Gathering Light: The Art of Stephen Hannock
Lo, the most excellent sun so calm and haughty,
The violet and purple morn with just-felt breezes,
The gentle soft-born measureless light,
The miracle spreading bathing all, the fulfill’d noon,
The coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
“Luminous” is a word often employed in describing Stephen Hannock’s landscape paintings, which appear to glow from within, as though the light were gathering in real time as the viewer contemplates the scene. Hannock has a way of seeing and painting that renders not so much a depiction of light as a palpable manifestation of atmosphere. Hannock’s paintings are both sensuous and intellectual. Below their lustrous surfaces, which the artist creates by polishing the dried paint, rich veins of art historical and personal references, associations, and ideas wait to be discovered, mined, and processed.
A key concept likely to be encountered in the construction of a Hannock painting is the Enlightenment era notion of the sublime, the twinned feelings of awe and terror we experience in the presence of great natural wonders—towering mountains, grand canyons, wide vistas, turbulent seas, raging storms. The sublime evokes in the beholder an intense emotional state beyond aesthetic enjoyment. The great painters of the Hudson River School captured in their paintings this heightened state of exultation in the presence of Nature’s grandeur. Hannock’s Oxbow paintings make direct reference to the Hudson River School, yet his distinctly modern technique and embedded content breathe new life into the landscape tradition.
Another important concept for Hannock is that of palimpsest, which dates back to ancient Egypt and Asia Minor. Papyrus was sometimes washed, and expensive parchment was often scraped, to remove earlier writing so the medium could be reused. Palimpsest develops when the residue of ink repeatedly washed or scraped off begins to build up, and the shadow of what was written before bleeds into the current document.
Hannock often uses envelopes, newspapers, and photographs as the substrate of his paintings. He also handwrites text across the surface of his paintings. Every time he paints a new version in a series, the autobiographical text gets more elaborate, allowing us to track the artist’s growing relationship to a region. As Jason Rosenfeld notes in his insightful commentary on Hannock’s recent exhibit at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, this constantly changing text forms “a living palimpsest of the artist’s intellectual and artistic process.”
A third concept Hannock explores is the resonance of history, whether personal biography, art historical antecedents, or historical incident. A student of art history, Hannock knows the many sources that flow into his work, and he celebrates them, does battle with them, and extends or subverts their meaning. The references in his paintings might be direct quotations of form or vantage point, written commentary from art history and criticism, or personal connections to his art historical mentors. Collaged elements and handwritten text can be found floating beneath, scratched into, or sitting atop the skin of his paintings.
Hannock’s signature paintings of oxbow views comprise a series rich with associations. Observed from a distance, his glowing vistas might be mistaken for paintings by Cole or Church. But they are not mere recapitulations of the works of these masters. A close reading of their surfaces reveals inlaid images and texts linking the paintings to the artistic, social, and geographic history of the Oxbow in Northampton, Massachusetts, as well as to Hannock’s personal and professional life in New England.
Hannock’s Northern City Renaissance series depicts the twin cities Newcastle and Gateshead on either side of the River Tyne in England’s industrial northeast. Giant shipyards and numerous coal mines were the sources of great prosperity throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, which in turn led to grand buildings and monuments. Hannock combines the ghosts of this vigorous industrial past with the current urban revival to offer the viewer a portrait of the region infused with history and promise.
Each painting in the series is a composite aerial view of the two cities in early dawn or at twilight. Incandescent flares scattered throughout the canvas represent coal mines, and close viewing reveals stories of life and death in the mines. We learn that many coal miners, dating back to the Victorian era, were serious amateur painters; Hannock has collaged tiny reproductions of their paintings into his Newcastle works.
Decoding meaning is one of the great pleasures of viewing art by Stephen Hannock. Each work is exquisitely rendered, suffused with light, palpably beautiful. Each is a thorny, funny, erudite, self-referential riff on living as a contemporary artist.
— Mara Williams, Chief Curator
All works in this exhibit are on loan courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art; Marlborough Gallery, New York City; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe; Williams College Museum of Art; and private collectors.
We extend sincere thanks to Jason Rosenfeld, PhD, distinguished chair and professor of art history at Marymount Manhattan College, who shared his insight into Stephen Hannock’s creative process with us. Rosenfeld’s contribution of the process room, originally produced for Marlborough Gallery, greatly enriches our exhibit, and for that we are grateful. David Lachman, Signe Kutzer, Michael Chapman, Briana Halpin, Laura J. Latman, Cameron Yahr, and Abigail von Schlegell gave generously of their time, talent, and expertise in administering this project. We thank them all.
Despite preparing for major exhibitions in New York City and London and juggling numerous commissions and other obligations, Stephen Hannock agreed to collaborate with us on Gathering Light—a testament to his friendship with BMAC trustee Gordon Faison and his love for Gordon’s late father, Williams College art historian S. Lane Faison Jr., to whom we are honored to dedicate this exhibit.