Artnet: Duncan Hannah, Gentleman and Dissembler


Duncan Hannah, "New Work," 

Nov. 7-Dec. 21

James Graham & Sons / JG Contemporary

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." ...

Read more