Duncan Hannah at JG/Contemporary; de Chirico, Picaba and Warhol at Sperone Westwater; Now is a Good Time at Andrea Rosen
“Duncan Hannah: The Spell of London”
JG/Contemporary in Chelsea until March 6 505 W. 28th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212.564.7662
“Duncan Hannah: Stolen Moments”
JG/Contemporary until March 6 1014 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, 3rd Floor, 212.535.5767
“A Triple Alliance: de Chirico, Picabia, Warhol”
Sperone Westwater until February 21 415 W. 13th Street, between TK and TK, 212-999-7337
“Now Is a Good Time”
Andrea Rosen Gallery until February 21 525 W. 24th Street, 212-627-6000
I seem to have fallen in love. Teresa Ann is a prepubescent blonde with a luminous complexion. Her coyly vacuous gaze belies the provocativeness with which she lifts her skirt to reveal tender thighs and white stockings. But there’s no need to call 911: It’s not this Lolita herself I’m smitten with, but her creator, Duncan Hannah.
Mind you, for a critic serious about painting to fall for Mr. Hannah is plenty perverse enough. Here is a painter who pushes deadpan to the point of necrophilia. He seems to will himself into Sunday painter mode.
Most kinky of all is his anglophilia, an idyll of clipped and cramped Englishness: “Brideshead Revisited” meets Enid Blyton meets the quirky, tonal aloofness of Walter Richard Sickert. Mr. Hannah’s touch is as bland and affectless as English weather and English cooking combined. His twin shows at the uptown and Chelsea premises of JG Contemporary are titled, respectively, “Stolen Moments” and “The Spell of London.” (The tender portrait of Sickert in the latter show, incidentally, is Mr. Hannah’s riposte in paint to the balmy blood libel leveled at Sickert by “Ripperologist” Patricia Cornwell.)
Mr. Hannah’s retro style and pre-war subject matter are derived not so much from fine art as period illustration, particularly the advertising for film noir. -like Nova Pilbeam, the Hitchcock starlet-rendered, like Picabia’s cinematic paintings of the 1940s, in that kitsch shorthand that denotes glamour and sensuality. Politically tainted period pieces are coyly referenced: “The 39 Steps” is playing at Mr. Hannah’s 2002 Gaumont Cinema, while a pupil of Miss Brodie is portrayed in “In Her Prime,” (2001).
A political reading is bolstered by a striking resemblance between the glowing yet frigid portrait of Pilbeam and R.B. Kitaj’s ambiguously sexy, iconic portrait of Unity Mitford from 1968. Both painters are midwesterners for whom London is, or has at some point, proven a locus of romantic nostalgia.
The enigma of Mr. Hannah is that he has made a remarkable body of art out of unremarkable individual pictures, discovering the marvelous in the mediocre without having to resort to the uncanny. This description makes him sound like just another iconoclast, a “bad boy” of painting in the mold of the younger John Currin. But Mr. Hannah isn’t simply striking a pose: He has discovered a genuine source of visual poetry in wilfull nerdishness.
Mr. Hannah is a metaphysical painter in direct descent from de Chirico and Magritte. To paraphrase Dalí on madmen, the difference between him and a Surrealist is that he is not surreal.
His genius is to meld oddity of vision and execution. There is a kind of earnest irony in Mr. Hannah, in which painting becomes a “boy’s own” adventure. His images of youths masquerading as adults, not to mention of the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, present an allegory of alienation, in which painting itself refuses to grow up.
Others have noted his striking resemblance to Hopper in terms of unexpressive painthandling and period setting. The affinity goes deeper, to a poetics of boredom. In both painters (as in Sickert)), ennui pervades depiction and what’s depicted alike.
Ultimately, Mr. Hannah is in a place beyond irony, where the very failures of expression are poignant. In “Regarding Teresa Ann” (2002), a tender awkwardness unites the painter with his invented or appropriated sitter – as if *he* were as ambiguous about painterliness as she is about sexuality.
If Mr. Hannah seems to exemplify postmodern attitude in his intentional cackhandedness, a stunning exhibition at Sperone Westwater, , suggests that “Bad Painting” has a long pedigree. “A Triple Alliance” presents Giorgio de Chirico, Francis Picabia, and Andy Warhol as a triumvurate of the nonchalant, aspiring oxymoronically, like Mr. Hannah, towards mastery within the mediocre.
Fun connections abound in this thoughtful kitschfest (for which Robert Rosenblum’s curatorial input has been acknowledged). Visually, Warhol’s abrasive Pop palette and garish commercialism throw the exhibition somewhat out of key, but in such company do we really want harmony anyway? The catalog and hang alike make a persuasive case for linking him with these early exemplars of modern iconoclasm.
De Chirico was notorious for “forging” his own earlier, canonical proto-surrealist cityscapes, and for revisiting mannerist moments in the history of art. Picabia, the one-time pioneer of a Dada machine aesthetic, flirted shamelessly with film-poster realism. Both were forebears of the Warhol anti-aesthetic.
The Warhols include a set of homages to de Chirico from 1982, based on the *Pittura Metafisica* painter’s “The Poet and his Muse,” “The Two Sisters,” and “The Furniture in the Valley.” They look to a discredited late period of the Italian’s career, pointedly so, as a kind of rebuttal to the contemporary efforts of the Museum of Modern Art to tidy up de Chirico’s reputation as a modernist.
Technically, Warhol’s layering of misregistered lines and patches of color on top of photographically appropriated originals marries with Picabia’s legendary “transparencies,” in which an overlay of line drawing that is a bit like the filigree of a stained-glass window at once accents and deconstructs the painting underneath. The absurdist machine aesthetic, common to Picabia and de Chirico, makes a new, occult sense of Warhol’s banal, mechanical hand.
If you can’t get enough “Bad” painting, be sure to catch the last days of “Now Is a Good Time” at Andrea Rosen, which closes Saturday. Curated by Dean Valentine, a Los Angeles collector, its floral theme seemed timed to his saintly namesake’s feast day.
Most of the works were apparently made specially for the show. Included are various stars in the firmament of the kitsch and the fey, including Karen Kilimnik, Elizabeth Peyton, and John Currin, as well as more interesting members of the LA scene, such as Rodney McMillian.
Knowing that Mr. Currin was included, and having a rough idea from the checklist where he would be placed, I had a momentary Road to Damascus experience, thinking that I’d spied and been smitten by his entry from 40 feet away. But the creamy, Manet-like gem in an Amédée Ozenfant palette turned out to be “January” (2004) by Maureen Gallace. Mr. Currin’s reassuringly boring pastiche was “Rosebush” (2003), just next to it.
One of the few voluptuous paintings in the show was Alisa Margolis’s “We love you all,” (2003-04), an array of smudged blooms on a dark, almost submarine-feeling ground, redolent of both Rococo painting and Ross Bleckner.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 19, 2004.