On the surface, Heidi Hahn makes paintings about the relationship between the formal elements of her work and the content within them. The slippage around these binaries reveal the necessity of each. Both working together to form a space outside of its object-hood, making room for another kind of experience of painting. As a way to separate her female subjects from tropes, genre, and gendered expectation, Hahn’s paintings offer a tactile disconnect from traditional representation. Which in turn, reorganizes the role of what content is in painting. How do we represent things differently from what they mean? How does the material govern the content? And what does the body have to do to escape itself? Heidi Hahn writes: “I think about the horizon line as a separation of expectation and reality. It is this illusive thing that offers destination, future, and stability of place. Yet once you set out and arrive there, it has disappeared and been replaced with another horizon. So it is a fact and an illusion."
What makes figure painting so daunting? Is it that our eyes are more attuned to inconsistencies in anatomy than in other fields? I think it has to do with the paint itself. Paint works more like weather than like an organism: it moves in sheets, rivulets, floods, and accretions—it doesn’t branch out, or grow, or bend. Figure painting is impressive by default because it makes the medium into something contrary to its nature. But Heidi Hahn’s paintings of solitary figures achieve something rare by forming believable pictures of people while remaining true to the medium’s tendencies. These eight paintings at Nathalie Karg are each resolved in different ways, their layering so complex as to make me question what I saw in that studio. I do not know how these paintings work, so I can only describe some of their mysteries.
What does selfhood mean during times of extreme isolation? This is only one of the many thought-provoking questions that Myselves, opening on September 11th at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, might be able to answer. The group exhibition, curated by Joshua Friedman, features over twenty-five established and emerging contemporary artists who use their medium as a means to examine the various ways that our environment shapes our identity. For Heidi Hahn, a New-York based artist whose painting Woman I Know, Woman I've Seen, 2020, explores selfhood in the context of female sexuality and isolation which will be featured in the group show, "most of the time the women exist in a solitary headspace, untouchable and unknowable" she added "perhaps this time has just personified those ideas for me". That being said, this year’s events have made it more difficult for Hahn to engage in her work. “I find it hard to put aside a pandemic and political unrest and carry on creating something that resides in an intellectual framework and trades in a formalism devoid of the present reality”.
The first thing to notice about Heidi Hahn’s paintings is the artist’s adroit way with the fundamentals of the medium. Her handling of color, line, luminosity, and so on comes across as somehow both instinctual and analytical: Chromatic washes condense into emotional atmospheres, while swift gestural drawing elicits, rather than imposes, definition. Hahn makes mood palpable. The second thing one observes is how indebted her loose-limbed figurative style is to that of Henri Matisse, in whose work that amalgam of intuition and intellect reached a pinnacle. This might be worrisome, as an awful lot of quasi Matisse and pseudo-Picasso is cropping up in the art of young painters these days. Often, that work is too enamored of its influences and too easy on itself to break any new ground. Yet Hahn, for the most part, is finding her own way into painterly figuration not as a mere homage to modernism, but as an exploration of consciousness in the present.
Heidi Hahn‘s grandly scaled paintings lend iconic status to plain-Jane women going about quotidian routines. Breezily limned in free-flowing brushstrokes and translucent washes, her anonymous characters appear lost in dreamy, meditative worlds even as they shop, sweep, picnic and scroll through their smartphones. In contrast to society’s usual preoccupation with women’s appearance, Hahn de-emphasizes her subjects’ physicality, leaving their identities generic in favor of accentuating states of mind. Obscurely rendered in moody, multilayered transparencies, the women in paintings such as Burn Out in Shredded Heaven 10 (2018-19) appear as specters inhabiting liminal realms where daydreams overlay dull realities. It’s difficult to determine exactly what Hahn’s figures are doing, or where they are; yet they exude potent emotion. In Burn Out in Shredded Heaven 6, a girl leans on her broom during a pensive moment in the middle of sweeping a floor. Her short white garment could be a lab coat, janitorial smock or nightshirt. Is she a scientist, a maid, or a girl tidying up her house? It matters not, for this idle moment stolen from spring-cleaning drudgery now belongs to her—who could stand for anyone.
The women in Heidi Hahn’s latest series of paintings at Jack Hanley Gallery are presented in profile, almost like subjects in Muybridge motion studies. Muybridge, of course, did his motion study photos in order to be able to see details that normally escaped the eye. So, basically, what do we see in these paintings of women schlepping around in inclement weather, with leaves falling from trees, among big plastic garbage bags on the streets? Is there something about being in motion, carrying their weighty bags among the backdrop just described, that might better reveal the identities of these women or a deeper truth about their lives to us? Can we really get who these folks are by capturing them in such a type of freeze frame? And yet, one might ask whether anyone would really ordinarily pay extra attention to this type of person – she is somewhat common in New York City – an independent, young, culturally aware, possibly socially committed, urban woman. If we take a closer look, however, we might see that she does, in fact, warrant being seen more closely because she very well could be suffering to some extent.
Heidi Hahn’s paintings remind me of Erik Satie’s compositions. It’s a funny comparison to make, because his music is famously minimal, and the first thing you notice about the 10 numbered oils in Ms. Hahn’s new show, “The Future Is Elsewhere (if It Breaks Your Heart),” at Jack Hanley, is their luxurious brushwork. But like Satie, Ms. Hahn achieves the richness in her work by stripping it down to a few formal elements and then prying those elements apart to reveal the sticky, inexhaustible force that holds them together. Every piece in the show is centered on one or more extended female figures in sinuous cartoon silhouette. “The Future Is Elsewhere (if It Breaks Your Heart) No. 3,” a dark vertical tricolor, is complicated conceptually as well as chromatically by its three figures: one standing, one on a chair and one sitting on the floor. Blond and brown hair, a green sweater and roseate noses add subtle dissonance to the background of lavender, cloudy pink and gray, while Ms. Hahn’s use of figuration and some cues to depth of field gently undermine the abstract flatness of that background and of the figures themselves.
Here, we spotlight 15 of the exhibitions that we’re most excited to see this month, from the first museum solo show of Toyin Ojih Odutola to the New Museum’s intergenerational exploration of gender, to a mad retrospective from a former New Yorker now based in Bali. Hahn’s figurative paintings of women typically depict them in soft, wispy brushstrokes, lounging beneath trees, curled up in bed, or reading books. “These paintings are about women and their interior lives,” she says of this show of new work. “These women are almost without history but entirely aware of the part they have had to play in it through art history and through the male gaze.” Hahn conveys the psychological burdens of her subjects, deploying emotional scenes through thoughtful use of color and the physicality of paint.
The clock reads 12:30 in “Everything Left Is Plain” (2016), a pink-red painting in Heidi Hahn’s first New York solo show, “Bent Idle,” at Jack Hanley. It’s impossible to tell, however, whether this means afternoon or just after midnight. The same ambiguity runs throughout Ms. Hahn’s other paintings, which depict young women laughing and crying — or perhaps laughing and crying at the same time — in groups and pairs, or alone with a cat or a candle. Ms. Hahn presents an impressive, cohesive body of work, although it rests on many formal precedents. The most obvious is the sinuous line and pungent coloring of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter who is featured in a Neue Galerie show that explores his influence on German and Austrian Expressionists. You can also feel in Ms. Hahn’s work the impact of recent figurative painters such as Sue Williams, Lisa Yuskavage, Judith Linhares and Dana Schutz. She draws fruitfully from nonart sources as well: the cheerful flowers and artificially ecstatic women in tampon commercials; the yellow smiley face and Kool-Aid man; even the flowing facial hair of the Wookiees from “Star Wars.”