A much-talked-about young artist appears for the first time at Miami Art Basel. Harry Hancock is not the sort of fellow whose background you would immediately associate with contemporary, edgy painting. Hancock, barely thirty years old, was born in rural England, attended Eton and The Courtauld Institute (the world’s leading university for the study of art history), and then moved to Florence, Italy where he studied painting and drawing in a thoroughly traditional school and style.
His past drawings are remarkably reminiscent of 17th century British master portraitists, Gainsborough and Reynolds. He has been commissioned to fresco a Tuscan villa and is in-demand as a portraitist for pencil sketches as well as more traditional oil paintings. Hancock, whose ginger hair and perfect bone structure give him more the appearance of a matinee idol crossed with a 19th century British explorer, is also an advanced scholar of Latin—he teaches Latin in New York City in addition to painting. But despite this traditional and rather conservative-sounding background, Hancock’s remarkable paintings have an avant-garde edge. Not in medium (he works largely in oils and in a naturalistic style), but in terms of the thematic undercurrents of his work. In a day and age when outlandish installations and media are the norm, a true revolutionary is the one who accepts the traditional artistic media, boldly running the risk of being called “old fashioned,” but does something new with them. People have loved naturalistic oil painting for the past six centuries—it is a medium and style that will never grow stale, while computer-generated spray paintings and video installations feel like they each will receive their fifteen-minutes (or fifteen years) of “newness” and then they may well recede in favor of something newer still. But well-crafted, realistic oil painting is art for the ages. But in the hands of Harry Hancock, it takes on an edginess that belies its sense of tradition.
The Secret History of Art interviewed Hancock in the midst of his first showing at Miami Art Basel, where he presents a series entitled “Hair.”
1 Your newest painting, Samson, will be on display during Miami Art Basel this week. What did the process involve?
It was difficult! The canvas is 6 feet by 5 feet and my studio is only just able to accommodate it. I had a model come into the studio for a few sessions. He was on a mattress and I laid the canvas flat on the floor next to him so that I could paint him life-size. Together, they took up all of the available floor. I stood on a stool, using brushes attached the end of long bamboo sticks. I also took some photographs, and used these to get work done in between sittings.
I build up the paint in layers, starting with a lay-in, which is like a general map of where everything will go, and ending with the impasto sections, which are the parts that project the most from the surface of the painting. Over time, a body of paint accumulates where there is flesh, while other areas are thinly painted. In this case, further impasti consisted of real hair attached to the canvas on Samson’s head, to give the impression that the head is projecting through the picture plane.
2 Given how difficult figurative painting can be, wouldn’t it be more efficient to take a photograph?
It’s true, figurative painting is difficult. And painting the human form is the trickiest thing a painter can attempt – there is so much subtlety to express just in the face. Interpreting minute inflections in faces is ingrained in us as viewers from an early age: it’s something we are all expert at. That means greater scrutiny for figurative artists. I think that few artists today paint figuratively because it is too difficult and because they fear this scrutiny.
Cameras also detach us from the object being viewed. The scene being photographed is mediated by a machine with greater limitations than our eye. What the camera provides, that which fails most artists, is visual memory. I paint directly from life, which allows me to refer to my subject while I am working.
The other part to this is that today most photographs are printed with machines, which imposes pointillism on them. There are many ways to construct an image, we don’t all have to be pointillists.
3 Why did you choose Samson as a subject for your latest painting?
First, there is a self-referential element to any painting, in that art often depicts the creative act itself. Painting here is embodied by Samson the hero, and is therefore presented as a heroic act, but one that is (rightly) mitigated by the viewer, who is able to use the scissors that hang from the top of the painting to cut the hair that projects from his head. This image draws a parallel between the irreversible acts of viewing the painting and cutting the hair.
Samson is a story from the Old Testament of an Israelite strongman who takes an oath not to cut his hair, or his super-human strength will leave him. In the end, it is his Philistine wife Delilah who betrays him by cutting his hair while he sleeps. In my painting, we are Delilah, and this is the point of no return. We are seeing the last moment of calm before we deprive him of his power, his eyes are gouged out and he is imprisoned. He eventually causes his own death along with thousands of Philistines by knocking down the building they are all in. You may say that it illustrates a current phase of world history.
4 What does hair represent to you?
In this show, the paintings exhibit a range of characters who use hair to communicate. For example, Samson’s hair is his virility and power, whereas Finale depicts Marina Poplavskaya, with her luxurious blond locks, in the last moment of “La Traviata” as her character Violetta perishes in a swirl of spent energy. It is the last flicker of an intense flame. Another painting that I am working on is of Joel Brody, a New York-based performer who sees cutting his hair as an unnecessary act of violence. He says, “lions don’t cut their hair, why should I?” There is something in this bestial embrace of hair that resonates with me.
5 Your background involves boarding school in the UK, art school in Florence, art history at the Courtauld Institute, and now five years in New York. You also speak several languages, and work as a Latin teacher. Do you think these cultural and linguistic experiences come through in your work?
Like Samson, I have experienced life as an outsider, or one who straddles two worlds. Samson is an Israelite with a taste for Philistine women (he marries two of them). He is also part man, part hero. And in my depiction, he is part painted, and part real. What drew me to him was the existential problem of not fully belonging, as it’s something I feel in my own cultural and linguistic life. There is something foreign and nomadic about both of us.
My multicultural experience also encouraged me to think about the ways we communicate with ‘others’. The line between fictive space in a painting and the real space that the viewer inhabits is analogous to that which separates us from other cultures, eras and states of mind. And oil painting is a language from another era that I have learned to speak fluently.
See more of Harry Hancock’s work at his website: www.harryhancock.com