes me wonder whether Hughes was traveling as the painting was evolving.  Banana Stand tells a compelling and lyrical story. It is a successful work by a brilliant young painter.

2014 Loosey Goosey 32×28, Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193.

Loosey Goosey, a work also painted in 2014 is oil, enamel, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas (32” x 28”). At first I thought the work was hung upside down. The figure stuffing a fork into its mouth is clearly either standing on its head attacking the fries on the plate or the eater is in some contorted Picasso-esque position. But, if one hung the painting the other way the fries would fall off the plate, a visual trick that makes this meal a tempest of applied paint and color. The arm of on the left side of the painting is long and drawn out. It hangs down without much life. It is casual. The three gray strokes that make up the elbow define the shape anatomically correctly. Don’t confuse these splashes and strokes as an attempt to show only form and shape in a hurried way—Hughes has an inherent ability to draw. The scarlet red lips, the purple eye, the potatoes painted with only two strokes, the hair a red mess, one finds it hard to tell if Loosey Goosey depicts a scene of a meal, or one of war. The work reminds me of a sex act just completed—instead of lighting a cigarette in satisfaction or reward, the model is eating french fries.

2013 That Room Was Always So Warm (Med) 14×11, Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193.

That Room Was Always So Warm is a smaller work (14” x 11”), 2014, oil, enamel, acrylic, and spray paint. A figure stands in a doorway facing a yellow field that could be either wall or pastry—the warm room could either refer to kitchen or bedroom.  It is about memory, which is always tricky to begin with. I always think that the point of a painted room is to draw the viewer into it. This small, charming work does just that. I think of Virginia Woolf and her masterful long essay A Room of One’s Own, a clear feminist statement about needing a ‘room of their own’ in which to create or live.  The doors in that world described by Woolf were open to a prying husband’s eyes. In this painting by Hughes, That Room Was Always So Warm, the occupant comes and goes at will. The raised dots of orange paint on the yellow wall, precisely applied, gives depth to the wall and space to the painting, not just decoration. The room is on fire.

2013 Go To There (Med)12×9, Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193.

Go To There (Liz Lemon: “I want to go to there”?) a work from 2013 (12” x 9”), also on canvas, oil, enamel, acrylic, and spray paint, depicts a lone figure, brooding dark blue, hands behind the back peering out a large window, looking out to sea or sky—a blue awash in fluid strokes. The rest of the action of the work contains the figure and frames the window. The purple and olive strokes are as good and strong as the work of Howard Hodgkin.

2012 Microwave 2012 Oil Acrylic Enamel Spray Paint On Canvas 24x30in, Courtesy of the artist and Institute 193.

Microwave, 2014 (24” x 30”), oil, acrylic, enamel, and spray paint on canvas is my favorite work in the show. It is an explosion of paint/food erupting from the opened door of the depicted machine. The contents of the microwave are a messy nightmare. Various objects are imbedded in the paint. Objects that look like pieces of paper, cigarette butts, and even a fly are encapsulated under the veil of paint and are the contents of the microwave. What interruption of the domestic scene caused the ruined food? Impatience or neglect? A family row? “I’m not cooking another meal!”? Suburbia alight with domestic disharmony. This painting has guts and life. It charms, it revolts. The nearly bucolic view of Banana Stand (who’s watching The Banana Stand in Arrested Development?) gives way to domestic confusion and breakdown—a rotting, stinking mess in the kitchen held together with a variety of paints on canvas. One thinks of that sexist saw “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”. Hughes’ kitchen is a liberated place that gives us a precisely different view of the world. We want what she is smoking.
Shara Hughes’ sculptural work included in this show, at first seem like props for the paintings, or even whimsical parts removed from them. Pieces of meat, a fully loaded hot dog, a malformed spoon, utensils from the kitchen, a melting ceramic cup are all depicted. They are like toys or quickly produced symbols from the paintings. A pair of ceramic hands are not just hands. They could have been chopped off in the blender—the residual effects of domestic rebellion, an occupational hazard. Yet, especially viewed in conjunction with her paintings, they are not toys, but rather they are remnants or evidence of this life lived before window and door, in the kitchen and looking out the window—towards implied freedom. Don’t let Hughes’ use of vivid color lead you astray. Her work is very, very heavy. I would describe Hughes simply as being a painter’s painter.

This show proves my often stated opinion, that Institute 193, IS, the Lexington art scene.

By: Louis Zoellar Bickett

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