At first glance, Terrance Hughes’ paintings look like a circus act. At second glance, the viewer recognizes that she’s watching the knife thrower.
Hughes lures you into his work, then challenges you to stay there. His signature piece, “New American Folk Lore,” shows an African-American Johnny Appleseed character in merry mid-stride. Though he appears to greet the viewer, the speech bubble floating near him is empty.
“Folk Lore” is about the artist’s father, whom he last saw when he was eight, and who died when the Hughes was fourteen. His father also happened to be married to a woman who wasn’t his mother.
With his Hotel des Arts room mural, the artist created a piece that was less personally charged than “Folk Lore” but more voyeuristic, fun and sexual.
“This room is about me and my relationship with women,” he says. “It deals with unattainability. I’m observing, but not receiving.”
According to Hughes, who has been known paint Chilly Willie the Penguin coiffed in an afro, “frail eel” meant “attractive woman” in the Harlem Renaissance era. A bug-eyed chicken, who appears here in both his cartoon incarnation and in a more realistically rendered silhouette, assumes the role of the artist’s inner Peeping Tom.
“I don’t want to expose myself,” Hughes says. “I’m not that open. The more autobiographical a piece becomes, the less I want to show it. I want to get as deep as possible, but I don’t want to be that selfish.”