Shara Hughes: Pleasure House

Redwood Library & Athenaeum • Newport, RI • • Through September 21, 2017

By: Alexander Castro

Summer House interior S Hughes
Shara Hughes, Pleasure House (Intervention at The Redwood Library & Athenaeum Summer House c1766), interior shot.

Brooklyn painter Shara Hughes’s installation Pleasure House occupies the Summer House, a folly on the lawn of Newport’s Redwood Library and Athen-aeum. Gushing jouissance in an otherwise stately atmosphere, Hughes turns the tiny, octagonal pavilion’s interior jubilant and whimsical.

The viewer is invited to peer through a winding curve of glass in a door frame promising a personal, “paradisiacal” experience. Cutouts slathered in acrylic paint block the rest of the door. Peek through the slat and you’ll discover a world cheery and bright.

Too much exposition or description of the vista inside would feel like a spoiler. Part of the installation’s thrill is its quality of surprise, so perhaps it suffices to say that Hughes has constructed a joyful landscape—part painting and part sculpture. It enlivens a conservative architectural detail from the Redwood’s elegant and manicured grounds. Yet the installation itself is inconspicuous, unseen except to those who seek it.

Hughes is a graduate of RISD, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Opera gallery, the most recent Whitney Biennial and many other solo and group shows. The installation is part of the initial Art & Newport festival, curated by native Newporter and Vogue editor Dodie Kazanjian.

Despite obvious hints of sculptural form, Hughes’s work comes across as fundamentally painterly, with opaque coloration, bold palettes and emphatic brushwork. This approach emphasizes the materiality of the paint. The viewer understands these paintings not as aspiring to reality, but rather fanciful reinterpretations of what we already know: clouds, trees, shrubs, winding plants and valleys. Hughes achieves a kind of virtual reality, a hybrid of Fauvist hues and organic scenery.

While the subject matter is representational, Hughes’s approach to color suggests a faith and zeal in the visual logics of painting itself. Color, shape and mark-making become a literal means of rendering and reinterpreting the world. Tired cartographies are erased from the map and replaced with new ones. Pleasure House is not an overpowering experience, but it’s worth a pilgrimage for its playful reinvention of a world we thought we knew—or heretofore could only dream of.

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