Pattern Recognition
The Art of Sara Hughes


Tesselating over floors, around walls and over doors and windows, Sara Hughes' works explore space through pattern. Hughes spent last year in Dunedin as Otago University's Frances Hodgkins Fellow. Her largely ephemeral installations and her works on canvas and acrylic use commercial signwriting vinyl. Thin and adhesive, brightly coloured, painted or screenprinted, the vinyl is an ubiquitous, unassuming material designed for application to walls, windows and vehicles.

installation at the Gow Langsford Gallery, Sydney, 2004 (Photograph: Michelle Brua)

Hughes' works are site-specific, and frequently architectural in scale. She prepares her vinyl in the studio, rather than on-site (unlike Caroline Rothwell, another local artist using vinyl in an installational context). Forms are sliced out of the long rolls of adhesive plastic by a computer-controlled cutter. The excess, interstitial vinyl is weeded out. The material is then transferred to the wall surface - a process a little like applying wallpaper.

The vinyl is only microns thick - thinner than a human hair. Its flexibility allows the texture of the wall surface to which it is applied to show through - the grain of the wall becomes part of the work. The installations question the white space of the gallery, elaborating, decorating, but in a cryptic, allusive fashion. The work is flexible, inserting itself into hard spaces, reconfiguring their operation, shading their meaning.

SARA HUGHES Digital Mosaic 2003-4
vinyl floor work, 8000 x 4900 mm. at the Hocken Library, Dunedin (Photograph: Bill Nichol)

Iterations of pattern are a recurring theme for Hughes. Flirting with the readymade, she has explored the possibilities of composing a painting out of spots of subsidiary pattern rather than of brushstrokes. Spam, Hughes' installation for the Telecom Prospect 2004 show at Wellington's City Gallery, incorporates multiple levels of imagery. As well as conforming to the texture of the wall and the overall plan of the work, each component vinyl dot bears a screen-printed pattern drawn from textile designs, their surfaces embellished with tiny sprigs or geometric motifs. Some larger dots encompass whole woven scenes on loosely painted monochromatic grounds. Other recent works have been based on grids of hand-coloured spots, geometric forms and paisley figures.

Optical effects are a continuing interest. Hughes' dot installations explore figure-ground relationships with their fields of fluorescent or greyscale spots. The optical push-pull between the dots and the bright walls creates an ambiguity of surface. Software for Ada, an installation she has reconfigured for four venues over the past two years, is a field of greyscale spots on the white ground of the gallery wall, an enormous expanse of tiny dots flickering before the eye.

SARA HUGHES Software for Ada
installation at Artspace, Auckland 2002 (Photograph: Max Osborne)

Hughes' concerns with the social life of imagery, her interest in pattern and her explorations of perceptual effects converge in her current works. Combining the traditional motif of the paisley and the formal devices of Op Art, recent installations trace sources high and low, the overlapping and intersecting conditions of production and of use.

Hughes first explored paisley in Love Me Tender, an installation in October 2003 for the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and later in Never Let Me Go, a work at Gow Langsford Gallery, Sydney, in April of this year. The Dunedin project envelops the walls of a functional space on the top floor of the gallery, a skylit area of foyer, meeting rooms and toilets.

SARA HUGHES Software for Ada (detail)

The paisley is an Indian motif taken up by European weavers in the nineteenth century. Hughes has become fascinated by the histories, both local and global, of this ancient form. Paisley shawls in traditional patterns were originally imported into the United Kingdom from India, and enterprising weavers, particularly in Paisley, Scotland (hence the name of the pattern), began producing their own work based on the traditional imagery. The history of the motif traces the birth of global markets - from the East India Company's exportation of traditional craft forms, to their emulation by Scottish weavers, to the displacement of those craftspeople by automated looms. Dunedin itself had a 'Little Paisley', where expatriate Scottish weavers made their home. The paisley shawl was the Vuitton handbag of Victorian times, a consumer must-have that engendered the same politics of design; spawning copies, pattern embargoes and mass production.

In the Dunedin Art Gallery installation Hughes takes the curling forms of the paisley motif, with its intimations of sprouting fertility, and distorts them, shearing and stretching the tripped-out forms, which swim in psychedelic splendour across the gallery walls. The distortion, combined with the strange cursives created as the vinyl cutter interpolates curves between known points, enhances the exoticism of a form that has become commonplace, expropriated from its culture of origin.

installation at te tuhi the mark, Pakuranga 2002 (Photograph: John Collie)

The brilliant colours of the painted vinyl evoke the bright new dye technologies that made colour mesh with technology for the Victorians. In another historical mirroring, the paisley motifs selected by Hughes have intimations of the recursive forms of that oh-so-popular motif of wired hippiedom - the Mandlebrot set, whose fractal forms repeat themselves at ever diminishing scales. The subsidiary patterning within each motif - flowers and arabesques enclosed by the spermatozoan paisley - add to the giddy effect, pattern within pattern within pattern swirling into bad infinity.

While their larger cousins float across the gallery walls, small paisley motifs are formed into ranks framing doors into and out of the space, echoing the grids of Hughes' previous dot installations, as if her dots have begun to germinate and sprout tails.

SARA HUGHES Love me True
installation at the Lopdell House Gallery, Titirangi, 2004 (Photograph: Jennifer French)

Digital Mosaics, her show at the Hocken Library's Gallery in February this year was a summation of the year's work in Dunedin. Bright geometric forms tessellated over surfaces in an Op Art style.

The show exhibited a variety of approaches: wall and floor works, lightboxes, and paintings on canvas where the vinyl mask left only a white trace. The paintings were covered with sheared repeating forms, spots, hexagons and grids of vividly coloured nested squares. Distorted hexagons fluttered like vectorised butterflies on the wall. In a room of their own, a pair of light boxes pushed ambiguity of the picture plane to its dazzling limit. Their overlapping grids of hexagons resembled the dot-screens of colour printing. Bright fluorescent in the dim room, they played games with the eye, wriggling and flickering with the implied motion of optics, the trembling, unsteady gaze of the mobile eye giving the sturdily fixed artworks the appearance of furtive movement.

The floor of one gallery room was tiled with bright shiny squares of vinyl, a grid of 9000 squares in 23 colours. Children were running around, playing a kind of abstract hopscotch, while adults tiptoed in their socks. With the transition to the floor, the game metaphor provided an easy entry into the work's grid.

Digital Mosaics presented an overload, a profusion of images and techniques, a flattening of historical categories, all imagery subject to the same coding, all hard edges susceptible to the knife of the cutter.

installation at City Gallery, Wellington, 2004

The show describes a productive year, but perhaps darts off in too many directions. Hughes' art is so vivid and generously scaled, it works most effectively when there is less of it, when repetition and size are allowed to do the work. When all options are presented at once it can teeter into anxious anticipation, rather than branching profusion.

With her precision geometry facilitated by technology, Hughes revisits the programmatic precision of Frank Stella or Josef Albers' Homage to the Square with a recombinant approach. The bright grids of nested squares, warped forms and backlit hexagonals, the plenitude of effects and approaches follow the negotiations and transmissions of use and appropriation - Op Art's formalism re-appropriated by the detached replications of Simulationism or Neo Geo: those eighties painters who were so avowedly not the real thing.

Linked to the Kinetic sculpture being produced in the 1950s and '60s, Op Art was primarily discussed by critics of the time in terms of science and technology, and linked by commentators to design and mass consumption. Although the intentions of those artists grouped, willingly or otherwise, under the title of 'Op' diverged greatly, themes such as Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely's idea of 'planetary folklore' suggested mechanical Utopias, while the hypnotic impact of the work, relying on artifacts of perception and structures of the eye, promised a trans-cultural effect independent of any previous training.

The flow from the artworld to the world of mass culture is traced by the history of Op. With its hard- edged forms susceptible to replication on a mass scale artists such as Vasarely supervised the transformation of their imagery into prints and textile patterns. But this popularisation was not always embraced by artists - Bridget Riley was horrified when, unbeknownst to her, the purchaser of one of her paintings printed it on bolts of fabric for transformation into shift-styled dresses. The dresses were a hit, while, as a young artist, Riley lacked funds to pursue any legal action.

With its untroubled combination of Op motifs and distorted paisley, Hughes' recent installation, Love Me True - at Lopdell House Gallery in Waitakere City from April to June - suggests early 1970s supergraphics and psychedelic decor via the calculations of simulationism. Overlapping paisley forms sprawling over two baby-pink walls are faced by a single white wall covered with brightly coloured nested squares. The juxtaposition of motifs implies a detachment akin to the simulationists free float, playing up the mass-market stylings of op, while downplaying any utopian perceptualism.

installation at the Hocken Library, Dunedin 2004 (Photograph: Bill Nichol)

The room-size decals overlaid on the space are brightly jarring, lending a touch of gamesroom or bachelor pad. The paisley's colours are vivid on the pale pink ground, like wet, glossy bursts of spray-paint. Their shear and distortion push space around, faking up multiple vanishing points contradicted by the one point perspective of the squares on the facing wall.

Shiny against the gallery's matte wall, the vectorised lines of the computer cut vinyl are more perfect than the building to which they are applied, with its uneven concrete, conduits and light switches. The nested squares stretch over power-points and cabling, encapsulating them in sticky plastic.

The large squares recall Peter Halley's 1980s conduit and cell paintings, themselves reflections on the decay of abstraction. Halley's schematics reference computer technology and repurpose the rectilinear forms of high abstraction into metaphorical prisons and circuits. Hughes' forms cover over actual conduits, imposing vector-mapped precision onto the gallery's less than seamless structure.

Love Me True stops short of the mix-and-match of Hughes' Hocken show. The pungent colour choices and graphic approach lend this installation an ease and authority, running that difficult line between profusion and confusion. The patterning is excessive, but also coherent. Applied to a single room, the seemingly arbitrary colouring and competing imagery suggest both the disjunctures of the everyday-the curtains that resolutely fail to match the wallpaper- and also that simulationist flattening of categories, the humbling of modernist ambitions to the point where they become floorplan, embellishment or logo.

The reductive vector files that plot the shapes manipulated by the artist perform an even more ruthless flattening of contexts, stripping extraneous data. But it is this very winnowing of context that opens up the set of recombinant possibilities to Hughes' blade, allowing her to slice forms from the flat bright plastic and stick them onto the patchy surfaces of the world, embellishing and re-ordering in an algorhythmic mix and match.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 112 Spring 2004