Beyond The Borders of Landscape: An Interview With Stephen Hannock

It was really curious the similarities and thought processes between athletics and making art. Endless practice, rehearsal, over and over and over.

poster for Stephen Hannock

Stephen Hannock "Recent Paintings: Vistas with Text"

at Marlborough (Midtown)
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2012-04-25 - 2012-06-02)

In Interviews by Loren DiBlasi 2013-05-14 print
Moving Water for Frank Moore (MassMOCA 170)

Moving Water for Frank Moore (MassMOCA 170)

Whatever you do, don’t call Stephen Hannock a landscape painter. At least, not until you’ve called him a few other things first. A film buff. A light enthusiast. A master of moods. If you think that beautiful vistas and the serene calm of nature are all that drives Hannock’s work, think again.

Hannock is the recipient of this year’s Olana Partnership Frederic E. Church Award, which will be presented to him by friends and patrons Sting and Trudie Styler. Like Church, Hannock has come to be known for his sweeping painted views, but that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two artists stop. When I recently had the chance to speak with Stephen Hannock from his home in Massachusetts, a broad range of topics were covered, including art, inspiration, and ice hockey. But first, there were far more pressing matters at hand; the artist’s twelve-year-old daughter had suffered a fresh lacrosse wound that needed tending. It is, as Hannock told me with a laugh, the sort of thing “that great art eventually comes from.”

Stephen Hannock’s art, as it turns out, comes from a lot of places, especially the ones you probably aren’t expecting.

So tell me a bit about how you first discovered art. Is it true you were a hockey player prior to becoming an artist?

My dad was a semi-pro hockey goalie, and I did the same thing. My whole life, I just loved it. College coaches sent me to Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, for an extra year of high school. Instead of going to college, they sent me to this boarding school for what they call a ‘post-graduate year.’ That’s where I took my first art course. I was almost 20 years old.

It was really curious the similarities and thought processes between athletics and making art. Endless practice, rehearsal, over and over and over. Yet, when the moment comes to execute whatever idea it is that you have in mind– be it stopping a shot or creating a gesture in paint– you have to do it fluidly and spontaneously. It just caught, and it was clear that was the direction I was going to go in.

Was it an easy transition from sports to art?

It really was! I missed hockey– but what was happening in art was so exciting. Every day something new was happening, and I just had to go with it. And it hasn’t changed since then.

How long was your apprenticeship with Leonard Baskin at Smith College?

It was three years of intense apprenticeship, and then he was around while I was working on my own stuff, and it sort of fizzled out from there. These relationships are sort of Catch-22 deals. The master will profess to never want to make you a ‘little Baskin;’ yet if you follow the criticisms, your work comes out looking just like his. So you have to get to the point where your confidence comes from your own ability to bring ideas to life, and not just the master’s enthusiasm for these ideas.

But we made a good transition. Sometimes when these protege-mentor relationships split up, they’re like marriages– you know, you never want to see these guys again. But Leonard and I got along great.

How much of an impact did the Hudson River School have on your work?

I’ve used some of the locations in my own stuff, but I have to say it was actually the Oxbow piece that really hit me. After I moved to Northampton to attend Smith College, I was ironically working on woodcuts, but I was also doing these huge paintings with phosphorescent paint that glowed in the dark; I was literally trying to re-create movie screens. I loved the Oxbow piece because it was nearby, it was a great painting, it really anchored an aesthetic. But I always thought I could do a better painting. Whether I succeeded or not is going to be up for debate years from now, way after I’m gone. But that’s why I took it on. What I thought I could contribute was one thing, but what really took off was sort of an accident.

I eventually got around to doing a painting of the Oxbow in the early 90s. The reason was because Thomas Cole, who put his self-portrait in the foreground of his Oxbow, never lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. I had been a resident for 15 years, so it was more of an attempt to re-claim this vista for the local art community.

A fundamental obstruction was the fact that I generally don’t have any foregrounds in any of my paintings. The first landforms you see happen mid-way through the surface. It’s my attempt to get the viewer to break down that two-dimension right off the bat. So the point is, I couldn’t sit on a rock in the foreground the way Cole did with his easel.

I’d seen people from Bill Wegman to Richard Prince all use text in their stuff. And Vernon Fisher was a big influence– he had really cohesive text that was constructed in a wonderful visual composition. So I started writing, through the cornfields, diaries of things that really happened in that spot, to me, at this time, in order to literally re-claim that land. Cole could never have done that, because he never really sat there, or never really experienced these things.

Personally, I find that there isn’t a lot of life behind traditional landscape paintings, which seems counterintuitive. However, I love the addition of the writing and the scribbles– they make it seem like there’s someone real behind the view.

One of the things I’ll be saying during my speech at the Olana [Award Gala] is that there’s a missing link between the 19th Century luminist painters and what I’m trying to do now. A lot of this rests, ironically, with 20th Century British filmmakers; specifically, the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, who used unusually long establishing shots when they would show vistas. Rather than show them for a few seconds and then move onto the film, they would linger for sometimes as long as 35-40 seconds before continuing with the story. They really wanted to give the viewer a sense of place and an indication of mood that would tip their hand to the events that were about to come. And that’s precisely what [my] vistas with text are: setting the stage and then telling the stories that come to mind sort of spontaneously, with regard to this stage that’s been set. So it’s really not a deliberate attempt to re-do the Hudson River School– anything but.

A Recent History of Art in Southern California MassMoca 165

A Recent History of Art in Southern California (MassMoca 165)

It feels antiquated even referring to your work as “landscape art,” although I suppose it fits that mold because it’s natural and beautiful in the traditional sense. But if you wouldn’t categorize your work as landscape, how would you categorize it?

There are problems with [the term] landscape– you know, the idea of setting your easel up and painting a nice mountain and a tree. That’s so far from what I do with paint. I rip into my compositions with power tools, so they’re not really fastidiously painted. Any attempt to paint leaf after leaf with a double zero brush is frustrated immediately as soon as you hit it with a power sander. So you learn to create your moods from a much more expressionistic position.

I just don’t want to make movies. I’d start from that perspective. I don’t want to make movies because there are too many chefs in the kitchen. I designed a $100 million movie [What Dreams May Come] about ten years ago, and was just overwhelmed by how many guys had weighed in, and very few of them really had an idea of what was going on with the picture. With painting, the ideas that excite you, you’re allowed to bring to life by yourself without any other interference. That’s where the whole ‘setting the stage’ happens.

We know now, very clearly, that Picasso, Braque, and all those clowns went into cubism directly because they were motivated by the mechanism and the effect of projected film in the dark… It’s this type of thing that I’m responding to, not from the Hudson River School. But that having been said, I think it’s fair to give these guys credit for really establishing the benchmark for American art; for art that had its nascent stages in America for the first time, instead of Europe.

How do you create your compositions?

They’re all imaginary. I don’t do anything on site other than ink drawing. Photography just doesn’t work, because photography tends to squash and minimize the rhythm and the light that exists within a given environment. And of course, the light is where the mood comes from. So when I draw, I’ll make notations as to the light, but you also get to exaggerate the folds and the rhythms of the land, that you exaggerate once again, once it makes it to paint. It’s sort of a double exaggeration. You’re really seeing and existing land composition on steroids, which is something that photography doesn’t give you, and frankly, drawing realistically with landforms just doesn’t give you at all. That’s what movies are all about: exaggerating real life to the point where the fans go crazy.

I’m actually ambidextrous, so I paint with both hands at the same time. It doesn’t guarantee great art– it just creates rhythms that you can’t get with one hand at a time. Frankly, nobody paints moving water the way I do, and I lend that immediately to the fact that I’m painting with both hands at the same time.

How did you decide to start sanding your paintings?

I was living in Northampton, and painters like Gregory Gillespie, Alfred Leslie, Scott Prior– a real intense community of diligent realists was there. I was painting that way before I moved to New York, and I had painted this vista, sort of Heidelberg-esque vision of Northampton; it was a neat European interpretation of this New England town. There were all these streaks through it, because I didn’t want to wait for the paint to dry, and it just looked awful. So I took this big, gnarly, heavy grit power sander and just ripped through the painting and took it right back down to the tooth of the canvas. I went down, and I stepped back, and the painting was done! I didn’t add another thing to it. I put a grade of varnish to it, and it was done.

That served two fundamental advantages for me: one, it would eliminate the extraneous realist detail that I wasn’t the least bit interested in, and two, it created a surface that didn’t reflect any globs of paint.

What are you working on right now? Are there any current projects you can discuss?

Right now, I’m finishing up a smaller version of my Niagara Falls piece. This is a 12-foot version that’s a little narrower, and looks steeper up at [the Falls]. Again, the stories are celebrating the women that come to mind when I think about the Falls, and also Xu Bing.

Xu Bing is an artist who’s got a great story in his own right. He’s got 200-foot-long phoenixes on view up here at MASS MoCA. They’re constructed with waste material from the construction sites of the Olympic Village. The Chinese government was so embarrassed by this; they wouldn’t let him show his pieces during the Olympics. So, long story short, they have them here at MASS MoCA.

My painting is a dedication to Xu Bing’s phoenixes and Niagara Falls, currently the two most dynamic pieces of industrial art in North America. Of course, most people think that Niagara Falls is completely natural, when in fact Robert Moses shut off the Niagara River to sculpt the cliffs so that the water would move in a certain direction.

For some reason or other, it all started as a celebration of women, because the maid of the myth is this [Native American woman] who threw herself over the falls and sacrificed to save her people. You know, it’s a crock of shit! It never happened. But that got me thinking about all these cool women who come to mind, like Elyn Zimmerman, who sculpts massive rock forms, Cindy Sherman, who went to school 14 miles away from Niagara Falls, Marilyn Monroe, and others whose stories are written into the cliffs.

I’m doing that, as well as another Newcastle piece, the project I did with Sting, which will be in the London show [at Marlborough Gallery] as well. For the first time, we’re actually going to have adjacent drawings to these paintings, and Jason [Rosenfeld] is going to do printed paragraphs that correspond to the stories, so people will actually read what these phrases and gestures mean in greater depth. That, plus these mini Pre-Raphaelite stage sets, if you will, will make up this show next winter.

Loren DiBlasi

Loren DiBlasi. Loren DiBlasi is a freelance writer/art and culture aficionado. Born in NYC, she is a recent graduate of Marymount Manhattan College as a double major in English and Art History. In addition to art of all shapes and sizes, she is also passionate about music, film, and fashion-- and writes about it all. She can be contacted at lorendiblasi@gmail.com. » See other writings

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