Catalog Essay, Fall 2002

Imaginary Realism, Meaningful Contradictions

Stephen Hannock often uses the word "luminous" to describe his paintings. He certainly has more claim to that concept than the nineteenth-century painters John Frederick Kensett, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Martin Johnson Heade: the so-called "Luminists." It is an inapt name for that group of East Coast painters, as the artists did not use it. They did not even work together. And luminosity, the emission of light, is far from the key concept in their work. Such pictures absorb light and respond in kind with incident and detail and transcendental mood. In contrast, Hannock, in his radical technique, is a true American luminist. His paintings, multi-layered in both surface and meaning, radiate in a manner that connects past andpresent in what has been called "Imaginary Realism." And they frequently abjure the serenity that was the trademark of these earlier painters.

The other word that frequently emerges in conversation with the
artist is "accident." Jackson Pollock famously stated in 1951 ". . .
I don't use the accident-'cause I deny the accident," as he
masculinely wrested formal qualities from the realm of the
spontaneous, the haphazard, the chaotic in his poured paintings of
the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hannock gives the accident its due.
It is inherent in his process. To see the artist in his studio, with
knee pads on, with multiple power sanders lining a window shelf like
weapons on a rack, with paintings lying face-up on saw horses and
tables, reminds me of photographs of a helmeted and armored Richard
Serra flinging molten lead on the wall and floor of the Leo Castelli
warehouse in the late 1960s. As in Pollock's action painting and
Serra's industrial alchemy, process is a key aspect of Hannock's art.
In fact, the violent removal of surface by machine sanding to reveal
form is often more important to the final product than the
traditionally additive qualities of painting. Hannock has been
working for nearly twenty years with this technique, which is closer
to traditions of sculpture and printmaking than painting, although
the final results are smoothly two-dimensional. He uses
brayers-rollers for inking plates-to apply pigments, and transfer
techniques and monoprinting to smudge paint on thin surfaces of
glassy polished clear gel. Often he uses a "Rorschach" technique to
give symmetry to forms by painting onto paper, folding the paper in
half, and then pressing the mirror forms onto the surface. This is
markedly different from Andy Warhol's monumental and literal
evocations of Rorschach test blots in his series of 1984. Hannock has
transformed a formal concept used to measure intellectual and
emotional associations into one that constructs an underlying
symmetry in nature, and that functions as shorthand for the artist's
own surprising ambidextrous facility with materials. He works the
surface with two hands like a floor sander or waxer. It is an
original mode of exploration beyond that of a traditional artist at
an easel dabbing paint on with a brush in one hand and a palette in
the other.

This is referenced in one of the three figurative works in this
display. Portrait of the Artist with Oscar and Skin Cancer (cat. no.
19) represents him wielding brushes in both hands, literally divided
by a background that is, on the left, a rosy peach-toned Tuscan
landscape and, on the right, a board very similar to wall surfaces in
his studio. The board is covered with reproductions of his own works,
pictures of paintings by Eric Fischl and Wayne Thiebaud, as well as
images of close friends: an index of artistic influences. These are
miniaturized photomechanical reproductions sunk under the layers of
gel and pigment of the surface. Background accoutrements define the
man as much as resemblance does, but the depiction of Hannock's
illness brings forth a sense of vulnerability and honesty, a private
suffering made public.

The majority of the artist's production has been landscapes, and
these are more associative than topographical. They are suggestive of
real places without being literal transcriptions of sites. He does
not work directly from nature or from photographs, instead making
small, often envelope-sized sketches that suggest the tableau and
then transferring these designs in various scales. Some of these
paintings are on actual envelopes. Besides acting as testaments to
communication and memory (a letter sent from someone intimate,
perhaps), the low and wide orientation of business envelopes forms a
natural panoramic field. This connects resolutely with how the artist
conceptualizes space. And Hannock's works imply space beyond the
frames, continuing a dialogue in American art begun by Pollock. The
typical landscape format of Hannock's works, and even the implied
horizontality of his vertically oriented compositions, give a sense
of limitless expanse. He has spoken of "owning the wall space 1/4
mile on either side" of his pictures. It is this aspect that is both
distinctively modern as well as reflective of landscape traditions,
such as glowing works by French Barbizon artists like Théodore
Rousseau, or J.M.W. Turner's images of vast country vistas. For
example, Turner's light-saturated tableau of deer in Petworth Park:
Tillington Church in the Distance (c. 1828, Tate Britain, London) is
echoed in Hannock's equine paintings. And Turner's series of
paintings depicting the burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834
come immediately to mind when looking at Hannock's recent evening
images, with fireworks cascading over imaginary bridges. But just as
the artist's landscapes are not exact attempts to transcribe a site,
such references to earlier art throughout his works are the result of
a built-up memory of looking at aspects of pictures. They are
suggestive of continuities, rather than being directly related.
This is evident in a work like Nocturne with Mauve Orchard (cat. no.
1), one that repays intense looking. As simplified as one of Mark
Rothko's mature-style color fields, it consists of an upper band of
dark sky, a middle register of subtly backlit mauve trees, and a
foreground strip whose verdant variations reveal themselves only in
close proximity. It is a work whose effects belie its small 9 x 12
inch size. I could continue to play the "closely-related precedents"
game, and cite the gauzy atmospherics of George Inness, the jewel
tones of Heade, the clotted ebonies of Albert Pinkham Ryder but,
ultimately, the work exists outside frames of reference and, instead,
conveys something approaching mood or weather, without being
literally either. In a way, the effect of looking at such a work
allows for great latitude of interpretation on the part of the
viewer, for one of the best qualities of Hannock's art, a quality
which reveals his utter incompatibility with traditional concepts of
Realism, is that his works are not even remotely didactic or
pedagogical. They absorb as much reflection from viewers as they emit
color and light. James McNeill Whistler's Aestheticist works, made
when in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, are
perhaps the closest precedents for Hannock's ideal. In Whistler's own
Nocturne pictures, referred to as having the abstract quality of
music by advanced critics of the time such as Walter Pater and
Algernon Swinburne, relations of color and form determine meaning,
but figuration remains essential. It is perhaps only now that such
works, long deemed lesser in hierarchical histories of modernism, can
be most fully engaged with and appreciated precisely for the reason
that they are not pure abstractions. Their inherent dichotomies are
their strengths, and the root of their meanings. The complexity of
such works emerges from the play between the imagined and the real.
This is clearly evident in a work dedicated to one of the greatest
exponents of twentieth-century abstraction. Twilight Train for Barney
(cat. no. 11) reprises a motif from the earlier The Great Plains at
the End of the Day (Nocturne for Gil), but here pays homage to that
most eloquent Abstract Expressionist, Barnett Newman, whose recent
retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the most
jaw-dropping, moving and impressive of the recent deluge of surveys
of artists associated with those mid-twentieth century New Yorkers.
Inspired by the chance viewing of black and white film footage on TV
of a train passing over an impossibly level landscape while trailing
a rigidly parallel stream of coal exhaust in the still air, Hannock
suggests connections between this image and the ribbonlike expanses
of Newman's rare horizontal zips from 1949-1951, those with titles
like Horizontal Light and Day Before One. It also makes me think of
Romantic era works bearing the concept of the sublime, like John
Martin's vertiginous and grandiose The Plains of Heaven (1851-1853,
Tate Britain, London). This geographical sublimity is similar to
David Lean's magisterial desert vistas in the film Lawrence of Arabia
(1962), in which human intervention is similarly envisioned across a
broad immutable landscape in the form of distant train cars and
smoke, and even elegiac John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). At
the same time the overall scheme and size ratio surprisingly call to
mind the schematized graphics and saturated hues of early-twentieth
century commercial posters for British Transport, the armed forces,
liquors, and entertainment.

In such works Hannock enters into a plurality of traditions in
Western visual culture. Refreshingly, reference is something the
artist does not deny. He is uninterested in cultural hermeticism and
negation. But this is not the jokey and ironic calling card of
anything-goes postmodernism. Rather, Hannock is a willing and
contributing participant in a resolutely serious aesthetic dialogue.

In 1836 the Lancashire-born Thomas Cole, who had by then lived in
America for 18 years, painted one of the most important landscapes of
the nineteenth century. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton,
Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm-The Oxbow (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) reinvented the painting of nature in the New World. Its bifurcation into the sublime on the left and the beautiful on the right accessed aesthetic traditions nearly exhausted in Europe. But its treatment of both modes on a large panoramic canvas was as novel as its subject, the development of the American wilderness under God's aegis and the continued mediation between old and new worlds. Cole included himself in the foreground of the picture, in a site lower down Mount Holyoke and roughly commensurate with the spot where he first sketched the scene three years earlier. The artist turns backwards to look at his future self in a display of artistic continuity and formation of purpose, much as in the most eloquent scene in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love (1997), when the poet A. E. Housman encounters his younger self. In debating the aim of a Classical education and the power and relevance of poetry, the elder Housman assists the younger to decide on his profession, while retrospectively and self-satisfyingly justifying his choices in life. As in Stoppard's play, Cole's self-portraiture represents an intimate dialogue in The Oxbow that implies far more than a casual integration with the motif but, rather, a vivid and personal association of place, time, and experience, as well as a formative suggestion of his future tangent in art-one that produced his greatest works, the grand historical landscapes of the mid-1830s.

When Stephen Hannock paints the Oxbow, as he has at least seven
times, he too combines experience with transcription. Here the
transcription is literal, in the form of words flung across the
landscape. Often standing in for furrows in fields, roads, whispers
of smoke trailing from distant towns, this textural inscription on
the landscape was presaged by Cole, who gouged the Hebrew letters for
Shaddai, "the almighty" (spelled wrongly, if creatively), on the
mountain in the background-upside down so God alone could read it.
Hannock's countryside calligraphy is a stream of conscious
remembrance of place, and also dedication, as each picture is drafted
for people who have served as his mentors. It is different from
Cole's Hebraic crop circles. These are textual self-portraits in the
landscape with scripted reminiscences of the times when the works
were painted.

The Oxbow has become a totem for Hannock. He keeps coming back to the subject, renegotiating it year after year. It is similar to a key
repeated motif in the art of Thomas Eakins, the American
nineteenth-century realist whose sensational recent retrospective in
Philadelphia, Paris and New York featured a historical composition
with the Philadelphia sculptor William Rush carving a female
allegorical figure of the Schuylkill River in his studio in the early
1800s. Eakins's imaginative staging of this scene, painted in 1876-77
when the artist was in his early 30s, includes Rush at work with a
chisel, a nude female model seen from the back, and the obligatory
chaperone, quietly sewing behind her. Some thirty years later, in
1908, Eakins returned to the motif, painting a slightly altered
version of this scene. And in the same year he painted on a separate
canvas an elegant and moving image of himself, inserted into Rush's
studio, wearing Rush's work clothes, holding a mallet, and with a
gentle hand assisting the model down from her pedestal. We see her
frontally now, not nude, not as the inspiration for an ideal
allegory, but naked and true. It is the clearest possible statement
of Eakins's aims in art: a rigid adherence to both realism and the
principles of humanist artistic traditions. Here, Eakins proclaims
himself to be an artist of the present (the real), and a painter with
a pedigree (the weight of tradition), which he embraces literally by
assuming Rush's identity, and by extension through the artistic
productions of his career. Similarly, in repeatedly reprising the
Oxbow, Hannock movingly inserts himself into the lineage of the
artists Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church and Rockwell Kent who
worked in the vicinity and are named in Hannock's titles, as well as
his present-day intellectual inspirations Elizabeth and Agnes Mongan,
Fran Gillespie, and S. Lane Faison, Jr. And the artist himself is
inserted into the landscape, in the very fabric of the painting,
through the scribbled diary entries lying under its glassy surface-a
contemporary "licked" surface antithetical to modernist traditions.
For Hannock, painting the Oxbow represents both pictorial and
intellectual luminosity. Realism and idealism. Memory and continuity.
It is a manifesto that is still in progress.

Jason Rosenfeld

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