Jan Hankins: Sleepless
The paintings for Jan Hankins’ Sleepless show a marked departure from the artist’s earlier work. Hankins’ epic, politically charged paintings are as well known through the region for their biting wit and their confrontational political stances as they are for their rich paint handling, densely packed compositions or their keenly crafted Day-Glo palettes. The previous paintings were large, skillfully constructed, mega-scenarios with a legion of players: Alfred E Newman-esque George W. Bush, the Halliburton logo, Abu Ghraib guard Lyndie Englund, Captain America, Bellevue Baptist minister Adrian Rogers, Humvees, etc. In the show Sleepless, the artist has paired down the amount of information and is approaching the subject with what appears to be a newfound patience. The new work carries with it a sense that the scattered, visual vocabulary from earlier paintings has been cleared from the work table and only the most vital parts were left and reassembled in preparation for the images. Here Hankins is working like a poet using all his earlier experience constructing epic poems to say more by writing haikus. While the paintings can still address the political climate in America today, see Terminator-turned California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Blaumburgunder, the new images are not as cleanly deciphered and are much harder to pin down to any particular moment in history. This allows the artist to address a broader range of issues, among them: love, rebirth and transformation. Gone too is the artist’s practice of using a myriad of sources for mining images to create dizzying scenes built from diagrams, sketchbook images, third generation Xeroxes, comic book and magazine clippings. This deliberately chaotic system has given way to a series of more focused, singular images that are at once more accessible and cryptic. Hankins finds himself returning to his childhood of making models to create the subjects for his new images. The adult Hankins brings his sensibilities by altering and reassembling toys which he places in a box lit with a low wattage light-bulb. This traditional working method allows the artist to work from observation while giving the paintings a uniform sense color and light, thereby limiting the palette. The calmer and more diligent studio process combine with the slower more deliberate pace of the images create a new level of care, even tenderness, in these often harsh images. There is a sense that the artist knows and understands his subjects better now. The earlier intentionally claustrophobic, flat spaces have given way to a much deeper sense of pictorial space. More often than not, the new players find themselves floating, stranded in a vast, an almost agoraphobic dreamscape, flood water stretching to the darkened horizon. Gone too are the heroic, mural-sized canvases. The pieces in the show are notably more modest in size—the smallest measures 13 inches by 8 inches. This shift, along with the other changes in method, creates a more intimate experience for the artist as he approaches the piece in the studio as well as for the audience as they interact with the work in the gallery space.
With the war in Iraq well into its third year it would seem that Hankins has gotten over the initial shock of war and settled into a kind of meditative consideration of the situation. Rather than resignation, the new work shows the artist at the moment of re-determining the pace of his protest and practice. Like a runner, Hankins is settling into race that has gradually shifted from a sprint into a marathon. Ever the vigilant, tireless artist, Hankins is in it for the long haul.
Hamlett Dobbins is the Director of Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery.
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