Den of Monsters

Philip Hinge in conversation with Hannah Barrett:

Hannah Barrett’s show, Accessories, at Yours, Mine and Ours gallery, sends the viewer into a world of monsters. However, these were not the monsters that frequent art history; the anxiety-ridden cyclops of Guston or the repressed and violated  characters of Bacon.  Barret’s monsters are of a different breed altogether. They stare firmly out of their pink and green environments to meet the viewer’s gaze, with a self-assured or even friendly disposition. Each central, non-gender conforming, figure is adorned with signifiers of class and leisure (martini glasses, fancy coats, etc). Any latent anxiety in these figures is conveyed not in their form, but in their given circumstance. Each figure is caught midway between leaving for what looks to be a night on the town or hunkering down in their respective abodes. There’s an urgency to these paintings, not only in their handling, which is both succinct and descriptive, but in their agency. Each character is dressed to the nines with an impeccably eccentric fashion-sense which helps flesh out the characters of each painting.The speed in their physical rendering translates into their impatience for us to stop staring at them so they can finish getting ready and head out the door.

Let’s start with the title of the show; Accessories.

These are kind of presentation style portraits, so they have a lot of little things in them. I was also thinking of, accessories, in a painting sense. These all start out as tonal painting, and then get painted wet in wet. Leaving them monochromatic seems incomplete, so each is accessorized by color.

I get a sense of the anxiety from some of these; walking in on or being walked in on in these tight rooms.

The figures are completely imaginary, from my imagined monster vocabulary. But I still want them to have relatable expressions and emotions. I think the anxiety, that social anxiety, is there. And it’s interesting that you were looking at it as a kind of claustrophobia created by the space, but I guess in my own mind I was thinking the space looked cozy. They’re in their little dens and going to be ripped apart from those and go out into society.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

Unlike your older work, we can’t really relate to these characters in gender binaries, they just are what they are.

I’ve been pushing that for a long time. I would mix everything together, which comes from my background with collage, and then I decided I didn’t need to do it anymore. I could come up with my own creatures, that would be whatever was projected on them.  I wasn’t sure how they would come across. It’s tricky; if it’s too vague, or if they’re too open ended, then they become not interesting to look at. I have to balance making something that is specific enough and has character and expression but at the same time is open to total interpretation. That’s where I rely on the outfits and surrounding materials.  My main interest is in using my imagination, and if there’s any sort of premise or assumption, it’s that the viewer will also be someone who wants to imagine things.

Thinking about some of your older work, specifically, Family Jewels, there’s this aristocratic vibe which is still be present. It seems you’re using those visuals to question class or wealth and its connection to painting.

I love old paintings. I went to a show in the Frick basement of Memling, and it was unforgettable to me. I made those paintings directly as a response to that. It’s not possible to just love them, because you see all the other social content around them, especially being a middle-aged dyke. Those presentation pictures are beautiful but are only for a very specific occasion; most of them are for power or wedding transactions. There’s something, as a living person, that’s not comfortable taking all of that in.  On a decorative level they’re beautiful, but you can’t ignore what’s happening.

It’s nice to hear you talk about the critique and mistrust you have of those old works.

It would be such a loss to me as a painter to not have those works because I’m not part of those belief systems anymore. And to put that in even stronger words, they stand for things that were destructive. But they also document those things in a way. I think the conversations happening now in terms of museums and collections affect how people are working in their studios. It’s definitely how I work .

It seems like you’ve been loosening up and allowing yourself more space for invention; referencing visual aspects of that culture without being tied to its traditions. 

I hope so, they’re kind of eclectic in their history while they allude to things that are going on now and things in our past. I started out as a collage painter. I would make collages and then I would do detailed renderings of those collages, I also learned to paint through indirect painting, drawing and underpainting and glazing. I didn’t learn direct painting, I taught myself that much later. And the fluidity has sort of come from spending the past ten years doing what most people do to begin with.

Did you have a kind of painter’s guilt about abandoning the processes of indirect paining?

Actually, after I did that series the Family Jewels, that was so labor intensive and insane that when the show came down and I started to work again, I physically could not work that way. I spent three months doing drawings on that yellow drafting paper, and at the end of the three months I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a finished drawing, I had all of these attempts. I thought, I can’t go on this way. I was teaching painting at that time. I would give students assignments, and they would have something by next week. I thought, ok, I’m going to do what they do. I’m going to sit down, I’m going to squeeze a tube and pick up a brush and paint it. I found, “wow, I can work that way. I can do a whole bunch of paintings, crazy!” I started to do things that were quicker and more spontaneous but still related to collages that I made. Then a little bit later, I’d say in the past three years, I’ve kept a sketch book. Imagine, I was probably like fifty when I started really keeping a sketchbook, like really diligently keeping a sketch book.

The importance of the decorative and decoration to you comes through in this work.

I love patterns, and these start as purely tonal paintings, and I could leave them that way, but it’s not enough. I like those details, they seem too stark without that. That’s my sensibility.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

In some of your older work, the background was just the sky, or the grass, and almost reads as just a void engulfing the central figure.

Having the figure as my subject matter for such a long time, I’ve faced this issue of, “if I want to have the figure be the focus, the background has to be lesser or be a supporting role”. But you still have to get the canvas to work all together. I’ve enjoyed that puzzle of getting it all to work. These interiors seem like a good way of extending the figure. I got the idea from doing a series of little rooms for a project I was doing with Oliver Wasow, where he photographed me and Laurel, and he put us in the little rooms that I painted. That got me starting to do interiors again. Also, Francis Bacon has a really good strategy for creating space. If you look at his paintings without that schematic, they would completely fall apart. They would just be kind of flat on the plane. He was one of my painting gods for a long time. But his work is so tortured and angsty. This sort of gay male way of dealing with the time he was in. For a long time those images dominated my imagination. It’s almost laughable how far away these images are away from those.

In a weird way your work now is like a “well-adjusted” Francis Bacon.

As if Gloria Vanderbilt went in and decorated a Francis Bacon.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

I was also thinking a lot of Bonnard with these, the way the characters sink into their space. With you it seems like what you said about them being “cozy”, sort of sums it your point of view.

 I don’t want to do something saccharine, I love Dubuffet, and Raoul Dufy. They’re people who care about form and color. Even in Dufy, as frivolous as some of those are (like yachting pictures), you still feel a little cold war or post war in that. Maybe in the way that it’s almost contrived, how forcibly cheerful everything is.

Your images remain very accessible because they’re so much about the hand that created them.

Yea, there’s always going to be a lot of hand, and jewelry.

Hannah Barrett’s, “Accessories” at Yours Mine and Ours Gallery, is up through July 27th. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 12-6PM.  Exhibition A has a limited print of, “Stage Fright”, and is available through their website. Barrett will have a solo show at Columbus Property Management (NY, NY) in Fall 2018, and be in a two person show with Marissa Bluestone at La Mama (NY, NY) in Spring, 2019. Barrett recently did the illustrations for“Nuts in Nutland”, a children’s book by Mary Miriam,  is available through Headmistress Press.

For more information on Hannah please visit her website or instagram

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