Craig Hanna draws and paints as if the photograph’s overburdening dominance of our visual data field didn’t matter, or didn’t exist. He has no truck with the de-skilled aesthetics of, say, Elizabeth Peyton or Karen Kilimnick, nor the banal, flattened, deadpan conventions of photo-based figurative painters like Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig or Luc Tuymans. In less astute hands, the resulting work would be yet more empty, tired, retrograde classicism, a hodgepodge of ‘good’ draftsmanship, mannered techniques and familiar quotations drawn from a potted history of figurative representation. Yet, while antecedents are visible in Hanna’s pictures, in both their contents and surfaces — Courbet, Whistler, Sargent, Schiele, Klimt, Bacon and Freud come to mind — Hanna pushes past these to create vital works that are brashly contemporary and unmistakably his own. He does so by eschewing, even sabotaging, the strategies of most contemporary figurative painting: he chooses his subjects from ‘life’ instead of photographs; he roots his formal concerns — line, color, brushstroke, scale — in painterly traditions; and, borrowing a forgotten form of outsider ‘folk’ art — verre églomisé in French, Hinterglasmalerei in German, “reverse-painting” in English — he inverts the usual process of painting by doing it backwards, on plexiglass. Details first: finishing colors, shadows on skin, the flecks of light in the eyes. Then the broader background forms. This turning-inside-out reintroduces chance and risk to the painting. The final, visible surfaces are planned, not blindly occurring, but nevertheless disruptive and surprising. At the same time, the outsider technique pits the painting in direct confrontation with the photograph: the image, sealed and smoothed—as smooth and sleek as a photograph— is doubly captured, under glass and in the roiling, seething fury of brushed paint. Painterly, yes, but, transgressing into the indexical properties of the photographic image, and as luminous as a Jeff Wall light box. Hanna manages something quite extraordinary here: he reaffirms the ephemeral, the fugitive and the contingent qualities of figurative painting by de-familiarizing and destabilizing it, thus reasserting, once more, its currency at the very core of contemporary art.


art critic