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Vibrant Synergies: An Interview with Shara Hughes

Among the many shared affinities between Ulla Johnson and the internationally celebrated artist Shara Hughes is a passion for the natural world that translates into their respective work. “An Ulla Johnson garment reminds me of movement in nature,” Hughes explains. “The repetitive unveiling of layers mimics ripples in a river or petals of a flower.” Their synergistic visions unite for the Spring/Summer 2024 collection—a first for the brand—featuring a series of fluttering frocks, structural outerwear, and timeless separates printed in the captivating imagery of Hughes’ breathtaking landscapes.

The collaboration began with a selection of three paintings from Hughes’ oeuvre, works that deeply resonated with Johnson’s aesthetic. “Tuck” (2021), “Ignoring the Present” (2018), and “Cherry in Lace” (2022) feature dreamlike settings of nature’s beauty: trees with undulating boughs and mottled points of light and dark complement a painting that features a resplendent sky centered around a floating sun with rolling clouds. Hughes uses impressionistic brushstrokes and evocative palettes to reimagine the traditions of landscape painting into psychologically nuanced representations of the organic world. 

We visited Hughes in her Brooklyn studio to discuss the paintings in the collaboration, her new show at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, and what she values most in a wedding dress.

Eugenie Dalland: Tell me about the three paintings that are featured in the collaboration.

Shara Hughes: The three paintings in this collaboration are from a few different years. Each of the paintings is abstracted but can come together as a whole image. They are each unique in the way that when you just see parts of them, you can still understand what the larger image looks like.

How So?

Since each of them can be abstracted, it relates to the three-dimensional nature of the garments. With “Tuck”, there is a more obvious image that you can recognize even when it's transformed into a garment. The colors suggest the sky, you can see cloud shapes and an orange sun tucked within the clouds. I think we all understand that when we are in nature, it surrounds us on all sides. When it's on the canvas it's a flat illusion. I think there's something relatable and abstract about actually wearing these imaginary landscapes that really makes them come alive.

I see, so the three-dimensional nature of the garments mirrors an aspect of the painting’s imagery.

Exactly. For “Cherry in Lace,” that painting is actually about a portrait of a woman in a gorgeous lace dress. It’s a cherry blossom tree, but to me, I was thinking about how to make portraiture via landscapes. The painting kind of reminded me of these old Renaissance paintings, where you see a woman in a lace gown, sort of regal. So we have this beautiful cherry tree kind of draping all the way down across the canvas, falling apart in ways and then coming back together again. It has a lot of movement to it. I feel like that painting in particular is especially perfect for a garment, with the green at the bottom that sort of grounds you in some way, but then at the top it’s flowing and it feels like it could wrap around an actual person. It feels like the paintings will really come alive when they’re on a person in movement.

There are some strong affinities between your and Ulla’s artistic visions, such as a love for color, shape, line, and energy. What do you enjoy most about an Ulla Johnson garment?

An Ulla Johnson garment reminds me of movement in nature. The repetitive unveiling of layers mimics ripples in a river or petals of a flower or seashells swirling in and out of itself. I love that the collections respond to nature not only with color but with repetition and unpredictable nuances. From one side the garment can feel reserved, while at another it's tastefully revealing. I think we both have a love for color and fun along with something a bit more refined and tasteful.

Your paintings also feel like responses to nature, in a way. What is it about the natural world and landscapes that appeals to your artistic vision?

Nature is unpredictable and always changing. It's hard to really see the same thing twice. We bring our own perspective, emotions, and feelings to the natural world so it's interesting to me to bounce back and forth between ever-changing landscapes of the mind and of the physical world.

What is your ideal outfit for a special event?

I love a matching set but have yet to find the perfect one. I'm getting married very soon, so wedding dresses are on my mind which is as special as it gets. I've been thinking about dramatic beading, big shapes, broad shoulders, dramatic sleeves, feathers, and all things white and shiny! Outside of a wedding, I’m usually always wearing patterns and bright colors.

Tell me about your new exhibition. When did you start working on it?

I've opened a big show in LA at David Kordansky in September 2023. This show will have all new works and some different formats. I started intensely working on it this spring, however, I did curate a few paintings from 2022 into the show as well that seemed to make sense for the theme. The show is called "Light the Dark" and focuses on the themes of dark and light visually and emotionally and if there is a real difference or not.

This is so interesting because the three paintings featured in the collaboration all seem to possess something of that distinction between light and dark as well. Especially in “Tuck” that features a vivid sun setting behind deep clouds, and the contrast of electric citrus-hued spots with ghostly darker ones in “Ignoring the Present.” Is this an ongoing focus for you?

It definitely has been an ongoing focus, the themes of light and dark. Some of my favorite paintings are like that. A painting can be dark in color, but that might not be the actual theme of the painting. You might think a dark palette might make you feel depressed, but it can actually make you feel excited, happy, and connected. I'm using lots of different emotions to talk about lots of things at the same time, but also bringing you in with your eyes to enjoy all of those types of feelings. 

With the painting “Ignoring the Present”, I was thinking about when you walk under trees and you see the leaves that are giving you shade, but also staring at the sun that’s coming straight through. There’s that contrast of bright light and then something that's covering it up at the same time and this movement of the wind that almost gives you a light show of colors and tones that feels relatable to everyone without being illustrative. There is this ongoing theme of light and dark, visually or emotionally. It is present in both my work and in the natural world.

I love the idea of turning a beautiful moment in nature, like walking under a tree and seeing the sunlight through the leaves, into an experience of emotional contrasts that becomes a painting.

I like being able to make something that is abstract in lots of ways but also gives you a hint that you know you're looking at a landscape, but you're also not exactly sure. I'm using a lot of painting languages within the landscapes to talk about these different contexts, meaning that you can just enjoy the painting for how it looks without actually knowing exactly what it is at the same time. So, tapping into this abstract area through landscape makes everyone kind of feel familiar.

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