Natalya Hughes

Natalya Hughes's immersive installation The Interior is closing at the Institute of Modern Art just as her solo presentation of paintings, These Girls of The Studio, opens at Sydney's Sullivan+Strumpf. Together, these exhibitions reveal an artist working at an intense and compelling slow burn to parse her inheritances from modern masters, from psychoanalytic tradition, and from ideas subconsciously at work in her own earlier practice.

Natalya Hughes’s The Interior, now exhibiting at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, invites visitors into the weird half-public, very-private space of the analyst’s office. Here, we inhabit that zone of play between repression and revelation, or perhaps between suppression and “the surface” – with all the decorative connotations that the latter term carries. Her office is what a real estate listing might call “well appointed.” It is filled with tufted rugs which almost read as tapestries at a glance, 3D-printed objects and vessels, wall paintings, couches, and chairs in the shape of breasts. 

The objects and vessels populating Hughes’s Interior are some of the show’s most striking, and eeriest, works. Formally, they echo the fantastical, more-than-human forms found amongst Anna and Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities – many of which are catalogued and displayed at the Freud Museum London – yet they take these forms forward into new territories of imagination. Creating these pieces, Hughes “worked really closely with the artist Max Athans . . . We were working from images of Freud’s antiquities, but in order to realise my weird ideas we were talking regularly about, for example, what would happen if we crossed the figure of Eros with a pregnant cat. I knew I wanted an extremely fecund non-binary figure.” Hughes also colluded with her partner Nicholas, an artist working in digital media, towards the production of these objects through 3D printing. She places this collaborative play with new technologies in the context of her teaching career, too: “I’ve also been benefitted by my job as an academic, where I am constantly exposed to new ways of making (that students utilise). The realisation that there might be a different way of working from an existing body form – a more precise way of morphing it into something new and unexpected – has opened up my practice considerably.”

Constructing her Interior with an eye to re-presentation, if not to “revision” per se, Hughes digs up buried (and occasionally speculative) treasures from the history of psychoanalysis as a social practice, and also from a history of women’s artmaking since modernity. Her tufted rugs, and a significant wall painting, respond to the accounts given by Freud’s case study subjects, from texts including Studies on Hysteria, 1893–95, co-authored with Josef Breuer. The dreams, visions, and bodily symptoms of these subjects are “recalled” to the surface of the room by motifs including eyes, rats, wolves, and snakes. 

“One way I might have responded to Freud’s treatment room’s decor,” says Hughes, “might have been to appropriate the motifs already present in textiles. But given their origins that didn’t seem right. So I made my own decorative language in response to the written material Freud is known for. There are motifs drawn from the better known cases like the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man. But there are also more obscure references to Anna O and Dora’s symptoms, and to the Baubo that appears in a reasonably obscure piece of writing. I like think about this language being dispersed across the installation as a more subversive communication of psychoanalysis and its history.” 

Hughes’s use of interior space existing at the interstice of the public and the private echoes the work of Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and Micky Allen, but also what the artist calls, in interview with Elspeth Pitt, “the more ambiguous post-minimalist practices of Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse.” This play between sociality and personality had long been more of a subconscious fascination for the artist than a consciously tackled topic. Hughes notes that “this is strange given that I have made site specific installations in toilets (at Artspace, for example), with reference to waiting rooms (Panic Room, Hazelhurst) and then with objects like mattresses and wallpaper that are definitely more strongly associated with private spaces, but were placed in the public space of the gallery. In this show it was more deliberate. I was motivated by an interest in the semi-public, semi-private space of the treatment room which has fascinated me in my own treatment experiences . . . I know a gallery will never function that way, but I wanted to move the signs of the domestic and the more professional configurations into the gallery space to see what still reads that way.”

The items populating Hughes’s installation have been characterised by Susan Best as “part-objects,” following Mignon Nixon and Annette Michelson, along others. The idea of the “part-object” is not a Freudian one, as such. Rather, the term is associated with the psychoanalytic thought of Melanie Klein, though it was actually coined by one of Klein’s analysts, Karl Abraham, rather than by Klein herself. Describing, as Hughes has it, an object that is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, the term could describe Hughes’s approach to Freud’s legacy (informed by her own patient experiences as it is), as well as the strange, and strangely inviting, objects in her Interior. 

The term also aptly describes Hughes’s approach to the masculine modern masters towards whom she gazes in her new solo presentation with Sullivan+Strumpf, These Girls of the Studio. In a series of surface-dense, highly patterned, and self-consciously decorated/decorative paintings – sometimes mounted on standing frames, thus “objectified” –  Hughes remixes portraits of women by de Kooning and and Kirchner. “Remixes,” here, is a term carefully chosen for its neutrality, and political pliability; it’s not Hughes’s business simply to “criticise,” as such, these huge figures of painting from whom she knows she inherits so much.

Instead, she says, her work is “an affirmation that they are both good and they are bad. Sometimes they’re even very good and very bad. I suppose that was my attraction to Freud, Kirchner and de Kooning. They are significant. And I firmly believe they are this way because they have something good to offer. But they are also problematic for someone concerned about who is representing women (and girls) and for whom. I do think that rather than dismiss them because of those problems, I am more inclined to want to delve into those problems and articulate them differently. I guess that points to my ambivalence rather than theirs. I have worked in acknowledgement that I am drawn to them, that to some extent I revere them. But not unproblematically.” 

What does this tell about her “stance,” as an artist? “I’m not entirely sure what this says about me as an artist, woman, or person,” she says. “On a positive day I would say I am characteristically curious, and follow my curiosity even into challenging territory. On a more negative day I might suggest there is something vaguely masochistic about all this.” If we were to take the endless looking one can do into Hughes’s paintings – and the play and exploration amongst her installations – as a case study itself, in art as in psychological and social life, surely curiosity and masochism come out as more interesting (and, yes, important) than stance-taking. Whether this case study maps well onto domains outside of art, or generalises well at all, remains to be discussed – perhaps on an “analyst’s couch” in a contemporary art gallery.

The Interior
30 July – 1 October 2022
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

These Girls of the Studio
22 September – 15 October 2022
Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

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