PRINT January 2003

Dennis Cooper

ANDREW HAHN PAINTS UNSOLVABLE MYSTERIES. He creates them with the same meticulous objectivity that detectives employ to solve a crime. In Hahn’s case, the evidence isn’t a dead body or discarded bullet casings but rather the images popular culture generates to represent the horrific. His astonishingly skillful paintings of visual tropes used by television and movies to elicit the frisson of actual crime scenes are strange double takes on the visceral and discomfiting. They suggest frightening occurrences that have been romanticized in the name of entertainment and then revised back into images of pure uncertainty. Hahn calls them paranoid paintings, meaning that their potency lies in their untrustworthiness. For while he goes to extraordinary lengths to mimic the video grabs from news shows and “reality”-based TV programs like Dateline NBC and The New Detectives that form his source material, his interest in evoking the psychological threat that his models were designed to sweeten and negate leaves the veracity of these canvases’ intense moodiness highly suspect and their success more than a little unnerving.

Hahn is best known in the SoCal art scene for his oil paintings based on found images (appropriated from TV advertisements) of eerily dark rural scenes, which have been seen in one solo show and a couple of group exhibitions at the Los Angeles gallery Roberts & Tilton. At once Richteresque in technique and Sunday painter–like in their underwhelming, no-nonsense look, his canvases’ inability to coexist with the savvier work of other local painters has caused something of a fuss, with critics and artists both praising and attacking them as creepy simpletons in elegant disguise. His latest series, titled “Stalker,” 2002, continues this unconventional study of the spooky cliché while cutting radically to the chase. These almost photorealist watercolor paintings are based on video stills and jpegs of murder victims and their blood-soaked surroundings. Hahn’s interest in investing real intrigue into quasi-mysterious sources remains in play, but in this newest work the question as to whether his subjects are actors or actual corpses is left unanswered. The instinct to recoil from these gory pictures is matched by an equally strong instinct to solve the mystery of their authenticity. The only clues lie in Hahn’s technique, which is so refined and painstakingly detailed that as one studies the paintings in hopes of unraveling the truth, their bodies, stains, and crimes seem to recede into irrelevance like the skin beneath a tattoo. This interplay between presence and absence ultimately leads one back to the corpses themselves, and to questions of who they are—or were—and what could have motivated Hahn to memorialize them.

Raised in west Texas and now an Angeleno, Hahn graduated from CalArts in 1996. After a long period of playing third fiddle to its more celebrated LA neighbors UCLA and Art Center College of Design, CalArts has lately given birth to a number of SoCal’s most exciting and buzzed-about young artists. Where UCLA is best known for its sculptors and Art Center for its painters, CalArts alumni are characterized not by a shared medium but, on the contrary, by their daredevil approach to a variety of media. Hahn, who enrolled as a video artist, spent his entire tenure as a student writing a novel, and only began to paint after graduation, nonetheless credits the school’s open, informative, anything-goes approach with inspiring what he calls his “reluctant” style of painting. An artist who cites influences as diverse as Paul Thek, Joe Brainard, Richard Estes, and Terrence Malick, Hahn sees himself as someone who only paints because no one else seems interested in doing his particular job. Ultimately, it’s this obsession with training paint to act out the strange mechanisms of his psyche, combined with only the merest hint of reverence toward the medium itself, that gives his art its uniquely unsettling and irresolvable force.

Artforum contributing editor Dennis Cooper is the author of six novels, including My Loose Thread (Canongate, 2002), and coeditor of the Kathy Acker anthology Essential Acker (Grove, 2002). A freelance curator, Cooper recently organized “The Funeral Home” at Marc Foxx, Los Angeles.