Studio Visit: Laura Hughes, MFA ‘10
Where Creativity Works: Inside Laura Hughes' Southeast Portland Studio
Untitled Magazine visits the working studios of PNCA students, faculty, staff, and alumni, taking a closer look at lives and spaces of sustained creative practice.
The warehouse at the corner of SE Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd and SE Stark looks like any other Southeast Portland warehouse. Brick exterior. Small windows. Could do with a good power washing. However, though the exterior looks a little past its prime, it’s hard to improve on what’s going on inside. The 103-year-old building is home to an impressive roster of Portland artists, Laura Hughes, MFA ’10 among them.
Her studio space, which she shares with Nicole Eriko Smith, MFA ’09 and Ray Barrett, MFA ’11, is a corvid’s dream. Shiny fragments and scraps of paper, film, pigment, vinyl, and acetate are bundled and scattered throughout her studio space. Hughes plays with these materials when she’s preparing for a new installation.
Hughes came to PNCA from Calgary for her MFA in Visual Studies in 2008. She had planned to continue painting. But fate had other plans.
“Victor Maldonado, he told me to stop painting,” explains Hughes ruefully. “Initially, I was angry. I was an old enough student, I thought I knew what I was doing.”
She describes the moment during graduate school when she made her breakthrough. Hughes had installed her work and, on a whim, had painted the opposite wall with interference paint, just to see what would happen. She considered it a supportive element to the far more labor-intensive parts of the light installation.
“It was during critique, and we were standing in a circle, talking about work, and it was my turn,” Hughes explains. “I was standing in the middle of the room, facing the group, pointing out aspects of the project and MK [Guth] interrupted me and told me that I was standing in the way of the piece.”
“I didn’t understand what she meant at first. And then I realized that I was standing between the class and the wall with the interference paint, where the light from the other piece was reflected. And they told me that I was privileging one part of the work.” Hughes shakes her head. “Wow. Really, just wow. Everything I wanted to achieve spatially in the project was better realized in a patch of paint I thought of as less impressive or important at first.”
Since that moment, Hughes has thrown herself into exploring light, reflection, form, and space. Her recent show at White Box included a looped film of changing light across a wooden floor painted with iridescent paint. As the day passed and the sun moved, the floor retained a subtle visual residue of the passing light. Other projects have included illuminated windows above Pioneer Place, an installation of reflective tiles on an outdoor terrace, and an augmentation of light and shadow in the lobby of Michael Graves’ distinctive Portland Building.
Though she now works three-dimensionally, in space, she has the same concerns as a painter: light, and space, and color. Her canvas is just different.
“I realized I was privileging the rectilinear space,” Hughes says, “I still feel like I’m painting but now with added elements. I’m a sculptor too.”
“I remember when I saw this piece by Martin Creed. [Work No. 990] It was just a curtain opening, and a curtain closing,” Hughes says. “And I thought, ‘You mean you can just do that?’”
She laughs. “I realized then that time and energy don’t always mean effective. Sometimes it takes thirty minutes, not a month, to be effective.”
These days, Hughes is exploring the economy of gesture. How material and effect relate to each other. Learning to recognize that this, just this, this is enough.
“It’s not the labor of the object,” she explains. “It’s the effect. That freed me up a bit.”
“I’m always looking for the more confident gesture.”
Because Hughes is almost entirely an installation artist these days, she has learned to work quickly.
“Decisions happen very fast. There’s a pressure to produce. I need that,” Hughes says. “I often know what I want to do, but not how it will look. I have to get into the space before I figure that out.”
She’s become adept at responding to particularities of a space, to the things that make it different.
Sometimes the result surprises even Hughes: For the 2011 PNCA Faculty Biennial, Hughes installed her work during a cloudy week. Later, when the sun came out, the effect was entirely different. Suddenly, the front lobby of the PNCA main campus building refracted rainbow effects into the Commons in ways Hughes hadn’t anticipated.
“I have lots of people ask me, ‘Is that your art? Is that your art?’” Hughes says, “Because I work with lights and shadows, it’s kind of sneaky. Hidden. I want to make people see the space in a new way, and bring the peripheral into the forefront.”
“I’m still enthusiastic about my thesis,” says Hughes, “I love talking about color and shape and line.”
She also keeps busy with a steady schedule of shows and collaborations. Most recently, she exhibited at White Box in “LIGHT BOX,” at Disjecta in “The Lathe of Heaven,” and in “TRUST,” the PNCA Alumni Exhibition.
In that last show, Hughes wrapped a large existing pipe in the corner of Swigert Commons spanning two stories vertically with prismatic vinyl, and visitors had to look up to notice different color effects relative to their position. Hughes also aimed a timed light at this same material, installed above the stairway. As the light clicked on and off, the reflected beams scattered a refracted rainbow in the area above.
“I think a lot about shadows,” says Hughes, “and about where and when they appear. My work is also a kind of time art. Movement is important.”