Duncan Hannah, "Fictions," May 10-June 9, 2007, at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, 28 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2NA England
Contemporary art depends upon context, a commonplace perhaps, but the artist’s intentions, tactics and talents are today always adjudged depending upon the where and the how of their presentation. Thus we are presented with the enigma of Duncan Hannah, a New Yorker enviably freighted with pop cultural mythology, a veritable Zelig who runs in the most modish Manhattan circles, confrere to everyone from Vincent Gallo to Johnny Thunders and Patti Smith, but whose oeuvre is fully pledged to some Anglophile Arcadia.
Enjoying Hannah’s work in a London gallery, such as his current exhibition at Rebecca Hossack on Charlotte Street, a gallery actually located in the heart of that bohemian neighborhood of Bloomsbury-Fitzrovia that Hannah is so fond of depicting, only accentuates the ambiguity. Why is this relatively youthful, widely knowledgeable, entirely art-savvy, Minneapolis-born longtime resident of West 71st Street in Manhattan quite so committed to summoning the spirit of a specifically English esthetic?
For Hannah makes no secret of his heroes, artists such as William Nicholson, Henry Lamb, Augustus John, William Orpen and, above all, Walter Sickert, the greatest painter of the 20th century in his highly considered opinion. Once launched upon that enjoyable albeit ultimately reductive "comparison game," one might be tempted to bandy about the names of those very early-20th-century American artists in Europe like Richard Hayley Lever, Robert Henri and especially Edward Hopper (in regard to his early oil sketches of Paris). While here in New York, Hannah might appear as an eccentric maestro trading in make-believe; on the other side of the Atlantic, he has the status of a connoisseur re-mixing and extending the English tradition in a logical progression.
But that is not it at all. That is not what it means at all, to paraphrase another WASP anglophile, because though Hannah welcomes and, most importantly, can well withstand detailed practical comparison with the above artists, his actual technique and sheer skill remaining nonpareil, he is entirely aware his work will not be thus judged. For rather than being ranked against such past masters, rated according to the rules of, say, the Slade under the tutelage of the legendary taskmaster Henry Tonks, Hannah’s work is, of course, appraised by the criteria of the international art-game of 2007, by the flavor-of-this-month rather than the last or next one. And as such, its position becomes the more intriguing, its capacity for resistance and restitution to current practice all the richer.
For though the history of postwar figurative painting undoubtedly exaggerates its isolation and disparagement, a "myth of opposition" against the reality of its continual healthy existence, it is certainly true that when Hannah attended art school at Bard in 1972 it was far from the dominant mode. Nor was it usual to find one’s imagery exclusively among French or English subject matter from the 1920s and ‘30s, most notably its cinema.
But tracking the micro-history of such phenomena one should be aware that there are fashions in nostalgia as well as everything else. And Hannah’s impressionable jeunesse coincided with that first, early 1970s fascination with all things retro, from Chanel to F. Scott Fitzgerald, cocktails and flappers, Jazz & Zoot, as evinced by everything from the Art Deco revival to Biba, Roxy Music and The Boyfriend. The downtown New York scene of the mid-‘70s included deliberately old-fashioned dandies, including McDermott & McGough who actually back-dated their paintings to much earlier decades, among a groundswell of rising figurative tendencies.
In such a milieu it makes sense that when Hannah told his friend and mentor Andy Warhol he was trying to paint like Balthus that Andy should reply, "Oh, what a great idea. Gee, we must do that, we’ve got to paint like Balthus!" For the supposedly reactionary and the radical are forever admixed into the very DNA of figurative painting, a series of actions and re-actions which continually shift the discourse of this medium.
One strategy to enrich this argument is through narrative, fantasy and plot -- that always moot issue of pictorial story-telling. This might be exemplified by a 1987 exhibition organized by Douglas Blau in New York which gathered such fabulists of the era as Troy Brauntuch, Mark Innerst, Michelle Zalopany, Jack Goldstein and Mark Tansey. This was entitled "Fictions," which curiously is the same name as Hannah’s current show in which the literary link is made all the clearer thanks to a recent series of 41 x 48 cm. paintings that systematically portray the covers of period Penguin and Pelican paperbacks.
Framed by the gallery’s doorway so they become a dominant element of the exhibition, these works are paradoxically very much paintings, their relative looseness and brushwork proclaiming their status, their scale and texture distancing them further, while their titles prompt topical comparison, whether Art in England or Undertones of War. These works have a Jasperian nay Johnsesque semantic double-bluff, their painterliness and thingness working towards and against each other, a rebus that confounds our reductive expectations of the object through bravura painterly panache.
Hannah clearly loves these things, he loves not only the design and typography of such books but also what they represent, an entire period of Anglo-Saxon publishing, a vanished world within which they were quotidian objects and which still exists inside the texts of these volumes. These Penguin books are simultaneously artifacts of antiquity and bearers, containers of its continued message, still readable, re-visitable today, to be potentially recaptured by the act of reading as Hannah pins the past in paint.
This love is the key to Hannah’s oeuvre, a refusal to give up what he most admires, what in truth he most wants, whether Scottish Twilight or German Gymnast -- however remote they might seem in time or reality, they can be his, and ours, through the transmogrification of art. Hannah is, without hesitation or embarrassment a romantic whose attraction to the past is so palpable, so resonant, it is immediately communicated to the most casual viewer.
At the risk of burying his singular talent under an avalanche of names the most pertinent comparison between Hannah and other contemporary practitioners would be with Karen Kilimnik (who shares his Mod London penchant) and Elizabeth Peyton, whose esthetic is also based upon a love -- fandom -- both pop and regal.
If all art is in some sense about "loss," Hannah suggests that through the alchemy of image-making, through the long, laborious and pleasurable task in itself, the artist may "lose" himself while finding, restoring, the sanctity of the physical world and all its antecedent history.
ADRIAN DANNATT is a New York-based critic and writer.