Duncan Hannah, "New Work," Nov. 7-Dec. 21, 2002, at James Graham & Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y., and "Nudes," Nov. 7-Dec. 21, 2002, at JG Contemporary, 505 West 28 Street, New York, N.Y.
At first glance, the wistful pictures of Duncan Hannah, an art veteran of 20 plus years, feel distinctly out of place -- even at James Graham & Sons on the Upper East Side -- in a contemporary moment when politics have made sentimentality particularly distasteful. And yet, while the works are smooth and gentlemanly, on further examination they are snappish and cunning, and as grainy and earthbound as the sand Hannah mixes into his pigments. Hannah's meditation on colonialism and conformity couldn't be more at the core of today's political question -- how should/does the Western economic model relate to that part of the world that is yet unconverted?
Indeed, Hannah's world is so very small that, in it, one can literally see the curvature of the globe.
Hannah's nostalgic patina is so convincing that his "realism" is often the subject of casual misinterpretation. His paintings have been described as "charming" and "romantic" and, as one critic stated, "the quality of his yearning seems real enough." Nonetheless, even the most docile of viewers will realize that Hannah's primary concern is not the past itself, but a relation to the past, in terms of how the past has brought about the present, yes, but also in terms of how the present recreates the past. Hannah is not so much living in the past, alone, as with all of us. His assertion is one of continuity. Yes, he describes himself as being "out of time," but is quick to add, "we all are."
Hannah, by way of a somewhat Hopperish composition and cinematographic rigidity (we never feel, in Hannah's canvases, that we have been shown more than a single frame), has occasioned some to grant him an atavistic princeliness -- in Hannah, they argued, they had found a new dauphin of realism. But Hannah's paintings are not really representational. His work, based on illustrations and photographs culled from the 20th century (mostly '30s to '50s), has no existing source material. No figures. No landscape. Nothing that Hannah paints is still there. The young woman is now old. The telephone booths have changed. Hannah, as is particularly significant in our own mock representative democracy, is a mock representational painter, and not painting any actual images, but, rather, the concept of images.
To apply over-simplification to the 18 paintings of Hannah's "New Work," the grand theme would be colonialism. In fact, the first five paintings in Hannah's presentation deal directly with England's dominance of the seas. All ships are depicted with the same misty-eyed longing, but the non-distinction between the cruise ship and the battleship is immediately unsettling, as is the rapid disclosure that none of these ships sails without foreboding. Whether the nearly beached vessel of A Cautionary Tale, or the sinking behemoth of The Wreck of Morro Castle, one quickly realizes that, as Hannah phrases it, "We've gone too near the shoals."
Hannah's paintings are, for the most part, without cultural signifiers, and we are left to wonder whether this is 1930s England, or '40s Germany, or '50s America. That is an unpleasant equation, and not one that elicits satisfied citations of quaint universal experience. Rites of Passage, Hannah's largest painting in the show, draws a correlation between our dream of Empire with that of the United Kingdom, and just in case we haven't gotten it by now, by way of some German text in a depicted advertisement, Germany. If you need more, Hannah gives you a plane flying overhead, and, reiterated throughout the composition, a veritable graveyard of crosses.
In the three paintings that follow, one notes that the figures that populate Hannah's images are always youthful, and more often than not are children. There is, however, nothing childlike about these children. They are miniature adults, fully accoutered in adult clothing and concerns, bringing to mind the miniature-man, papal renderings of Christ. In The Temple of Four Winds not only are two boys small men, but even at a tender age, they are totally conformed in identity -- faceless, with the same haircut, in the same pose, in the same clothing, looking to the same thing. (In the corner of this work, one finds more Christ imagery in the smashed reeds.) In The School Boy Spies, Hannah gives a more sinister and palpable accounting of how all this perfection is a ready nightmare. Somehow, we always know that someone's gonna get it.
Hannah relates his two primary themes -- childhood and colonialism -- by his treatment of water in such works as Puddles and The Temple of Four Winds. Water is the means by which a child learns to see herself, as well as the obstacle between now and what's to come. In The White Duster, a rendering of the flag of the British Royal Navy, Hannah's deep red adds one more cross to the graveyard.
All this is not to say that Hannah's works don't elicit sentimentality. They do. And that's what so scary about them. When an interviewer accused Leni Riefenstahl of having promoted, during her years of Nazi funded filmmaking, a "fascist esthetic," she challenged the interviewer to define what that was. Well, let's give it a try. A fascist esthetic is the romanticizing, above all else, of submission to a greater will. And here, we find Hannah's challenge to us -- will you be attending, or will you be appalled?
Hannah's work, though more whisperingly than Riefenstahl, is likewise charged with an only slightly sublimated sadomasochism. Hannah's sexuality is simultaneously too naïve and too overt to allow the viewer to occupy any preferred zone of comfort. In keeping with the presumed sexual fantasies of the boarding school boys in the uptown exhibition, Hannah inhabits JG Contemporary's downtown space with drawings and paintings of, for example, The Au Pair, or The Italian Governess.
Tucked quietly away, like an executive's Manhattan mistress, "Hannah's Nudes" occupies the single-room storefront on West 28th Street. Hannah's women are male fantasies, always outfitted, whether by a slip of clothing or a red velvet curtain, by a fetish of colonial decadence. Of the 32 paintings and drawings, only four males are depicted at all -- and even so, they are entirely anonymous. (In the office, a last painting depicts the full male form -- but in a pre-pubescent state.)
As seductive as Hannah's images may be, they never represent a real Au Pair, or a real Italian Governess. Instead, these are images drawn from images that are themselves staged (illustrations or magazine photographs). Always, the sexual socialization process is apparent. The women -- all young and attractive -- must submit, not only to the man, but to the man's fashioning of what a woman should be. Every one of Hannah's female nudes looks out from the canvas with a question in her eyes -- will you accept me?
In the back room of the uptown space Hannah has put forth a key to his current presentations. A painting after a Hardy Boys book cover shows that not just any image will do, that Hannah's choices are conscious and deliberate. A colonial ship in Malta confirms Hannah's notions of Empire. Several starry-eyed young men dream of conquest and greatness. And, most tellingly, a parlor figure engages in a game of Blindman's Bluff. Hannah, who says of the figure that he "identifies with that guy," herein summarizes his own relationship to the work, and his dual role of elucidator and obscurer. And whether The Master of Disguise represents a disguise or a self-imposed blindfold, regardless, Mister Hannah, I declare you unmasked.
Paintings and works on paper range in price from $750 to $15,000.
JOHN REED is author of Snowball's Chance (Roof Books, 2002).