MONICA BILL HUGHES
Monica Bill Hughes is a visual artist who lives and works in Troy, NY. Ms. Bill Hughes’ most recent body of work consists of acrylic paintings and drawings, inhabited by hybrid female figures. Her work explores contradictory impulses, domesticity, and subconscious female-centric desire.
Monica Bill Hughes received her MFA in Painting (May 2014) at The State University of New York at Albany (SUNY) and her BFA (Magna cum Laude, 2007) from The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. She is the recipient of the Eric M. and S. Phillip Heiner Endowed Fellowship (2015) through the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she spent a month as an Artist-in-Residence in January. Her work has been shown in Richmond, Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery, The Perrella Gallery at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, and at Collar Works Gallery in Troy, NY, among others. Ms. Bill Hughes is the recipient of the Hy Rosen Excellence in Painting and Drawing Award from the College of St. Rose (2007); as well as a Teaching Assistantship from the University at Albany. She has been featured in a Solo Show “She Parts” currently on view at Fulton Street Gallery in Troy, NY, as a spotlight artist on the 1 Op Collective blog (Newark, NJ) and in the Fence Select Exhibition, juried by Denise Markonish (Mass MoCA) at The Arts Center for the Capital Region, in Troy, NY.
My paintings and drawings investigate femininity and sexuality through a cast of hybrid, female characters inhabiting odd, yet familiar domestic spaces. Using imagery found in cookbooks, medical textbooks, vintage porn magazines, and household catalogs, I synthesize and reimagine the female body. After extracting imagery from its original context, I knit together a new variation on the female nude as powerful yet vulnerable, feminine yet grotesque, a rollicking yet unsettling force.
The process of generating these female characters is playful and intuitive as I collage imagery by drawing and erasing. A torso fuses with a gravy boat as a sarcastic metaphor for fertility. Wooden spoons or other cooking utensils interact with some of the ladies in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Through these visual sexual innuendos, my paintings allow a conversation about cultural expectations and female viewpoints of sexuality to emerge. I consider the notion of exploring how a woman perceives her own body through depicting the inhabitants of my paintings as internally focused.
Modification is a concept that is increasingly prevalent in popular culture and thus influences my work. The women I create are unsettlingly modified. I construct them by mashing many components into one being, yet they are still somehow in a complete state: strangely seductive and self-satisfied. Using layers, transparency, and multiplicity of limbs (or objects), I create a visual representation of complex ideas, which at times elicit a hallucinatory quality. My palette offers a visual counterpoint of luxurious sensuality. Through sugary lush colors and appealing patterns a place to contain these characters comes into being. Just as dolls often come with their own set of accessories, the women I paint are meant to exist with their own space and props. The details of the interiors are treated in a similar manner to the figures. Floorboards expand, tight corners contract, and the furniture fuses with the character at any point of interaction. The confusing but nostalgic domestic spaces create a psychological fissure where a sense of the female character’s internal conflict is manifested as her physical surroundings.
As I layer paint and meditatively draw patterns, my process provokes questions about what motivates me outside my studio walls. I question whether it is possible (or desirable) to simultaneously be self-satisfied, sexually appealing, nurturing, powerful, and feminine. The conflicting emotions I experience fuel my work. I am intrigued by the complexity I find when examining these ideas, as they are rich with places wherein contradictions unexpectedly coexist.
To find out more about Monica and her work, visit the artist's website.
Hi Monica! You recently graduated with your MFA from the State University of New York at Albany, can you tell us a bit about the experience?
The program was a three-year MFA, which seems long but we were teaching the whole time. While I was enrolled I taught a year of beginning drawing and two years of figure drawing. While they supplied the syllabus, I was able to develop my own projects and my own curriculum for the class and assign all final grades. I think being in a three-year program helped since teaching was such a large part. It gave me the time to dedicate to the teaching without being totally overwhelmed. It would have been a lot to teach full time for two years while maintaining a studio practice.
The program was really small, 30 students in total. If you are a NY state resident, you get half tuition and you also receive a small stipend. It’s not the perfect funding, but for me at the time it was the best option, and the teaching experience was really great. I was so happy to have the really solid experience of being the instructor of record while I was still in school. In terms of jobs, everything in full-time teaching is really competitive. If I get to the point where I am interviewing somewhere, I can definitely express that I have had a lot of experience. It is sort of the weird, in-between period since you are still pursuing your MFA while you are teaching, but great nonetheless. Overall though I am looking forward to being out of academia!
I can totally understand your feelings about academia because now I am back in that world while pursuing my MFA. Can you talk a little more about that part of the experience?
I think three years is just a long time. I think everyone that was there would agree that some of the complicated relationships can arise in that amount of time. It becomes more of a kind of push-pull kind of peer relationship with some of the faculty some of the time. That was the only rough thing; this sort of negotiation between those issues. For instance, personal differences between faculty members’ points of view about your work versus your own. But, overall the program was really great. I loved the fact that it was really small—there were ten of us, and we got to really get to know each other well in the course of the 3 years. I am really impressed with the program because it draws people from all over the place. We had a student from Japan, a girl that I became really close with from Arizona, someone come from Idaho, people from all over New York state, etc.
The program had this sort of really nice eclectic-ness. I thought it was pretty impressive that they were able to attract both national and international students. We had private studio space and I kick myself for not working every last second that I could in the studio!
Do you feel that your MFA program opened up some possibilities for you? What was the biggest thing that you feel you took away from the experience?
The biggest thing that I really I took away from my grad experience was feeling the freedom to try something new that I was unsure of. I was really set in the fact that I was a drawing person prior to going back to school. I thought that my insecurities would go away but I don’t think they ever do. Now I am just learning to know myself better and follow my instincts better than I used to. I have always loved the studio practice part of being an artist. I love going there and stretching my canvases, gessoing, and prepping paper—all of these different ritualistic things. I like the rituals of a painting and drawing practice. But I am also learning that I am just a creative human, that I want to just try things and play. I think play is just so important. I think for too long I just took myself too seriously and worried too much about if I was making the right decision rather than making playful decisions. I think that grad school gave me the ability to follow my own impulses more and to trust myself more. I think as a younger artist I really struggled to trust myself and now I feel that I can trust my weird impulses and not worry about where they are going to take me. I was really lucky to have a really wonderful faculty member who really challenged me and gave me new insights. He was the one who said, what if you put one of these drawings on a canvas? What would be so wrong with that? And I was afraid; I was scared and nervous that I hadn’t painted in four or five years and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it again, and all this stilly stuff. But I was really fortunate to have this mentor that really, you know, kind of held my hand a little (laughs) with the first couple and really pushed me out of my comfort zone but was really supportive and wanted me to go further. His name was Scott—so I have Scott to thank that I started painting again because if he hadn’t pushed it, I don’t know—I mean, I probably would have gotten there eventually because I love painting, but he gave me just a little boost of confidence to take the risk maybe a little sooner that I was ready to. So I am really thankful for that!
So you really feel that he pushed you to do something that he could tell you wanted to do, or you knew you wanted to do you just needed a push?
He was a great mentor; he was really aware where the direction of a students’ work was pushing. He has been working with students long enough that he is sensitive to that. I mean, I was doing stuff that was painting; I was putting gouache on giant pieces of paper and trying to have these colors happen, and they just needed a canvas. And he was like “This would be a lot easier if you would just put it on the damn canvas and get it over with…” And, I think I didn’t realize that I was trying to paint, I thought that I just wanted to draw, but he saw all of these little technical things that were going on. It is just great to have that push to help you see what your work is trying to become.
I’m so glad that you were able to have that relationship, because sometimes it doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes it’s kind of the opposite where the work gets pushed in a direction that isn’t what the artist actually wants and that can be unfortunate.
I mean, I think if you had interviewed me at the time that I was making that shift I would have been like I really don’t even know what I’m doing, I’m making canvases because Scott’s telling me to… but it just evolved from there. I mean, the first few were terrible. I definitely don’t want to show anybody the early, early stuff that I did on canvas, but there was a breaking point where everything sort of clicked back into place and I was like; Oh. I know how to do this; I remember how to do this. It just opened up so many possibilities for the work, and at the time I think paper was kind of trapping me and I was anxious to get out of it, but I didn’t know how to get out of it.
I feel like I’m in a similar spot right now, trying to work through that situation where you just psyche yourself out and become so afraid to make bad work. It’s such a mental game.
I think that’s the other thing that grad school did for me, was really allow me to embrace the fact that I was going to make bad work. There is always a little bit of good in everything, but it’s also nice to have a corner of the closet that’s filled with paintings that I don’t want to show anybody.
They are all part of the process, but yeah, you just have to get them out of your system. It’s a place where I have been for a long time—where I am afraid to try something new because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I think its like you said that the play is the most important part of your studio practice. Like, get over it. If you’re not having fun and playing and experimenting and it’s not fun anymore then the paintings are going to show that. Do you have any other advice for artists who are experiencing some of the same things?
It sounds cheesy, but when in doubt, I just look for new materials. I just go to the art store, or wherever. I bought a whole bunch of neon paint that I was kind of afraid to use, then at my residency I just broke it all open and went for the florescence crazy colors. It wasn’t great at first, but it quickly became clear that I needed something to fight against, and the bolder, clearer colors kind of did that. I like to go out and find stuff that is weird and would be fun to play with.
I am totally digging the fluorescents; they are one of my favorite parts of the paintings.
I never use oil, so it is something that still intimidates me. But I think eventually I am going to get some oils and start working on top of the acrylic. Oils are just different. Oils are just so gorgeous and the colors are amazing.
That’s interesting, because I have been working with oils for years now, and I am just now starting with acrylics, which is so funny that we are both kind of afraid of this other thing. But its also interesting what you said about oils, because there are so many colors that you just can’t get in oil. Acrylics come in all of these insanely fantastic colors.
You said you were so productive at your residency. The last residency that I did was a year and a half ago, and I highly recommend the residency (Vermont Studio Center) for a bunch of different reasons, but I didn’t make a damn thing while I was there. I just I think that I was just in the exact same position that you were just describing, and I was sick of doing what I had been doing and I wanted to move on, but I didn’t know what to do, and I felt like I was kind of lost, and trying to figure out what my next was going to be. So I feel like I am just now getting over that hump, but at the time I was smack in the middle of it.
Residencies are weird because you apply for them and they are a year away, or 7 months away, and its kind of scary because who knows where you are gonna be, or where your head is gonna be at that point. It’s a weird experience. I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and it was really amazing. A lot of the other artists had also been to VSC and had great things to say. VCCA is magical. It’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains, its pretty remote and there are animals and horses. There isn’t much around, we went for a lot of walks, they cook your meals for you, etc. I think I got lucky, the people I was there with were really incredible, and I met some amazing writers and had conversations with people who were writing. They changed the way I was thinking about what I was doing in my studio, in ways that I had no way of anticipating. It was really amazing to work with writers. I hope I get this lucky next time I do a residency. I was also there after I had only been away from the MFA madness for a few months, and there was a lot of stress I had to let go off. I drove down there by myself, where I had these weird conversations in my head, like I don’t know what direction this is going, etc. But I remember thinking you just gotta fucking reinvent yourself girl! You can really do anything. You don’t have be like your undergrad work, you don’t have to be like your grad school work you can just be whatever the hell you want to be. So I decided I was just going to play a lot more. And I just worked as much as possible. I would just be in my studio All. Day. Long. I just had to make it happen.
How long was the residency there?
It’s interesting how your past work haunts you, like this kind of weird ghost that you’re always comparing everything to. I don’t know how to deal with that either, like how do you get away from this shadow of thinking oh, this doesn’t fit into this category of work? It’s really challenging, because even if consciously you’re thinking ‘I don’t care, I’m just gonna play’ you still subconsciously make decisions while thinking about this body of work or that, and how it all fits together. It’s really interesting.
Definitely. I think its these weird little threads running rough, because when I was at the residency I had this show coming up but I was kind of thinking that the work I was making there was so out of left field; so different from my thesis work. When I had the opportunity to do this show (Fulton Street Gallery, Troy, NY), I was really apprehensive. I felt like my thesis work came out of a much darker place for me personally—so the work feels much more morbid and more uncomfortable and I was just afraid of how that was going to live with the newer work, since it was such a big jump. And then when I saw all of the work hanging together, I saw that all the threads were there. It all tied together. You kind of don’t want it to sometimes. You think, oh but that was so different! But it’s still got a lot of the same stuff going on. So it’s this weird dance, where you’re clinging to certain things and letting other things go and finding room to allow something new to emerge.
And even if you subconsciously think ‘I’m not going to make work so that it looks good with this other work’, its still coming from you so if you make enough work, you can start to see similarities between things and patterns that repeat themselves. And I think that is why it is so important to make a lot of work. You can’t make those connections if you only make a few pieces. I feel like sometimes I am not always consciously sure of what I am really interested in, so I have to find the meaning through the process of making, and then I can sort of figure it out.
You definitely have been keeping busy; with residencies and showing your work. What’s your routine in your real-world practice? Are you constantly applying to shows, or submitting your work to places, etc.
I try to apply to as much as I can, though that is probably one area that I could improve upon a little bit. This last summer I applied to so many open calls for stuff and a lot of residencies. But, it gets really expensive so I have been trying to do more outreach within the group of people I know. I have been trying to get in touch and create some relationships with galleries that are a little further away from where I live. NYFA is my primary resource, so I look for opportunities on the website. But, it’s like so many rejections! And then, there are these shows that seem like they are perfect for me, like they were looking for work that totally described my interests and the aesthetic of the gallery really made sense for my work, etc. and I don’t get in! I think, practically speaking, I just can’t apply to everything. Things that are more word-of-mouth seem to be better options for me at this point. It feels a little bit weird, because I struggle with self-promotion or feeling pushy or staying in line with a gallery’s etiquette. I do always apply for New American Paintings every year. You know, you just apply every year and hopefully the work will be at a place where the right juror will see it. I use an iPhone calendar to keep track of the applications and make sure I apply for things on time.
What is your inspiration for your work? Are there any artists that you are looking at currently?
I have a few favorite artists—of course some of the old school classics, but I am also looking at a few more contemporary artists. Wangechi Mutu is one that I keep coming back to. She does these really amazing sort of hybrid female forms that are a little Kara Walker-esque at times but they have collage elements too and they are really beautiful and painterly. I have heard that in person it is slicker than you might imagine it to be, but I really love her work. She does a series of collages where she looks at these antique medical textbooks and collages female faces on top of them, and they are amazing. They just blow my mind. I think I keep steering away from her, but I keep coming back to her work. It’s doing everything that I think I am trying to do. But I have my own stuff going on in there too.
And then in terms of painters, lately Philip Guston has been incredibly important in my mind. I keep coming back to him. His motifs are great, like the cigarettes. I think looking at his work again at this point in my life, gives me permission to reuse motifs. Like my desire to reuse this stiletto motif—its ok because Guston did it! I think at first I didn’t want to like his work as much as I do.
Amy Sillman is also an amazing painter; I look at her work a lot.
Equally important to other artists, I get so much inspiration from looking at other source material. I really like looking at vintage cookbooks and magazines. I have been looking at a lot of Better Homes and Gardens sewing manuals, and they are so weird. The written language in them is so strange and so full of archetypes and stereotypes. But it’s really amazing. I like looking at so many vintage things, partly because I think there is a little bit of nostalgia involved. I enjoy thinking about the era that my mom grew up in and I think that living in this day and age that its so easy to think of it as a better time, so it’s a combo of nostalgia and rawness that was part of that era. Contemporary pop culture is super important to me too, for reasons that I am not entirely sure how to describe at this point. But I think that a lot of the imagery in my most recent work is derived from music videos and photos in magazines of these different female icons; like Nicki Minaj, Kim Kardashian, etc. Whether they are good icons or not is a whole other set of issues, but they are nonetheless some of the forefront female figures today. It’s sort of like all of these images get garbled together and mashed up and regurgitated.
When you’re creating a composition, are you going in and sketching prior or are you working more intuitively/reacting to each layer with paint? What is your process like?
I do a little bit of both to be honest. I kind of have two different bodies of work, paintings and drawings. I do these powdered graphite drawings, and I do a layer of pencil and powered graphite. It’s sort of smoky and charcoaly and weird, and I like layering highlighters over it.
I also do a lot of just regular marker drawings. I like those really amazing Copic markers. I just got a set for Christmas. Oh! They come in all these really amazing pastels, and you can play with them and layer them. And then I found a whole bunch of these markers that my mom gave me as a kid when I took a trip home, so that totally inspired me, like: Markers! I haven’t thought about drawing with markers in a really long time, why don’t I do that! So I started all of these marker drawings too. I like to try things out in the drawings to see if it might work for the paintings. For the paintings, I start with a sketch. I think previously it was so much more planned than it is now. With the residency I had much more time, so I would kind of doodle in the sketchbook and look at the source material for a while, and then just go to town.
The recent work feels more loose and free, and not like you planned everything too much, and I feel like that’s one of the things that helps your work move.
A lot of the best parts of the paintings are the things that are 100% impulsive. Like adding group of triangles in the corner. Doing things that way works out most of the time, but not always! You just have to take a risk I guess. I try to just allow myself to take that risk. Sometimes I end up painting over things, and that can be interesting.
The 3-dimensinoality of some of the new work is really fantastic—are you using medium or something mixed with the paint?
I use this heavy gloss gel. I use all of these paints from this really great company out in California called Nova Color. You should definitely check them out. Their paints are amazing quality for a fraction of the cost. They are equally as nice as Golden, but much cheaper. And you can get so many sizes, from a 4 oz. trial size, quart sizes, and up to a 5 gallon bucket. They have this great heavy gloss gel too. At first I was afraid of working in this really painterly way, but I got this idea that it would be really cool to have this layer that would look like frosting on the painting. So I found this gel stuff and played around with it and realized that I could add make these superficial patterns and raised areas in all of these places that were more unexpected. My first inclination was to make like a frosted boob out of it, but I thought why don’t I put the kind of tactile, gooey stuff in a more unexpected place, like not where my original impulse was. So I started putting it in the background, like a superficial noise that competes with the crazy figurative element.
That food reference, (as you know, I love food) has a literal tactile quality instead of a perceived texture which is so cool.
And It’s so much fun to use. Now I have frosting day! I lay the paintings flat since it takes like 6 hours to dry, but its fun because I just get to dollop it on there. I mix my paint with these little mini spatulas, so I just slop it on there and move it around. I would also like to use some frosting bags in the future too. I also like that I have this reaction—that conceptually I am really drawn to—this idea of having this really fake, plastic, non-edible substance that reads as really yummy. It’s something that lures you in and masquerades as something really delicious.
My last question is what is your favorite thing to listen to while you are in the studio? What keeps you in the zone?
I go back and fourth, sometimes I can totally get in the zone with podcasts. I love listening to Radiolab, which is kind of my go-to, but sometimes I just really don’t want to hear words. Sometimes they are just too much for me. At my residency I thought that I would catch up on all of Serial and all of my podcasts, but then I ended up listening to music. I listen to a lot of Grimes, who is this amazing female artist. She’s really weird and pretty great. She has a really high, weird voice. I also go back to the old-school favorites, like I will crank up some Rihanna if I need to be a little bit lively. Or I will listen to some classical. I am pretty eclectic; I listen to a little bit of everything.
I know what you mean, sometimes the words are too much for my brain. It has been so great talking to you! Thanks for taking the time to share your work and chat with us!