Sydney

Natalya Hughes, Woman I (Me from here), 2018–19, acrylic on polyester, 76 × 57 7/8".

Natalya Hughes, Woman I (Me from here), 2018–19, acrylic on polyester, 76 × 57 7/8".

Natalya Hughes

Sullivan+Strumpf | Sydney

The title of Natalya Hughes’s latest exhibition, “The Landscape Is in the Woman,” borrowed Willem de Kooning’s words from 1953, the year when his first “Woman” paintings were exhibited. The recall of de Kooning’s fearsomely sexualized female bodies hacked out in Abstract Expressionist style might suggest yet another feminist critique of his portrayal of women as objectifying and aggressively misogynistic—a reproach that since the 1970s has become orthodoxy. While Hughes’s show was patently informed by such views, she describes her artistic conversation with this canonical modern painter in more give-and-take terms, as wanting to “figure out whether I might have something to contribute to the dialogue that was started by them.”

Among the works in the show were seven large acrylic-on-polyester paintings that replicate the sizes, imagery, and compositional structures of selected “Woman” paintings and drawings of the early 1950s. But the coarse physicality of the originals’ gestural marks is replaced by a mosaic of meticulously painted patterns forming the women’s bodies and surrounds. The initial layering of pattern over de Kooning’s women occurs in Photoshop, with the resulting hybrids projected onto the supports and then laboriously painted in Hughes’s crisp, detailed style. The decorative patterns of bold color and geometric repeats are drawn from the artist’s library of 1950s fabric and interior design—contemporary with the de Koonings. Hughes’s Woman I (Me from here), 2018–19, for instance, reprises the elder artist’s Woman I, 1950–52, emulating the monumental scale of the original and the looming presence of its seated figure with her hefty shoulders and hamlike thighs, huge breasts, protruding eyes, and bared teeth. But here the original’s smears of fleshy pink, red, blue, green, and yellow have been translated into higher-key colors, with fragments of delicately painted patterns covering all surfaces of the figure. The work’s subtitle suggests a self-portrait rather than any archetype of ferocious femininity; other titles referred to particular women significant in Hughes’s life. Woman with Electric Bicycle (After Julie), 2020, which cools down the garish colors of de Kooning’s Woman and Bicycle, 1952–53, with a palette of gray, white, and black, invokes a friend of the artist. Propped against the gallery wall, this large painting balanced on a pair of bronze-colored, double-ended dildos—a nod to Lynda Benglis’s notorious fuck-you to a male-dominated art world in a 1974 Artforum ad. Although the portrait of Julie reprises the voluptuous standing figure with the grotesque doubled grin of de Kooning’s figure, she wears extravagant cat’s-eye spectacles that craftily contradict the cliché of woman as primordial nature. Decorative detail is sparing here. Scattered diamond-lattice designs, stripes, and oblong spirals interact with coy blooms of watery-gray paint that supplant de Kooning’s vigorous brushstrokes and charcoal strikes at the canvas.

The gestural mark’s sometime associations with spontaneous expression and manly creative energy were likewise deflated in two large- and three small-scale pattern paintings, four of which were ironically titled Gesture and numbered (all 2020). These pictures artfully integrated obviously computer-generated squiggles into fields of vibrantly polychromatic, variegated pattern. In Gesture 8, green-, white-, and pink-hued and ornamented doodles, like knots with loose ends, are painted as though woven through a geometric grid of mustard, orange, and maroon triangles. Painterly gesture is domesticated as just another motif within a virtuoso display of patterning.

The question remains as to what Hughes gains from de Kooning’s painting. One answer might relate to the latter’s affirmation of the grotesque as a “joyous” affront to tamer, less challenging models of female beauty. The grotesque is traditionally associated with the excessive, the distorted, and the hybridized. Hughes’s pictures of women follow this logic. As mash-ups of the physically imposing, generously endowed bodies of de Kooning’s women with fastidious decorative abstraction, of rudely exposed body parts with lavish domestic decor, Hughes’s women may not feature in your typical beauty ad, but they are all the more arresting for that.