Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
“Greg Hannan: Commuter”
At Numark Gallery to Feb. 26
It helps to know that when D.C. artist Greg Hannan talks about the “commuter,” the central archetype of his current solo show, he’s talking about reincarnation. And when he talks about reincarnation, he isn’t referring to Peter Proud shenanigans or compensatory bids for past-life greatness by this-life losers (a candle-shop clerk’s claims of prominence in the court of Queen Elizabeth, for example). Hannan’s notions of rebirth encompass both Tibetan Buddhist monks’ periodic searches for the newest lama and the surfacing of buried traits passed down across generations via a still hazily understood mixture of genetics and behavior—the inescapable recapitulation of one’s forebears.
Above all, to Hannan, reincarnation isn’t a way to win. It’s decidedly nontranscendent; it doesn’t offer a way out. By his reckoning, you’re more likely to be bound by the past than liberated from it, more likely to be encumbered by the sins of the father than cast upward on a path to enlightenment.
Hannan is open to spirituality but resistant to dogma. He thinks of “God” as a “semantic term” but once criticized a priest who traced the halo of ecclesiastical art to the Roman laurel wreath rather than see in it a manifestation of the saintly aura. He’s someone many people might have trouble taking seriously—but that’s the only way to take him. He’s neither flaky nor rigid, neither dreamy nor censorious. He’s not pretentious, because pretentiousness requires failure; it may be hard to pin down what he’s got a hold on, but his reach doesn’t exceed his grasp.
Not that Hannan doesn’t take chances. Though he admits that the tag isn’t quite right, he has called himself an “illustrator.” In Sarah Runcie’s recent documentary Intersections: The Art of Greg Hannan, he emphasizes the importance of narrative to his work, saying, “The story is everything.” Three years ago at Numark, in Hannan’s last solo show in D.C., every piece revolved around one of several specific stories—of early death, of poisoned love, of the demise of the Canadian fishing industry. (Hannan “writes” what he knows, and he spends his summers on an island in the Bay of Fundy.)
This time out, the artist tells only one story. It involves two men—one long-suffering, one murderous—whom Hannan spoke to within the span of a couple of months, but the piece it is attached to, Between Two Men, is something of a holdover from his earlier work. Hannan describes his ongoing mode as “reactive” and his current method as a form of “inquiry.” He says that “the reasons for the work range between rage and prayer.” He is still prompted by situations that have involved him as either participant or observer, “things that range on a dark scale—child abuse, homicide, and so forth,” but he rarely spins yarns anymore. Instead, he embarks on quests into the nature of identity and behavior that become embodied in the work. He never speaks the name of the problem of evil, but it’s written in his art.
Hannan has built his reputation on his eye for the found object, his taste for the naturally distressed. The Chinese abacus form of Between Two Men, rendered with a rack of weathered balls retrieved from the Potomac, was already familiar from earlier work, where it functioned as a “parody of one’s attempts to calculate what will happen in life.” In one 1994 piece, it appeared next to a map to a canoe livery made by a friend of Hannan’s who was found beaten to death in his shack.
In his four new Progeny pieces, the meaning of the abacus is generalized, its purpose being “more conceptual.” Hannan says he’s “beginning to use the abacus now as a description of behavior—the atmosphere, the background [of the tableaux] being genetic traits.” He adapts traditional Judeo-Christian color iconography to the abacuses’ design. “Green has always been the article of faith,” Hannan says. “It was basically the grass, the ground you stood on, what you knew. Blue was always the astral color. It was what you believed. The violet of the evening was what you didn’t know, so it became the ethereal. Red has always been blood, action. White is memory. Yellow has been the color of sun and yet the color of bile, of sickness….” He sees the four works as a family group and describes the traits encapsulated in the two “parental” pieces: “The red abacus would be someone who’s really fighting with depression their whole life, and how they responded to it….The blue-green one is someone who’s really always assuaging, who’s an optimist.” Naturally, both types of people are ultimately defeated—as, Hannan says, we all are. The difference lies in whether we see it coming and how we face its prospect.
For the centerpieces of the show, each labeled Commuter Study #2, Hannan makes a hard turn into woodcarving, which he took up only in 1995. Three high-pedestaled figures (roughly the size of lawn gnomes; a plastic-shrouded figure in a neighbor’s yard inspired another piece in the show) march up the center of the gallery: a headless melon thief adapted from a Noh drama, Pierrot, and a 20th-century Everyman in hat and overcoat. The last two are weighed down with bulging sacks, the thief with the large fruit that stands in for his head. “I’m not a perpetrator of mythology,” Hannan protests, claiming he’ll puke if he sees another Leda and the Swan; these archetypes simply ring true to him. What I can’t quite get over is that they ring true to me, too—even Pierrot. Hannan likes the idea of these “commuters” representing the persistence of human “traits…moving through time,” inexorably making their rounds. The figures will never unshoulder the burden of what history, personal and cultural as well as biological, has made them. As a familiar bit of pop-culture Dada has it, wherever you go, there you are. Sometimes reincarnation is a thing you just can’t shake.
I’ve grown less attuned to the spiritual lately. Both the Bresson retrospective of last year and the Rothko retrospective of the year before—though their subjects were the two great artistic heroes of my early 20s—were occasions for connoisseurship rather than awe. So it was with some surprise that I found Hannan’s small show reawakening impulses I had preferred to let lie. I still don’t understand how his formal language works; but, even without the benefit of his annotation, his art quietly communicates things beyond it. Why the products of his reactive, idiosyncratic inquiry, personal in the extreme, don’t seem hermetic or contrived, I don’t know. These days, the staunchest advocates of the supremacy of the next world deign to address this one only to lord their doctrine over it; and the most joyous welcomers of spiritual tidings value them chiefly as a balm to poor lifestyle choices. Which makes it unusual to encounter someone who denies both moralistic proscription and feel-good palliation while maintaining a firm grip on his “empirical” experience of things nobody can see. Hannan’s isn’t a very up-to-date view, but then, the things that bother him won’t expire with the season.
What the artist offers—the “aura” of his work, if you will, and I understand if you won’t—doesn’t feel like something for everybody. It requires a specific susceptibility, even if only a latent one. Hannan has trusted himself to his experience; the right kind of viewer could benefit from doubling that trust. CP