by Nicole Miller
Adrift in the 21st Century
INVISIBLE-EXPORTS | OCTOBER 27 – DECEMBER 10, 2017
What are the politics of boredom? This was Malcolm McLaren’s question, unfurled in 1974 on a banner over a stage where the New York Dolls were playing. At the time, painter Duncan Hannah was a student at Parsons School of Design. He spent nights at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, wearing leather and velvet or a T-shirt stamped with the Union Jack. Later, by the time the punk revolution had flamed out and the promise of NO FUTURE had sunk into the past, Hannah had adopted a bow tie and tweed like one of Evelyn Waugh’s aesthetes. (A friend of mine, acquainted with Hannah during this period, tries to place him now as his memory fails: “Is he a dandy?”)
What are the politics of nostalgia?
The question occurred to me at the opening of Hannah’s new exhibition of paintings at Invisible-Exports, Adrift in the 21st Century. For nearly forty years, Hannah has worked in the figurative, narrative tradition of Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper. Hannah’s work was out of time even in 1980 when he made his debut at Colab’s Times Square Show—just as hip hop arrived from the South Bronx and graffiti leaped from the streets to the gallery and neo-Expressionism was taking off. Hannah’s figures seem fixed on the landscape of some period drama: Berlin, 1930, or the post-war lull when the ’60s were still the ’50s—before Britain’s Profumo Affair, before Kennedy was shot, before youth culture, hippies, or Pop.
His muted color palette is familiar from 1950s color photography—like the hidden voluptuousness of Todd Haynes 2015 film, Carol, for example, by way of New York photographer Saul Leiter. There’s an Et in Arcadia ego longing here on the Brighton boardwalk or the River Cam, where two youths steer their punts. “I suppose it’s kind of escapism for me,” Hannah told The New York Times in 2016. “Basically I’m just here working, but through my work I can be all over the world with all kinds of people, many of whom are dead. It’s a fantasy, I suppose. I’ve always been that way. I was like that as a kid watching black-and-white movies. I would just enter them.” In his home on the Upper West Side, he’s filled his guest room with portraits of sailors, paintings of ships, and boys’ adventure books. “If you fall asleep in this room,” he told Remodelista in 2012, “you’ll have dreams of your childhood.”
The back room of the Eldridge Street gallery is hung with Hannah’s paintings of classic Penguin paperback covers: Nancy Mitford, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.”
What does it mean to cling to a teddy bear, as Sebastian Flyte does, while the structures of church and state collapse? Whose narrative point of view are we in? Is he Waugh’s painter, Charles Ryder, longing for the manor in the trenches of war, or is he Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley—an outsider whose craving for a closed world leads him to commit an act of violence?
Hannah’s scenes have an ominous poise: an Italian roadster seen from the air. An Alpine climber alone on a slope. A woman standing naked in a room. Does the observer violate her? He’s too neat for that. He has a taste for buttoned-up restraint—the formality, the fastidiousness of the voyeur. (I can't help but think of Hannah's contemporary Terence Sellers, downtown dominatrix and author of The Correct Sadist.)
Hannah’s paintings bear the mark of the camera, a machine of modern mobility put to use here to examine the past. And not just any past, but pageboys, saddle shoes, youthful gymnasts—a past not punctured by history. Here, it's speared on the head of a pin.
“It’s a lovely idea,” Sebastian tells Charles in the novel, explaining why he believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church—the Immaculate Conception, for example. “You can’t believe things because they’re lovely ideas,” his friend replies. “Well, I do,” Sebastian says.
Does the pursuit of beauty gain its urgency from the promise of gore?
A man wrote to me once from an Oxford pub, “How did you ever manage to leave this place?” He was re-reading Brideshead, he told me. I could picture him there, seeking the minor consolations of a public house whose ales and their cure are mainly nostalgic.
I folded his letter and returned it to the envelope, bearing the stamp of that town where the damp pavement stones narrow themselves down to nothing in the alleys, where I’d stayed for a season, reading Lucretius, mailing home letters that detailed, mainly, the plot of Paradise Lost, or summoned to no one’s satisfaction—least of all mine—the pilgrim’s way through the circles of grief.
It was easy. The way you leave a hotel room with all the lights blazing. The way you step into the street, forgetting the curb. Or how, the disaster complete—a helicopter dropped in a bathtub, for example—you abandon your former, obsolete body for something less ornamental.
Nicole Miller is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.