New York

Duncan Hannah

Using old photos, magazine illustrations, and details from other paintings (including his own), Duncan Hannah puts a personal spin on stock scenarios of love, betrayal, and isolation in his paintings—mixing and matching locations, adding and subtracting characters, altering compositions and moods. In these wistful, Edward Hopper–esque scenes, figures dressed in the styles of the 1940s float through seemingly haunted spaces as if lost in reverie.

Though the use of appropriated images from magazines, advertising, and the history of art characterizes the work of a number of artists who came to the fore in the’80s, Hannah’s oscillates between an exploration of image-making in the age of photo-dominated mass media and the sensual immediacy of older representational modes. New Boy, 1995, for example, combines the photograph’s claim to documentary veracity with the emotional subtlety conveyed by the artist’s hand. Here a boy approaches a building where strangers loiter; with typical male diffidence he stares off to one side, postponing the moment of contact. The awkward torque of his body runs counter to the building’s cockeyed columns, heightening the sense of hesitation already evident in this adolescent figure. One can’t help but wonder what the source for this painting was, and if it was a photo how much Hannah manipulated it. The painting raises the question of which is more “authentic,” a photo (often taken to be a true representation of external reality but one that can be heavily manipulated, particularly in the cybernetic era) or the intuitions the painter develops after a longterm engagement with his subject.

First Love, 1994, features a girl and boy walking side-by-side away from a country house. The same pair appeared in an older work, Travel, 1987, but here, pushed to the margins of a canvas dominated by a rustic house and empty boats floating on an expanse of still water, they seem more vulnerable. Their placement at the edge of the canvas suggests the possibility of expulsion from this arcadia, and, as with much of Hannah’s work, one senses that beneath the surface sentimentality lies a range of less palatable emotions—from world-weariness to a millennial anxiety. In Shirts and Skins, 1995, nine boys freeze in a random tableau suggesting an existential game of “capture the flag”; despite the appearance of group activity, each kid seems isolated within his own private shell.

Hannah’s paintings achieve a peculiar blend of nostalgia and detachment that has as much to do with the images they appropriate as with their formal qualities. From several paces back these works have the inner glow of old masters but up close they’re as matter-of-fact as Warhol paint-by-numbers.

Tom Moody