Varied: Art motifs imitate music

Artist Farida Hughes name-checks composers Edward Elgar and J.S. Bach before she mentions any hotshot canvas jockeys, and it’s this interest in musical form which loosely inspires her latest exhibit at the McGuffey Art Center. 
The exhibit, “Variations,” begins with the composerly method of the same name and applies it to oil painting. That is, Hughes substitutes a basic shape for a basic musical theme and spins off a whole series of paintings, each different from the last, but each keeping this one element in common. 
For her shape of choice, Hughes uses a small rounded figure, something that looks vaguely like it could have come from Nature, like a kernel or a pod. Hughes then fashions different spaces and arrangements for her kernels, varying the color schemes, the contrast between colors, the hardness of the line, or the arrangement of shapes. 
There is a playfulness and a lightness in Hughes’ work, and that shows particularly in her willingness to modify her shape just slightly from painting to painting. Set in unique arrangements and colors, the shapes suggest different things entirely. 
“Blue Variations: Flores Para mi Nina,” for example, is packed to the gills with Hughes’ little shapes, here rendered in pale pinks and blues. Across the bottom of the largish canvas, however, she has set a few of these kernels out from the rest with a brilliant red. They rise as they run from the left to the right, and in this movement, they seem to blossom into something resembling roses, and at once one is inclined to see the entire work as a layer of buds pressed tightly together. 
In the much less cluttered “The Tempo,” Hughes’ little kernels assume the contours of little birds with wings held close to their bodies. They float and spin in space, like tiny birds tossed into a clothes dryer with a glass door.
The musical influence is pretty distant, however. Hughes’ “Variations” is particularly concerned with visual characteristics such as surface and implied movement. Her paintings sneakily hint at depth, but give the viewer no access anything but the surface layer. Hughes either crowds her frame with objects all of a like size, or else fills in the space with washes of color. 
Despite occasional flashes of verve in her work, this particular style has a somewhat disarming effect, as if her paintings had been painted on the surface of your eyes and no matter how hard you try, you can’t step back from them.   

At the McGuffey Art Center, Farida Hughes’s “Variation,” is on view through March 29. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.