Bloom & Bust
Shara Hughes at Rachel Uffner
The proliferation of flower paintings in the 17th century Netherlands can be explained by a confluence of factors, among them the tulip craze and the rise of the middle class (and with it an uptick in the trade of consumable goods), but no explanation is so visually and philosophically delicious as the Calvinist obsession with morality and mortality, which gave rise to the golden age of vanitas painting. Though its symbols are sometimes heavy handed (A skull on a stack of books? A just snuffed out candle? Whatever could they mean?), vanitas ensured that no matter the blooming life apparent in each bouquet, hidden within it were signs of decay. The more time the viewer spends with these paintings the more they give, revealing mites nibbling on leaves and thorny stems glinting beneath the vase’s exquisitely rendered glass, suggesting death and danger are always closer at hand than you might believe.
The same might be said of Shara Hughes’s 21st century take on the genre now on view at Rachel Uffner, as the vibrant color of her canvases gives way to melting forms which droop their way into sickly abstraction. This menace is hinted at in the press release, which calls attention to Naked Lady, a painting of the amaryllis belladonna flower that masks its poison with its enticing deep purple petals. (Dutch flower painters similarly embedded paintings with meaning by carefully choosing the species of flowers for their symbolic resonances.)
Upstairs hang a few overtly dark canvases–– Private Life is a close-up of flowers rendered in the same lush purples as downstairs, while I Got You Babe feels like lovers dancing as the city burns behind them––but it was in front of one swirling pastel colored work that everything clicked. In My Organized Flare, which appeared to be a riff on Georgia O’Keeffe (from whom we have another set of iconic flower paintings), thin vines pirouette, taking advantage of the entire canvas. The possible vulgarity of this painting, a line that O’Keeffe never approached (how could she? She famously denied all associations with the yonic in her canvases), is communicated in its surrounding elements, snake like vines whipping around in space. Its lush pastels seemed to laugh at me, lost in psychedelic reverie.
Perhaps initially blinded by the lusciousness of Naked Lady, whose overt danger thrust the other more vibrant works surrounding it into the realm of the more traditional flowers of Van Gogh and Monet, it was not until I returned from upstairs that I felt the fullness of these larger canvases’ putrefaction.
With My Organized Flare in mind, downstairs took on a valence of decline. Though moments of clarity try to revive these works (as in the Joan Mitchell-like swipes of white paint surrounding the central image in Earthly Delights and the Alma Thomas-like layered hyphens of color in the upper right corner of Force Field) they fail to save them, perhaps the more for their contrasting presence. The colors are just off, as fresh greens lie on beds of browns and muddy oranges.
These bouquets are gaseous, releasing the methane of decay. Much more dangerous than they initially appear, they threaten to combust.
Shara Hughes: In Lieu of Flowers
Rachel Uffner Gallery
Until June 23