Robert Hanson at the Portland Art Museum: Representing the flux

Robert Hanson’s “Untitled May 24-2011.” Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Elizabeth Leach Gallery

On Saturday, after a misdirection and a false start, I found myself on the 4th floor of the Portland Art Museum, in the back of the Northwest art galleries, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art, where the late Robert Hanson’s recent drawings are hanging. The exhibition was planned by the museum’s curator of Northwest art, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, well before he died, part of the museum’s Apex series of exhibitions of both “emerging and established artists living in the Northwest.”

Hanson’s death in December of throat cancer makes it a memorial exhibition, unfortunately. Hanson was 75 when he died, but always seemed positively youthful to me when I saw him. I’m not sure what it was — maybe simply that he seemed so open to experience, to the world, quietly curious.

I’ve written about Hanson here before. He began his career as a printmaker, meeting his wife, artist Judy Cooke at the time, became a painter of abstracts (which I remember liking quite a bit) and in 1995 turned back to the human figure and drawing, devoting himself to them almost to the day he died, judging from the dates of the drawings in this exhibition, which focuses on the past couple of years of Hanson’s work.

I hope someone, the museum preferably, will do a full-scale retrospective of Hanson’s life as an artist, because I think his entire journey would be instructive to us, especially the last 15 or 16 years, when he focused so closely on his drawing project.

Not that I would expect to see dramatic shifts or changes. Hanson’s drawings are subtle things, with occasional applications of deep black or splotches of color for a bit of contrast. To me, they seem improvised, little jazz performances featuring the artist, the pencil and the model. He drew them that way, two or three per three-hour session with his models.

They are not dramatic. The models don’t smile or scowl. They settle into a position they can hold for a while, not quite slumped but relaxed and comfortable, soft the way humans at rest are soft. And then Hanson’s pencil starts to work around them, describe them, though as he said, these aren’t really portraits. They are an artist’s creations.

Robert Hanson's "Untitled, June 17-2011." Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Elizabeth Leach Gallery

I disagree with Laing-Malcolm’s description that they are “soul-searching.”  I don’t think he was looking for the essence of the model (I myself don’t actually believe in essences in that way, just to be clear). I’d venture to the contrary, that he embraced the impossibility of that sort of description, the “true” likeness, and it set him free to consider mark-making in and of itself as it intersects with the world, two seemingly contradictory impulses brought together on his paper.

In each drawing, I’d see some lines long and definite, a curve of cheek or stretch of neck, say, but Hanson balanced these with spidery networks that seem almost haphazard. Sometimes, the drawings feel more “completed,” sometimes they seem more than usually provisional.

Robert Hanson's "Daphne I" (2011). Courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and the Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Does any one of the drawings announce itself as a “masterpiece”? Of course not. They are way too modest for that. If you encountered one by itself, you might say, “Oh, nice drawing,” and let it go at that. But a wall of them? Suddenly, they come alive, all those lines and choices and smudges and splotches. The models themselves (Iris, Diana, Daphne, among others), as still as they sit? We start to sense micro-perturbations, minute movements, barely detectable rising and falling.

Is it in the models? Is it in the artist himself? Or is it simply the nature of things?

I don’t want to sound mystical here or project myself too much into Hanson’s own private practice, though we know that’s inevitable, right? Death is a mystery and our own thoughts colonize the world we perceive, though that world is always in revolt.

I’m sad that Hanson’s performances have come to an end, not because I feel robbed of a conclusion, because I don’t think Hanson would have ever reached one. I just liked the performances themselves, because even those that seemed “finished,” such as Untitled May 24-2011, somehow imply a “next state,” when those lines and splotches will align differently. (Plato quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything changes and nothing remains still… and… you cannot step twice into the same stream.”)

At first, I gravitated toward the more “perfect” drawings, but soon I found myself lost in the looser ones, with their loops and slashes proceeding without a care in the world or the intention of expressing anything whatsoever about the model. Except that maybe they did, not to sound too cryptic about it. I just don’t know.

Hanson didn’t make objects. His drawings gently invite us into his process, into his mind almost. And we make sense of him through our own processes in our own minds. The play between the two can be quite delicious.


The exhibition continues at the Portland Art Museum through April 29.

DK Row’s biographical sketch of Hanson in The Oregonian gives much more background on his life.

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