Critics’ Picks

Robert Hanson, Untitled (July 9, 2011), 2011, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 9".

Robert Hanson, Untitled (July 9, 2011), 2011, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 9".


Robert Hanson

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
January 7–April 29, 2012

The late Portland-based artist Robert Hanson is not especially well known beyond the Pacific Northwest; this is due in large part to his unwavering dedication to figure drawing. Hanson has never been concerned with the art world’s attraction to the new. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he was devoted to abstract painting, but in 1995 he retired his brushes for graphite, colored pencil, and chalk and began his modest practice of drawing seated female models in his studio, seldom spending more than an hour on a single work. His gentle and perceptive oeuvre has always elicited some essential aspect of his subject’s character, in a similar fashion to Alice Neel’s beloved works. And yet Hanson never said that his output belonged to the genre of portraiture, but rather that his pieces presented opportunities for formal experimentation––which just so happen to take the female figure as their point of departure.

Sadly, this deserved survey of Hanson’s most recent work at the Portland Art Museum also documents his final output; the artist passed away a few weeks prior to the show’s opening. But these dozens of drawings, which often seem like collections of individual marks rather than whole images, honor his memory and vision. In The Red Shirt (all works cited, 2011), a blond model dons a red and black flannel shirt and, almost protectively, laces her fingers across it. While her posture implies a strong emotional presence, Hanson zeroes in on the warm red of the blouse, allowing the remaining visual details to dissipate into faint sketching. Elsewhere, the artist’s abstract impulses help convey a sitter’s mood. In The Glance, the trajectory and force of a woman’s gaze is captured in a pair of ovoid shapes that telegraph swift motion, resembling a pair of fish swimming across her face. The tender Untitled, July 23, 2011 pairs the slumping, vulnerable stance of its model, whose bare knee peeks from under her skirt, with the somewhere-else preoccupation in her eyes. Taken together, though, the real portrait that emerges is of Hanson: a deeply sensitive artist who fused formalism and figuration in a distinctive, personal way.