12.4.17 — Tell Her No

Who will inherit England—and could it be a middle-aged American man? If the second question sounds laughable, the first was serious enough that a great critic, Lionel Trilling, took it for the subject of a great novel, E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

As it happens, Duncan Hannah counts Forster as a touchstone. And his paintings might well belong to Forster’s England, to everywhere, and to nowhere, with an assist from the movies. Could it be enough to recover the good old days of painting? Maybe not, but it could expose their dark undercurrents. Hannah has been aiming for both for nearly forty years.

If anything, he is growing closer over time to England, if not quite to Forster’s 1910. He calls his recent work “Adrift in the 21st Century,” at Invisible-Exports through December 10, but one might never know that it had set sail. Trompe l’oeil Penguin classics, though not Howard’s End, look thoroughly worn in a style that I cannot swear ever made it to the United States. A tea shop has shut its doors, but its successor remains unclear. People loll about by sporty old cars, bike past thoroughly quaint post boxes, or punt on a lake in a suitably picturesque park. Even there, the man has not shed his tie or his companion her heels.

Their morals, too, belong to a past time—before the sexual revolution, second- or third-wave feminism, or the audacity of harassment in Donald J. Trump’s America. A man and woman meet furtively at a corner. A still younger man touching an erect woman wearing only a G-string could be groping her, posing her, or confirming her suitability for art. Fashions range from the caps and furs of the age of flappers to the preposterously high hairdos of mods and rockers. One of the latter takes little pleasure in the album covers beside her on the floor. The only legible one is of the Zombies, like a stand-in for Hannah’s entire cast.

His very format, easel paintings, seems only right for an amateur painter from a long-gone past. Hannah speaks of his admiration for Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, and the gallery compares him to Fairfield Porter. Yet their sharp lighting and deep colors have given way to a soft but uneasy glow—and their particulars of cities, seas, and suburban landscapes to a restive nowhere a continent away. The sexual tensions may recall Balthus, but without his columnar forms or iconicity. The figures draw just as much on old commercial illustrations as on fine art, and they seem all the more remote and familiar because of it. Are they, though, strange enough?

One can search for clues in his work from the late 1970s and 1980s, at Half through December 9. Here nowhere lies more clearly in the movies, but also closer to home. A woman at a window raises her top to expose her breasts, perhaps even to you. A self-portrait looks much like James Dean on a facing wall. A text painting, interrupted by a revolver, has a cryptic narrative suggestive of film noir, but the gun need never go off. Life is dangerous enough as it is.

Hannah feels adrift even then. He assembles receipts and documents from a visit to Paris. The hastier brushwork fits with portraiture from the time, like that of Alice Neel, but with muter colors and an absence of bravura. It, too, refuses a place in the present. Can he ever quite recapture or unsettle painting, despite the stereotypes and soft focus? For now, I shall say yes—even if the Zombies have already answered with “Tell Her No.”

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