Duncan Hannah, "New Paintings: Stolen Moments," Feb. 6-Mar. 6, 2004, at JG Contemporary at Graham Modern, 1014 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021, and "The Spell of London," at JG Contemporary, 505 West 28th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
If you passed by the window at James Graham & Sons on Madison Avenue and spied the modestly sized painting of a woman coifed much like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, you might well assume it was by a forgotten English painter of the 1930s, a recluse and perhaps an eccentric, out of touch with or disdainful of modernist trends. You would be mistaken, for the painting is by the contemporary artist Duncan Hannah, who currently is exhibiting new works at JG Contemporary both uptown and in Chelsea.
The blond, less aristocratic and remote than Kelly, turns out to be Nova Pilbeam, a British child actress who starred as the kidnapped daughter in the original Hitchcock version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Hannah captures her childish smile, her teeth a bit too prominently displayed. Pilbeam never made it to the acting A-list as an adult, but Hannah brings her back from obscurity here in depicting her youthful charm and beauty.
In the window at Graham is a second cabinet-sized painting, titled Paintbox (2003). The box lies open on the floor, the traditional palette half out, tilted precariously on its edge, the oil colors all but dried on the wood surface, brushes and tubes of paint all neatly bundled and arranged inside. It's a portrait of the painter's tools of the trade, his box of tricks and the means to capture a lost or, more accurately, a reinvented world.
Viewing Hannah's work, it helps to brush up a bit on continental events between the wars, something in which the artist has clearly immersed himself. One of Hannah's subjects is the Gaumont movie house, an imposing Art Deco structure that trumpets on its marquee Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (2002). Gaumont was both a theater chain and a production company, Gaumont British. The looming gray building resembles a cross between a Greco-Roman temple and a prison.
Hannah's painting of the Queen Mary in Maiden Voyage (2003) takes us back to when the great ocean liner sailed from England in May 27, 1936. After over 1,000 transatlantic crossings, the great ship is now docked in Long Beach, California (since 1967), where for a tidy sum you can get married on deck.
In the show in Chelsea, Hannah renders the Euston Station (2001) as if its Doric columns were still functioning as the gateway to the north of London, even though it was demolished in 1962. Hannah's painting Blow Up I (Maryon Park) from 2001 refers to the South-East London location where a fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) inadvertently documented a supposed murder in Michelangelo Antonioni's eponymous homage to '60s London.
As a vehicle for ruminations on reality and the illusion inherent to filmmaking, Hannah's paintings reflect on the penchant for reinventing history in Western civilization. (As an eerie coincidence that befits Hannah's historical twists and turns, Hemmings, making a comeback as an actor, died last year while shooting a film in Romania, at age 62).
There's more than a little postmodern detachment in Regarding Teresa Ann (2002), in which Hannah shows an impassive schoolgirl of indeterminate age raising her skirt for some curious and persuasive onlooker. Hannah's nonjudgmental position is clear; the girl seems innocent and at once comfortable with her actions, leaving it up to the viewer to decipher his/her intent.
Then again, Hannah's work is often shrouded in mystery, like a really good B movie, with an ongoing narrative left open to interpretation. The feeling after seeing Hannah's intimate, meticulously painted works is comparable to viewing a Joseph Cornell box: an entire world created from found images, exotic travel postcards and promo pix of Hollywood starlets, a fascination with all things European, and an insatiable appetite for a bygone era.