A Sort of Violence: Missing Persons and Conspicuous Consumption: An Interview with Hannah Dean

Hannah Dean speaks openly and seriously about her work, but she also likes her paintings to speak for themselves, which they do. With tongue planted firmly in cheek.



If you were to imagine a sort of time-linear thread connecting the gentle, late 18th century portraits of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun to the sickly-grey, dismembered figures of 20th century painter Francis Bacon, you’d find Hannah Dean’s work somewhere in the middle. Actually, Dean’s paintings would be the ones just right of center—toward the Bacon end of the continuum—nestled comfortably on a pink velvet chaise lounge while eating bon-bons filled with equal parts marzipan and syrup of ipecac (a convenient concoction to facilitate more candy consumption, of course).

Hannah Dean is a two-time Hunting Art Prize finalist (2014, 2015) whose work has also appeared in The Rising Eyes of Texas exhibition and in the juried publication New American Painting 111. Her works represent a mash-up of baroque opulence, an irreverent, gestural application of paint (a nod to the Abstract Expressionists), and an era of Western art history when art was created for patrons and a Salon audience. Her flamboyantly chromatic paintings are figurative in nature, even when the human figure is absent. The works are beguiling and seductive in their use of lush color and pretty rococo motifs, while simultaneously repelling in their displays of narcissistic artifice. While the characters and scenes tell a story of all style, no substance, the paintings themselves are not.

Recently, I visited with Dean about the evolution of her work over the course of her MFA studies at Texas Tech University, culminating in her (details) exhibition, which is currently on display at the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts (until March 28, 2015). Our conversation ranged in topic from art history, to privilege and consumerism, to narrative and film. While Dean speaks openly and seriously about her work, she also likes her paintings to speak for themselves, which they do.

With tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Bowerbird: Hannah, I’ve known you for a long time, and I’ve watched your work evolve from your “Alter” of Worship senior exhibit at Lubbock Christian University,* to your (details) MFA show with Texas Tech. Many things about your work have changed, of course; but some things have not, namely, your underlying theme of baroque decadence. How do unseemly displays of grandeur play into your work?

Hannah Dean: The idea of grandeur . . . well, let’s say you eat an entire chocolate cake. Delicious, but you probably puke it up—and maybe this is what some of my more eruptive mark-making could refer to . . . that, and other bodily processes. I feel [both] reverence and revulsion for an abundance of opulence. I think privilege has always been something I’ve tried to sort out in my work. There’s this weird familiarity with baroque, Victorian, rococo-type motifs in American wealth culture. Just look at Charles Faudree’s interior-design book Details (of the same name as my recent show)—plaid, embellishment, dogs, throw pillows, blue-patterned china, portraits, floral arrangements, frames . . . all those painting clichés are there in the contemporary home, [as well].


BB: You remind me that, during the lecture you gave to Lubbock Christian University students during your Portraits and Supplements exhibit there in 2013, you mentioned that your attention was turning from the study of actual portraits to the attendant accouterments that one sees in such portraits, such as lap dogs, lamps, rugs, divans, and mirrors or paintings on walls. You even began omitting the sitter altogether, but the void left behind still speaks of that presence. That same liminal space between presence and absence shows up in the (details) show, with works like Pastiche Series: FrooFroo, titties, and seashell pattern and She wanted out of the decorating scheme, after Sargent, after Eugenides. Elaborate more on that presence/absence theme—is it a “we are our stuff” sort of idea? Something more?

HD: The use of “elegance”—or inelegance in my case—is an immediate referral to a specific painting history, especially to the supplements to portraiture, and classist systems. There is definitely a “you are what you consume” tilt to my thinking, but the surrounding items that cancel out the sitter, or point to them, make me think of a sort of entrapment. Some of my contemporary influences are [film] directors Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Baz Luhrmann, because of they way they portray boredom, or the sedation of comfort. There’s a low-level anxiety throughout Coppola’s work—which I see mirrored in historical painting—that of languorous, ennui-filled characters.


BB: Your portraits, details, and supplements are both character-driven and narrative in quality—this really comes through in the Victorian-like titles of your works, like Harrumph, and Madame couldn’t seem to keep her shirt up. À la Renoir, and Love Letters, or, She loathed Jane most vehemently. Your filmed piece, Fleeflahflooflay, or Fleurished Rhetoric, very overtly manifests this character-in-narrative attribute. How does your gestural style of painting play into the creation of these narratives and types of people?

HD: I think it’s less of a narrative of the person, or biography (though those may come into play); rather, it’s a continued meta-narrative of the classist notions that painting history has been so in bed with. And the residue of that hasn’t exactly died out since Renaissance or Victorian times. Gesture plays into the narrative of the painter, I suppose. It refers to sight, in the Merleau-Ponty sense, where sight is a “body-in-space” activity of super-awareness, of keying into a specific thing. It is a counter to the torpor I address in the work.

BB: Speaking of painting history, you’ve said about your work, “To ‘reawaken’ historical images and clichés allows me to do a sort of violence in their honor.” Can you elaborate upon that idea?

HD: Well, first I’d like to address gesture, [which can be defined as] an empty action, but it’s also an observational drawing technique, getting at the essential information to portray an idea or object. There’s an economy of sorts here, metaphorically speaking. Wouldn’t it be nice if I, or we, only ate when hungry, or were less self-indulgent?

When I say I reawaken historical images, clichés, I’m a little necrophilic. I’m grave-robbing the masters—those canonized in Google search—meaning that I am engaging in their works, both recalling them and destroying them. Through the act of gesture, these are no longer scenes and sitters full of ennui. I’m taking the clichés beyond their signification, restoring them to a place of image through a violent, urgent, gestural process of tearing canvas, tacking it into the wall, and flinging paint from a huge cardboard palette onto it.


BB: In your Portraits and Supplements show at LCU, I recall hearing some viewers in the gallery commenting that your art reminded them of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, which I think was a pretty insightful take on your work. Where does someone with such a sunny disposition acquire such a wickedly ironic sense of humor?

HD: Me? Wicked? I’ve had the reaction of horror to my, really, non-horrific scenes. I mean, in some ways, I’m a total pervert, making the “masters” roll over in their graves, with no reverence at all to tradition. But in other ways, these alternative conventional techniques—action painting, unstretched canvas, grotesque humor—are just a means to an end. I think that, especially in my video work, the anti-climax to an implied narrative, the drawl of time passing, serves as a delicate assault to some.

* This article satisfies claims of nepotism. Please see “About the Bowerbird.”

Images by Kristen Swartz

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