Chaos and Catharsis in the Paintings of Stephen Hannock
Striding through the studios where he works in North Adams, Massachusettes, Stephen Hannock’s talk ranges from his method of painting, the art world, mentors and friends, to serious life challenges. Beginning as a hockey star in high school and college, to being a successful artist living in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, Hannock’s paintings, drawings and even his stream of ideas seem to transfer and transform intense emotional energy into peaceful subject matter, e.g. light and a relationship to landscape. While there are many references in his paintings to nineteenth-century tonality, dark frames, and highly detailed painted environments, other elements explore the contemporary world through surface text, collage, and a startling point of view eschewing classical space. Despite nineteenth-century leanings, he characterizes his paintings by asserting that “text and collage are the anchors of what I do.”1
As a student at Bowdoin College, once intent on being a hockey player like his father, Hannock took advantage of a twelve-college exchange program in his sophomore year and landed at Smith College studying art instead. Leonard Baskin, the well-known printmaker with whom he studied woodcut, became his mentor. Eventually Hampshire College granted him a degree encompassing both Bowdoin and Smith credits. The youngest artist ever to be offered a show at Smith College Museum, he was friendly with museum cognoscenti Betty and Agnes Mongan. Betty, of the Smith College Museum, had been a curator of the print and drawing department at the National Gallery. Her sister Agnes, head of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, showed Hannock unframed Ingres drawings through HAM’s open printmaking archives that became influential to his work.
In the early 1980s, Hannock moved to New York, urged by friends and mentors to become familiar with the Manhattan art scene. The Metropolitan Museum of Art started acquiring his work six years later, including a small landscape with rocket, then a big Oxbow painting in 1998, and later a huge nine-foot Kaaterskill Falls piece. They also collected the complete drawings from the Oxbow Series. He is the only artist to have one gallery devoted entirely to his work at the Metropolitan. When he first lived in New York, Irene Hunter of the Hunter Theatre and Jacob’s Pillow supported him by paying him $250 per month to encourage his work. He eventually paid her back in paintings, and her collection of Hannock’s work now rests at Southern Vermont College in Bennington. The Marlborough Galleries in New York, where he has been a regular artist since 2012, hung a new Stephen Hannock show last October, focusing on recent paintings.
While living and working in New York, Hannock came to believe “art is a people entity.” He sees a connection between being an athlete (he played ultimate frisbee for ten years after hockey) and an artist, reflecting on how being part of a team leads to success. His current “team” includes ten assistants, three full-time, who receive health insurance and a living wage.
One day in his studio, Hannock stumbled on a unique way of working when he suddenly recognized discarded envelopes used to soak up excess paint as palimpsests (from the Greek meaning “scraped” or “rubbed”).2 More interesting than the inert painting he was working on, he found the layers of paint, writing and stamps collectively created meaning, capturing something he recognized in himself. He subsequently changed his way of working to include collage, text and layers of paint, scraped and sanded.
Drawings from life, some of them huge (six feet across), help him work out composition and space in painting. He “expands, exaggerates, changes and re-invents the landscape.” Hannock’s largest works take years to complete. He collects photographs of people and newspaper clippings for collage, working on many paintings at once, large and small. The ground he works on is canvas stretched over panels, using fifty-percent modeling paste along with gesso to get rid of the tooth of the canvas, with layers of resin on top of the paint, which he then sands, adding more paint. He even uses a brayer to put on some layers, sanding at every level with power tools, writing directly on the canvas and gluing paper, collage and photographs with acrylic gel. He recently returned to experimenting with printmaking, working with Brandon Graving’s Gravity Press in the studio building in North Adams where he is located. Representative large woodcuts from the past were included in the Berkshire Art Museum’s show Those 70s, (summer 2015), where his work was impressive in its scale, richness of surface, variegated marks and graphic ease. Paintings themselves are spontaneous at times, a vast unearthing of unconscious and free-floating associations, so that the works become “vistas with text,” a phrase he used in a recent Marlborough show. Landscape seems to express or absorb his intense feelings about life, substituting land forms, light, weather and time of day for interactions with people. Magnificent, invented, at times unreal or unspoiled, one wonders what it means to be painting these landscapes at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. A yearning for solidity, for slow geologic time and solitude; the awareness of seasons and time of day—these all seem to point toward a security that is, at best, shifting and unreliable in this revved up world.
In his painting Rocket Cluster at Dawn (2000), Hannock pushes the parameters of his nighttime painted thoughts. Strongly related to James McNeil Whistler’s Incendiary Nocturnes, painted in the 1870s in London (where Whistler had expatriated), Hannock’s luminous night scenes are fantastic displays of energy. Rocket Cluster at Dawn shows a dock floating on black water, rockets reflected on its surface, swirls of reddish orange smoke evanescing into the sky in pointed streams of light. The sky, clear in the upper left of the painting, is filled with bright points of stars, stable within the chaos of the scene. The stars offer an alternate view of peaceful stasis; a different view of time amid extreme turmoil. Hannock’s handling of paint here is fluid and lush, unlike some of his severely sanded and worked-over surfaces or his serene twilight nocturnes that melt color into color like the artist George Inness’s softened landscapes.
The atmosphere surrounding the scene in these rocket paintings is often dusk or just-night, with a strange gradation from dirty orange warmth at the horizon to deep teals and blacks in the sky. The works encompass both order and explosive change, as if the world and reality could be revisioned by a startling event, transformed into an electrified version of itself. Rocket Cluster at Dawn embodies this violent change. But in Incendiary Nocturne: Launch at Dawn (2001) the rocket takes on a more peaceful quality. A single bright rocket trail heads into the lightening sky, while tiny fragments of brightness fall regularly back to earth. Earlier generations of artists loved to portray pyrotechnic scenes, in a fascination with fire, explosive celebration and carnival from the sixteenth century on. Claude Lorrain, Francesco Piranesi and even Edgar Degas painted such scenes.3 Hannock too revels in outrageous, fantastic displays as they explode through the sky. These paintings may mirror the public’s obsessive fascination with explosions after 9/11 (the artist was in New York and witnessed the first airplane crashing into the World Trade Center)—however, the paintings start in the early 1990s and continue into the present. They express and mitigate other tragedies as well, such as his young wife’s death in 2004. “Catharsis” seems an apt term for the work, referring to Greek tragedy’s purging of emotions too difficult to handle.
Hannock’s flooded river series, like the rockets, offer another “visual effect”—this one of supercharged rivers that, although spilling over their banks, present an Eden-like vision of tranquility, a kind of pre-civilized state of purity and natural order, prelude to distress and conflict. Using a wide range of techniques, certain paintings are highly detailed and realistic; others soft, scumbled and out of focus; still others nearly abstract, with a JMW Turner-like glow and softness. In Flooded River with Golden Light (1994), an almost tropical light pours over a landscape where dark chestnut-colored trees border or emerge from the flooded plain, once an orderly river. Beatific light bathes the edges of trees, turning them orange, and lightly tips the surface of the water, where wavelets create a repetitive pattern. Trees and bushes take on primordial shapes and character as they hover, shadowy but not menacing. Pattern and grace seem to light up and embrace the whole scene, like transcendental poetry. Cerulean blue floods both the sky and the water farthest from the horizon and the sun. The planet is slowly cooling, but in this vision it is not a harsh or a depressing idea.
Related to the flooded river paintings, but of huge scale and proportion and major importance to Hannock’s oeuvre, are the Oxbow paintings. Many of these are in major institutions and educational centers: including Harvard, Smith, Bowdoin, Williams, the Boston MFA, North Adams’s Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The inspiration for the oxbows lies with Thomas Cole, whose painting View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—the Oxbow (1836) lays out many of the repeated themes in Hannock’s paintings: storm, vastness, nature, rest after tumult. He acknowledges this debt in The Oxbow: After Church, After Cole, Flooded (1994), where a leaden river sits placidly among green hills, and with the exact same composition but different light in Evening Oxbow: Flooded (1996). In this particular painting, the water is a cool, pale cobalt blue, the rest of the summer landscape shades of opaque green and brown. This subject becomes something he returns to again and again, like Morandi’s bottles, O’Keefe’s folded hills or Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville—this is his own harmony in blues and greens. In real life, the landscape exists in the Pioneer Valley near Northampton, where the Connecticut River creates a backward oxbow loop. Called by some a “New Hudson River School artist,” akin to Frederick Church, Hannock acknowledges he feels closer to English Pre-Raphaelites; also Sanford Gifford, Rockwell Kent, and American tonalists like George Inness.
In some of these large paintings, cultivated fields turn into writing, diagonal rows of text that also resemble brush, growth, scruffy fields. The writing on the painting is puzzling at first. At a new science building on MCLA’s campus in North Adams, where an oxbow painting can be seen from afar, the writing is almost invisible. Getting to know Hannock’s work, I recognized the subtle texture and intimacy of the writing, which is done in long hand. In a vast panorama seen from above, Chelsea Winter with Elevated Park: New York High Line (Mass Moca #41) (2006), writing complements the visual choppiness of the city, adding scumbled urban texture in snow, the NYC High Line elevated train track a river of white dividing the painting, a kind of narration of the city. He calls the writing a “stream of consciousness,” and it encompasses his life, the people he knows, his adventures, the particular situation of the painting. The writing brings the painting down to earth in its humanness, its irregularity, its whispery innuendo; balancing the vast and cool scale and medium in which he works. The detachment of history painting, the varnished surfaces of traditional painting predominate—but the writing on the surface is his personal door into the painting, generously opened for the viewer. The writing beckons us in, as the paintings themselves beg for distance and huge spaces within which they may hang.
Looking back at landscape drawings Hannock produced while traveling in Italy in such works as View from Orvieto (1998), the curliqued texture of rows of crops also resembles handwriting. This gives an idea how the artist might go back and forth between texture and script. The fields, as they appear from an aerial view, may have inspired his inclusion of writing, his outdoor drawing marks becoming shorthand. The Orvieto drawing is done with ink and white chalk in a cursory, quick, sketchbook style, most of the marks devolving into a kind of cryptic postscript. The self-consciousness of the writing—consisting of notes on place, to self, on people and of landscape—seems like another nod to modernism.
A paradox prevails in Hannock’s work, where titles of the paintings suggest classical mythology and the sublime, while the aforementioned writing suggests human scale and feeling, producing a tragic/comic quality. Haunting images of mortality contrast with descriptions of encounters with people and places, photographic images of people and actors he has known. The paintings themselves have a theatrical quality, as if Hannock is scripting, staffing, setting up and writing the stories of his paintings, which remain ultimately perplexing and mysterious.
In fact, Hannock designed sets for the film What Dreams May Come, a wrenchingly beautiful and disturbing movie starring Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra, dealing with tragic death, recovery and the possibility of life after death. Within the film, paintings are used as obsessive psychological images that recur and interact with reality, romantic landscapes with blurred figures and flowers, and magnificent, unreal vistas of waterfalls and mountains. Dream, reality and vision blend in a fantasy of idealization and ultimately, reunion. Hannock won an Academy Award for special effects for his work on the film in 1999.
Another vein of Hannock’s work includes references to mythic catastrophe. After the Deluge, the Red Maple of Peace (2000–02) recalls the energy of creation and destruction; with strong diagonals that deliberately upset the stability of the composition and sweeping strokes of paint suggesting storm, wave, torrent and potential destruction. Lacking the harmony exhibited in many of his landscapes, this painting sweeps swaths of grey, dirtied blue, dark red, green and waves of pink and pale yellow into a frothy cauldron of chaos, while one red tree stands alone, surviving the storm. The Raft (1998) shows a stormy sea on which a tiny, graphically drawn boat approaches a vortex of immense scale and titanic intensity. The turbulence depicted suggests the onset of something truly terrible, fierce and overwhelming. The tiny drawn boat recalls Albrecht Durer’s Ship of Fools, a parable of humankind’s lack of wisdom within a more gothic landscape. Paintings like this demonstrate the unusual spatial point of view Hannock offers, where he lets the foreground in his work drop away, so the viewer is virtually forced to spatially exist in the painting. Titan’s Goblet at the Approach of the Third Millennium (1995) creates a storm of mythic proportions, a gigantic goblet spilling into a body of water with a faint vision of houses and roofs drawn in white against a grainy, sanded, distressed surface of the canvas. There is a force afoot in these paintings, a painter’s mind casting its net wide to draw in influence and mythic energy from the distant past as well as the present, willing to contemplate the unknown even as it impacts the personal world he knows. In an early mysterious and somewhat illustrative painting, Thai Landform with Dueling Dragons (1988), clouds, resembling animals, have this mythic narrative cast. Hannock’s paintings bend toward story and imagination even as they turn so precisely on the visual world and replicate forms and physical surfaces there.
Stephen Hannock’s paintings hover on the wild and the untamed side, yet he also presents images of peaceful oxbows of the surrounding land of Western Massachusettes where he lives. Compounding his finished images out of multiple sources, he integrates writing and collage into their surfaces. Threatening elements balance with radiant light and serene expanse. From Promethean anarchy to benign vision, his work glorifies the creative spark that enlightens dangerously, on the edge of chaos and order. Maybe life is a shipwreck, like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, yet the gateway of art still allows us to experience the divine—whatever that may be in the twenty-first century.
1. Interview with the artist, June 7, 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Hannock’s remarks are taken from this interview.
2. Jess Stein, ed., The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (NY: Random House, 1967), 1039.
3. Suzanne Boorsch, Fireworks!: Four Centuries of Pyrotechnics in Prints and Drawings (NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer 2000).