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.”

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

9.18.17 — A Cult of One

Alan Vega was always a cult figure. He was the front man for Suicide as early as 1970, shrieking and wailing with only Martin Rev behind him on keyboards or a drum kit, but few had yet heard of what they called punk music. They issued their first album in 1977, when CBGB’s was in its heyday, but he was more likely to perform at Max’s Kansas City or in a gallery.

Alan Vega's Stars (Invisible-Exports, 2016)He studied art, joined museum protests, and exhibited with one of Soho’s earliest and most influential dealers, O. K. Harris, but then he gave up his art for years. He found champions as powerful as Jeffrey Deitch, but at his death in 2016 he was not on the upscale dealer’s roster. As his wife put it, “He was never really part of the ‘art world.’ ”

Vega sought cult status not just in his music, but also in his art—and I have wrapped this in with a report on another who toyed with madness, Carol Rama, as longer review and my latest upload. Everything looks like a religious relic, but from a cult of one. A shadowy canvas could pass for a Byzantine icon, as seen just this summer at Invisible-Exports through July 29 (although, as you will see in a moment, you get a second chance to catch up with him). Scrap wood takes the shape of crosses. One assemblage incorporates Christmas lights. Titles speak of Prayer, Prophecy, Vision, and Screaming Jesus.

Vega had only recently returned to art, for portraits of what he called “old guys.” Are they saints or sinners? The gallery has a strong focus on conceptual art, gender, and the body. And it is hard not to encounter a room of men from the waist up and not think of all three. Many reduce to little more than empty clothing. They could be torn and stained fabric in its incarnations from Robert Rauschenberg and Magdalena Abakanowicz to Iva Gueorguieva and others today.

One can divide the work into portraits and light sculpture, but they come together as variations on a single installation. Additional lights train directly on the paintings. Seven portraits hung side by side, touching, could mark a shrine. Two works on paper from 1965 have the more crowded look of outsider art, but the same air of mystery. It is hard to know how is worshipping, who is worshipped, and why. It is hard, too, to know who is among the living.

Vega has entered self-abnegation territory, but then he did sing for Suicide. Art knows that territory well from bad boys like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, who loved the band. The lack of obvious humor takes Vega closer still to Andres Serrano and the latter’s “Piss Christ,” and the Jewish kid from Brooklyn did identify himself as Catholic. The installations, though, also suggest stage lighting. Does that make Vega’s subject only and always himself? At least he has the kindness to keep the viewer out of the spotlight.

Deitch may be late to the party, but he has helped a Lower East Side gallery get some serious press. A few weeks later, he also supplies some useful context. What counts as context for the spare insistence of punk rock? If you are thinking “more of the same,” Deitch Projects has still more lights and crosses, through September 30. A row on the mezzanine feels like a repeated pounding. So do images of a boxer.

The pounding might have crushed the faces in drawings from 2015 as well. It also translates into photographs and film. They show Vega as an art student and a rocker. They show him, too, reflecting on his critics, his cult, and his music. There as in life, he could claim a happy ending rather than a suicide. He died in his sleep at age seventy-eight.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.