Charting Shara Hughes’s Market Growth

Artsy Specialist Erin Kim provides an in-depth look at the artistic progression and market trajectory of a young female painter on the rise.

Shara Hughes has had a superlative year with widely-acclaimed exhibitions and furious bidding at auction. Hughes is officially at the forefront of a shift in focus and taste, of collectors who are vying for works by young women artists, who paint what they want and do not fit in with the usual suspects that regularly come to auction every season.

It's no question that Shara Hughes' work is decidedly contemporary and resonates with today's audiences. She draws heavily from art historical references — one will see her work brought up in the same breath as Matisse or Picasso, Claes Oldenburg or Dana Schutz. Yet the visual language is purely her own, letting an amalgam of references intuitively and subconsciously reveal themselves as she paints. She clearly knows her stuff but does not take it too seriously; she has a profound respect for her predecessors but leaves herself room to do what she wants.

My Fish, Me and You, 2005, a highlight in the second edition of Phillips Summer School, is an interior scene, that retains the imaginative nature of her landscapes but has a more intimate and personal feel. She chose to focus on interiors early on in her career; she has the freedom to add in artistic idiosyncrasies she observed from history, being able to experiment and paint a "detailed Renaissance painting on top of a Bridget Riley-esque wallpaper," as the artist herself was quoted by Rachel Reese for Painter's Table, online. Having a wide source of visual references means Hughes exercises control over the entire composition — she knows exactly what she wants you to be looking at. The head of the swordfish is depicted off the picture plane. A self-portrait, stylized as a painting within the painting, is diminutive — yet front and center. The scene opens to another room in the rear, and yet it is blocked by the front wall. This playfulness with depth has persisted through her work, even as her preferred subject matter has gone from interiors to human figures to her current focus on landscapes. It's not always easy to decode her riotous, vibrant paintings, but it's certainly a fun time trying to interpret what it all means.

Clearly, the market sees the appeal as well. In early 2017 and late 2016 seasons combined, a painting of an interior scene would sell for an average of about $6,400 USD. Just a couple months later in May, comparable paintings in subject matter and dimension sold at major auctions, with final sale prices achieving results up to 700%+ above the pre-sale high estimates. All of this is in no small part due to the Whitney Biennial last year, where she was given a room to exhibit her vibrant and imaginative landscapes. Though many artists' inclusion in a Whitney Biennial has often created only temporary upticks in auction value, for Hughes, the appeal has continued to hold. I can't wait to see what she has up her sleeve.

  • Shara Hughes Sailing, 2006. Sold at Phillips in November 2017 for a new artist record at auction.

    Shara Hughes Sailing, 2006. Sold at Phillips in November 2017 for a new artist record at auction.

Through the course of one year, Shara Hughes has been making headlines in both the primary and secondary market. She had a hugely successful show at Rachel Uffner Gallery concurrent to the Whitney Biennial last year. She just finished a widely-acclaimed show at the San Francisco venue of Berggruen Gallery. With this exposure, there is very little supply for her work. In the salerooms, the excitement for her work is palpable, oftentimes attracting anywhere up to ten to fifteen bidders for a single work.

For the work Sailing, 2006 in the Phillips 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale from last November, the final price soared past the high estimate of $15,000, landing at $85,000, ushering forth a new world record for the artist. The future for Hughes continues to look bright.

Explore Phillips: Summer School on Artsy, and place max bids on more than 140 artworks. Bidding closes Wednesday, July 11th, at 8:00pm ET.