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To hear Natalya Hughes speak about her work is to witness the confession of a love affair. ‘Sensual’, ‘tactile’ and ‘desirable’ are all terms employed by the artist to discuss her work. Hughes speaks eloquently about the sensuality of oil paint, her joy in its sleek application. Intricate colouring and patterning enhance the beauty, texture and tactility of her work. This sensuality is heightened by the ways in which the artist abstracts and reconfigures her primary sources to leave soft, voluptuous folds that simultaneously allude to and disguise the fleshy forms they once covered.
Hughes’ work is based on the Ukiyo-E prints of Edo period Japan (1603-1867) and the Art Nouveau designs of Aubrey Beardsley (England, 1872-98). The links with these primary sources are strong, visually and thematically, as both the Ukiyo-E and Art Nouveau traditions are deeply entrenched in the language of desire Hughes uses.
Edo period Japan derived its name from its governing city, Edo, a thriving metropolis whose culture emphasized sophistication, fashion and, most of all, pleasure. Within this city was a legal prostitution pleasure quarters, the Yoshiwara. Here, seduction became an elaborate ritual based on style, allusion and charm. Money alone could not necessarily buy a courtesan, and for many, these providers of pleasure became unattainable objects of desire. The mystique of the Courtesan is venerated in many Ukiyo-E prints, their sexuality recorded explicitly in the Shunga (pillow book) prints of the time.
Beardsley’s designs, produced in late-nineteenth-century Victorian England, stem from a similar culture of desire. The Victorian era was outwardly characterised by deep piety but, often inwardly, by a certain hedonism. This is best characterised by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, with whom Beardsley was briefly affiliated early in his career. For example, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s rich and sumptuous female portraits were popular despite (or perhaps because of) their direct links with prostitution and adultery. These artists often referenced Edo society and its art, revealing a similar exaltation in pleasure. The fascination with hidden sexuality and the exotic is echoed in Hughes’ work, and is alluded to by the title of the show ‘Other Paintings’.
A flash of skin, a glimpse of petticoat, each contributed to the mystique and allure of these works and their subjects. Clothing and veiling were used as vehicles for heightening curiosity, anticipation and, ultimately, desire. In Other Paintings, Hughes likewise experiments with the relationship between revelation and concealment, desire and its near fulfillment. She abstracts her primary sources by digitally manipulating them using Photoshop. The scene is veiled for the viewer, compelling us to search for clues as to what these shapes once represented. As a result, her works create a palpable desire to see, a desire to know where the works came from and exactly how they have been altered.
A series of smaller paintings based on Ukiyo-E prints, Untitled 9B (from the Utamaro series), Untitled 8A (from the Utamaro series), Untitled 3A (from the Shuncho series) and Untitled 3B (from the Kiyonaga series), all 2003, each hold tenuous relationships with their primary sources. The material and bodily forms have been so abstracted that they appear like saddles of material shapes floating like flowers in flat pools of colour.
In contrast, Untitled 1/8 (Hokusai), 2003, based on one of Hokusai’s Mount Fuji prints, maintains the silhouette of this landscape feature and provides an anchor for the viewer. What could ultimately have destroyed the abstraction that makes Hughes’ work so compelling, in fact heightens this quality. The viewer is offered an opportunity to read the pictorial space on which her work is based, yet the original scene is never fully exposed.
For the first time, Hughes has chosen to exhibit digital prints, her experiments in composition and layout. These prints make plain her processes, and could be seen to lessen the mystique of the paintings. Yet, rather then doing that, they create a desire to see the work in paint, if only for the tactile sensuality of the paintings in relation to the comparative impersonality of the prints.
Also included are several works that display an ambiguous relationship between painting and print. Shadow 1 and Shadow 2 (From the Aubrey Beardsley series), 2003 are two such works. These small paintings feature comparatively large abyss-like areas of flat grey colour amidst their decorative detail, and represent one stage of Hughes’ digital manipulation of her primary source. The three panels of Untitled 5 (from the Kiyonaga series) 2003 each feature patches in which the paint seems to dissolve on the canvas. These patches directly reference areas in which Photoshop began to pixelate erratically due to the complexity of the artist’s reconfigurations. That areas seem to verge on the edge of becoming in these works underscores the artist’s continued experimentation with the line between revelation and concealment.