Monday, February 28, 2011

The Oxbow: After Church, After Cole, Flooded

Here is the painting I mentioned in class: Steve Hannock, "The Oxbow: After Church, After Cole, Flooded":

It's exhibited at the MET, not the Guggenheim.

Close up:

What you can't see well are the words written all over the canvas

And here is an excerpt from an article on Hannock:

Looking at Hannock's sprawling canvasses, muscular but still studied and restrained, you can see what he means. He's deeply influenced by the great American landscape painters of the 19th century, especially the Hudson River School - George Inness, Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church - whose sweeping vistas of rugged Eastern terrain were imbued with a sense of the romantic and the sublime.

He also takes some cues from painters like the English proto-impressionistJ.M.W. Turner, whose canvasses, bathed in golden glow, treat light almost as a sacrament. Hannock feels the same way. His subjects - the Connecticut River oxbow luxuriating in summer dusk, glinting waterfalls beneath glowing pink skies, flooded plains refracting and amplifying the light of setting sun, a train traversing the horizon at twilight, rockets piercing the dark night with deafening illumination - revel in the transportive aspect of luminosity. He said that when he paints, he's not painting mountains, water, and trees so much as he's painting light itself: they exist only to give it a place on which to play.

Early summer evenings are his favorite. "There's just something about the mood that's created during these short-lived times of day. Whether it makes the viewer or somebody who's witnessing the event more appreciative of what's going on. It just seems to be a time of day where people take pause. The motion of light, whether it's fireworks, or a car that's just gone by where you just see a streak of light, or light coming through a fog bank, it's an unlikely miracle moment that's a detonator for all sorts of stuff in people. It's something different for everybody. But I respect the power of what's going on there. I don't understand it, but I think the more I paint it, the more I'm beginning to understand it. It's the kind of thing where that search, that effort to learn what that's about, is an exciting trip. If anything, it's a reminder that it's the trip that's worthwhile."

His landscapes are unique. "I don't have any foreground," he says, pointing at a canvas in the corner that might as well be the view out a flat window. "You have to break that two-dimensional plane before you get the objects that are holding the light. Water or air. It's a neat way to bring you into the painting." Also, he doesn't tend to lug his canvas and paints out into the wilderness, as many of his 19th century forebears did. Nor does he work from photographs. "It's all imaginary. Sometimes I'll do ink drawings [as studies]. I tend to exaggerate things that are being interpreted. That exaggeration creates these rhythms that disappear with photography. Photography is flat."

Hannock, who's ambidextrous and paints with both hands, achieves his remarkable effects - canvasses that literally seem to glow - with a technique of his own invention: polishing the oil on the canvas with wet-dry sandpaper on a power sander. By painting, sanding, applying more paint and gloss, then sanding them again, it gives his works a texture and luminosity he couldn't achieve with a brush alone. "It creates accents and gives you a surface that really reflects a pure light and allows you to achieve a mood much better than the traditional way of applying paint."

Landscapes, to put it plainly, are not currently in vogue in this world of conceptual art and envelope-pushing provocateurs. Some have called Hannock an anachronism, with his candid affection for "old-fashioned" painters. He doesn't care. And anyway, his aren't exactly "traditional" landscapes. Back in 1990, quite by accident, he discovered what would become another hallmark of his style. "I used to take old envelopes and soak up excess paint," he says. "One day I soaked up the paint and threw it away and missed the wastebasket." He noticed that text on the front of the letter showed through the paint, just a little. Eureka.

Hannock now underlays many of his painting with documents or photographs or handwritten letters that are resonant to him. Sometimes he'll write, subtly, directly into the paint, giving his canvasses an added texture. These personal notes are hard to see - especially in reproduction - but once you get near enough to look closely, to really lean in and inspect them, the effect is profound, giving the sense of a multilayered excavation of history. "I'll just use anecdotes that strike me in certain ways," Hannock says. It makes his paintings exquisitely evocative of a particular space and time.

Not everyone liked the technique at first. Some thought it ruined a perfectly good landscape. "Even these abstract expressionist guys, these guys from the New York School, were saying, 'Oh, why are you writing on them?!' Of all people!"

1 comment:

Robin said...

I find it very interesting that text is included in his works. I tried to read what was written in the sample but could only make out a few of the words, no complete thoughts or sentences.