Natalya Hughes: Three Thoughts on Ambivalence
By Julie Ewington
1. An open field
Two painters: Natalya Hughes in Brisbane and Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), the great anomaly amongst New York’s post-war ‘Abstract’ Expressionists. The similarities? Fascinated by the challenges of painting ‘the female body’, both are methodical, even obsessive. Each is particularly alive to artistic inheritances, but because of this deep respect, they share an exploratory attitude towards their work, embracing, as a consequence, open positions that are not reducible to easy accounts or simple slogans. (Painting is infinitely more complex than that.)
Not surprisingly, both artists rework subjects and paintings, though in completely different ways. Writing about de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ series, Sally Yard noted, ‘Woman, I, found her final form after two years of passage applied over passages, repainted, incorporated, or discarded’; by contrast, Hughes’s meticulous as-it-were collage paintings are composed from concatenating fragments of exquisite precision whose collisions allow unexpected outcomes. Above all, though their times, methods and temperamental dispositions could not be more different, de Kooning and Hughes share an absorption in painting as the daily studio practice of discovery, making works that are not only physically but intellectually and emotionally layered. Thoughtful.
There similarities end: more than six decades separate de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ paintings and Hughes’s address to a woman’s body through her own position. From the start de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ caused controversy among critics and historians: Meyer Shapiro supported it, Clement Greenburg queried it, Harold Rosenberg defended it; from the 1970s onwards, feminist critics have consistently taken issue with de Kooning’s ‘Woman’. Leaving aside post-war Modernism’s American battles around abstraction and figuration, the real affront was the energy, ferocity, and palpable sexual power of de Kooning’s women: these paintings perturb social convention. Even today, they are a disturbing cocktail of allure and aggression, ambiguous presences eliciting ambivalent responses. The very surface of the canvas of Woman I is described in MoMA curator Ann Tempkin’s audio recording as a ‘battlefield… in progress, a state of war’. How could it be otherwise? ‘Woman’ — generic and conventional — is a persistent site of contestation, and Natalya Hughes knowingly enters an arena fraught with familiar contradictions: beauty/distortion, attraction/repulsion, goddess/gorgon, aesthetic ideal/tawdry pin-up. Huge stakes.
2. His world
De Kooning’s monumental ‘Woman’ paintings are informed by an entire cavalcade of female forms starting with the prehistoric Venus of Willendorff. They propose ‘Woman’ at heroic scale: MoMA’s enormous Woman Iis the size classical Greek sculptors used for superhuman beings, but he also sampled popular American culture — cut-out lips from magazine cigarette advertisements were collaged on the surfaces. De Kooning’s woman is full frontal, a persona under construction through the eyes of the painter; however disarrayed or distorted, she is always the creation of a single desiring ego. That this image is sexually driven is indisputable: lips, breasts, eyes, thighs are conventional ciphers for sexual desire but, equally, and here is the core of de Kooning’s own ambivalence, for the sexual power of women.
Alive to Carl Jung’s influential ideas about feminine and masculine aspects of human personality, de Kooning acknowledged the contradictory aspects of the ‘Woman’ series, describing them as ‘vociferous and ferocious’,invoking ’… the idea of the idol, the oracle, and above all hilariousness of it’. His words also supply the titles of Hughes’s two exhibitions in 2020: ‘Maybe I Was Painting the Woman in Me’ at Milani Gallery, Brisbane in March 2020, and ‘The Landscape is in the Woman’ at Sullivan+Strumpf, these complementary phrases reported by critic Thomas Hess in 1953. Embracing this ambivalence, Hughes meets de Kooning on his own field. In 2018, when Woman 1 (Me from here) was entered in Sydney’s Sulman Prize exhibition, she wrote:
De Kooning’s women are menacing. Their foreboding, castrating, looming grotesqueness is primary in his painterly experiments. I have been repainting them to understand them and bring them into my own visual language…
3. Her body
If de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ is generic, Hughes’s women are always particular. She imposes women known or remembered — Eileen from Kings Point or her friend Julie in Woman with Electric Bicycle, for instance — onto canvases replicating the sizes and structures of de Kooning’s originals, picking on someone her own size, as it were. Then she mashes up de Kooning’s women, through an idiosyncratic method variously deploying Photoshop, found patterns, projection, meticulous painting, and on-canvas improvisation. But there is a crucial difference. Hughes looks at these represented bodies from inside: she inhabits this body, or at least one rather similar, rather than viewing it from outside: her Woman 1 is subtitled Me from here.
This specified feminine subjectivity is complex, patterned, fractured, for all the world like a busy woman in her own kitchen, catching this or that glimpse from the corner of her eye, through her busy working day. The domesticated modern patterns within which Hughes’s women are embedded, and from which they are constructed, are sourced from 1950s textiles, spiky arresting constructs of daily life. It’s a knowing choice, privileging the domestic environment and its craft ethos, which has been familiar for decades from the feminist aesthetic lexicon: the association of women with domesticity and domestic patterns was one response to easel painting’s single-point perspective from the mid-1970s by American Pattern Painters such as Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, whose huge Black bolero (1980) is at the Art Gallery of NSW; closer to home, since the late 1960s Vivienne Binns has canvassed this territory.
Hughes makes this patterning encounter de Kooning’s female forms. Her approach is inclusive, embracing, each work a considered riposte to the conventions and images that governed his ways of seeing: the six cyanotypes, for example, examine each ‘Woman’ painting; the Gestures evoke feminist challenges to the conventional masculine dominance of representational codes, acknowledging the once-canonical authority of the painterly mark; and Gesture (Sausage) 2 nods to Linda Benglis’s soft sculpture, as Jacqueline Chlanda observed, and her infamous 1974 nude self-portrait with dildo in Artforum.
De Kooning’s ‘Woman’ is central to the global history of modern art but has a life in Australia: since 1974 Woman V has been in Canberra, in an important group of American works collected for National Gallery of Australia by the late James Mollison. De Kooning’s ‘Woman’ is not distant, therefore, but present. This is what Natalya Hughes tackles here: her/our stake in these ‘Women’. In Harold Rosenberg’s 1972 interview de Kooning quoted Paul Cézanne saying ‘every brushstroke has its own perspective…’ and, he added, ‘its own point of view’. Now Hughes is seeing through de Kooning’s point of view, to borrow Ian Burn’s memorable phrase, her admiration focussed by interrogation, her disquiet managed through arduous working methods, her ambivalence at work. In re-seeing, she re-presents: meet Natalya Hughes’s ‘Women’, each one named, claimed, and now commemorated. From her own perspective.
Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster based in Sydney.
Jacqueline Chlanda, ‘Natalya Hughes: Maybe I Was Painting The Woman In Me’, March 2020, at https://milanigallery.com.au/exhibit/maybe-i-was-painting-woman-me?do=essay
John Elderfield et al., De Kooning: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, 2011 and MoMA exhibition audio recordings.
Rosalind E. Krauss, Willem de Kooning Non Stop: Cherchez la Femme, University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Sally Yard, ‘Willem De Kooning’s Women’, Arts Magazine, Nov. 1978, vol.53, no. 3, pp. 96-101.