New York

Duncan Hannah

Charles Cowles Gallery

Duncan Hannah’s paintings are proof that if representational art is not dead, it is, at least in this incarnation, so diffident as to invite healthy skepticism. Though these works are heavy on narrative and atmosphere, like the best sort of houseguest, each seems content to withdraw gracefully into the background. Despite their mild demeanor, however, these paintings are far from dull. In fact, they are even disturbing in a whispery sort of way. If in the end one isn’t quite convinced of their brilliance, at least they make a palpable impression.

As perhaps befits an artist who deals quite earnestly in anachronism, Hannah fashions himself as a romantic. The catalogue that accompanied his recent retrospective at Illinois State University features not one but seven photographs of the artist in each stage of artistic development: toddler, preteen, bell-bottomed hippie, leather-jacketed bohemian, friend of Andy Warhol and the Talking Heads, and denizen of SoHo, posed before a billboard for his own 1984 show. A full-page frontispiece features Hannah with Byronically-tousled hair, an open collar, and a noble chin, and one senses that his paintings strive to make the same sort of impression; each placid exterior aims gently and discreetly, but in deadly earnest, to impress us with haunted looks and poses.

And to some extent they do. Hannah has a sure eye for color, and he works with a limited, pastel-heavy palette. His paintings share Edward Hopper’s awkward figurations and architectural preoccupations, and occasionally they also partake of the dry, fussy brushwork associated with Andrew Wyeth. Hannah seems to succeed almost in spite of himself. His style is not so much an awkward realism as it is a realism of awkwardness—a realism that owes as much to the pre-Raphaelites and to Balthus as it does to the 20th-century masters of American Realism. These paintings evoke the gestures of lost time and lost youth and, in the end, each ostensible subject is subsumed into an atmospheric whole.

Moreover, like a true old-fashioned esthete, Hannah appreciates the beauty and subtlety of architecture, that most gentlemanly of the arts, and, in sharing that awareness, he hints at something else. All of his houses seem haunted—even, amusingly, one that suggests Eero Saarinen’s architectural style in the Scandanavian street scene entitled Good Girl, Bad Girl, 1990. The quality of light, the stillness of places—it’s all very wistful and genteel. But there’s also a taste of repressed hysteria here, and that keeps the muted colors and balanced compositions interesting. (Is there a Mrs. Rochester in the house?) In the end, the innuendo in these paintings is their most likable aspect, and it is all the more appealing for the soft-spoken clumsiness of the artist’s phrasing; you feel like you know more about him than he does. You don’t, of course; but, even in thinking you do, you have been seduced.

Justin Spring