San Francisco

Roger Hankins

Fuller Gross Gallery

Roger Hankins has hit upon a painterly conceptualism that, far from being remorseful or snide about its parameters, pounces with glee at the sight of them. In 1984, while visiting New York from California, Hankins wandered into a discount art store and, fascinated by a stock display of cheap, handpainted still-life pictures, managed to acquire a set of them at bulk rate. Since then, he has continued to stockpile examples of the same, more-or-less-anonymous items, using them as the material grounds for his own paintings. Seventy years earlier, in the dim light of a train compartment en route from Paris to Rouen, Marcel Duchamp had added two tiny marks of red and green gouache to a bleak commercial print of a winter landscape and inscribed the title Pharmacie near the bottom. Hankins may have taken a cue from Duchamp’s gesture, but the operations he performs on his found originals are anything but a show of Duchampian visual indifference. He sees the oddball object with a painter’s eye. The pictures he retouches are assembly-line products, many of them reduplicative (that is, the same image limned the same way twice). Carted by the truckload to motel showrooms and frame stores and promoted under the rubric “original oil paintings,” they’re done in an antiquated quick-stroke, by-the-numbers technique that by the’40s had devolved into a staple of popular illustration and of “famous artist”-type correspondence schools. They have been made to satisfy the ground rules for a standardized fine-art depiction without any recourse to looking at the things they represent: there are grapes that resemble fuzzy unripe olives, apples pale as turnips, happy-face cherries with preposterously elongated stems, as well as antiquarian-cum-artsy setups featuring violins, books in leather bindings, and an occasional quill.

Hankins goes after these genres with an assortment of generic Modernist moves. The original arrangements—or fair-sized portions of them—still show. Imbedded within, or slicing through, their formulaic tabletop schemes are geometrical abstract shapes and/or sketchy brush or palette-knife daubings that look as pictorially at home as anything on the surface. In Zero Tolerance, 1988, a long-necked, viridian wine bottle pokes up from the folds of a white cloth alongside a pile of different colored rectangular patches that holds a peonylike splurge of scumbled pink and white in its midst. Rather than the old idea of nonart jolting a fine-art context, the stylistic intervention makes for a peculiarly free-floating symbiosis. The viewer’s double-take hinges on a seamless coherence of near opposites.

Hankins communicates with the given object, transliterating its surface to pronounce such secrets as it would not have been expected to contain. His procedure sometimes attenuates by its own mildness, its susceptibility and resolute friendliness toward the original image. In terms of visual recognition, the ultimate impact of the paintings is not theoretical, but sensually ecstatic and poignant. As signs go, their adventitious geometries and loose, expressionist glyphs look just as fleeting and artificial as the retarded apples of the workaday formula painters. Nevertheless, the idea is still to make a painting. It’s the knowing, sanguine complication that rings true, both visually and mentally. Hankin’s rigor consists in keeping his touches sociable, nimble, and light.

Bill Berkson