Artist-As-Squatter

Van Hanos’ Exhibition at Rowhouse Project by John Durovsik

Mimicking the eviscerated interior of a Baltimore row house in which he inhabits, a new form of artist materializes—at once aesthetic and ascetic; the artist-as-squatter.

Assuming a hermetic lifestyle in the skeletal remains of a Remington row house, New York artist Van Hanos continues a local artistic tradition founded upon isolated production and self-curation, where person and practice fold into presentation space. During an early February visit, Hanos’ works—varied in scale and style—appeared in a transitory state. Largely unfinished, canvases both blank and overworked lay against rough-plastered walls, hung in temporary arrangements declared unsuitable by the artist. And yet, roughly three weeks before the show’s simultaneous unveiling and closure, Hanos appears unperturbed by the show’s unhurried progression and exhibited a palpable excitement for new forms of inspiration emerging in the final days of production.

Rowhouse Project introduces artists to an unconventional method of production, in which the acts of creation, living, and exhibition occur in tandem, largely dictated by the form of the house itself. Both host and muse, the Remington rowhouse is subject to the caprice of the artist, and can be manipulated and undressed to supplement the aesthetic ruminations of its guest.

Rowhouse Project is an enigmatic exhibition space. Hidden on Huntingdon Avenue by neighborhood banality, the gallery can be visited only by appointments made via email. Once inside, the gallery reveals itself as a space for creation, but almost unsuitable for the conventional acts of living and viewing. Eschewing the White Cube aesthetic, the rowhouse is a collection of unfurnished spaces in various modes of disrepair: crumbling plaster walls, sun-bleached papering, worn flooring, and bare beams.

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On the day of my visit, Hanos’ artworks were scattered throughout the house. Plein air works were relegated to the basement while sketches of female nudes lay in folder on the floor. In the entry hall, a large-scale work, Classical in theme, hung atop similarly hued wallpaper. Works made during Hanos’ residency, including a canvas of visages, some famous, beneath a male silhouette and small-scale work referencing the card game solitaire, hung in mid-progress. Upstairs, a single abstracted work hung among the structural textures and forms it evoked.

For Hanos, this concept of architecture-as-catalyst intelligently manifests itself—whether by accident or intention—in the idiosyncrasies of his compositions and arrangements. Painted figures echo the slow decay of the walls through their configurations, a subtle technique made clear by the juxtaposition of hung works with structural markings of degeneration. In one such vignette, a small painting of a scholar’s hand—fingers tucked within the pages of a book, marking his place—echoes a tear in wall on which the work is hung, digit-like in its slender form. A more conscious tactic, Hanos layered the troweled-mortar of the building’s primary wall with white paint, pressing a select few canvases against the wet thinset mortar to visually evoke the space itself.

In many ways, the house functions not as muse but as coauthor. One canvas, on which the excess pigments from other projects are placed, haphazardly, in multicolored groupings below the white marking of the mortared wall, underscores the house’s agency. Described by my colleague as “pretty” and, consequently, by Hanos as “too pretty,” the work, while unfinished, displays a clever interest in structural expression that is not yet mastered. Speaking about the floral wallpaper dispersed throughout the house, Hanos expressed his surprise in the unforeseen—yet undeniable—chromatic harmony that exists between his earlier works and the faded designs. And yet, Hanos ultimately characterizes the wallpaper as an aesthetic competitor, showing slight, playful concern that the house’s beauty may outshine his own creations.

Visiting the space prior to Hanos’ closing reception and culminating exhibition on February 28, the artist explained his aspirations and influences in an informal tour. An ardent host, Hanos was enlivened by the chaotic disruption to his Spartan day-to-day life —a group of eight visitors, we entered the row house with latent curiosity and a near submission to the “Cult of the Artist.”

Likening his experience to camping, Hanos resides in a space shocking in its emptiness. Walls have been largely removed, leaving only plywood beams to acknowledge their absence. In the back of the house, Hanos has constructed his studio. Harsh fluorescents cast light upon tubes of paint, ordered in rows atop folding tables. A mirrored palette displaying dried pigments rests on a galvanized tin trashcan. His bed, barely a futon, lay folded beside a small space heater and a heap of personal belongings. On the second floor, a lone toilet stood enshrined by beams. Lacking a shower and sink, the open-concept bathroom was plagued by holes in its fragile, hardwood flooring.

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Hanos provided an intimate and un-choreographed artist’s talk that, while seemingly unrehearsed, functioned like the propagandistic pamphlets found in Chelsea galleries in New York. While this biographical narrative of personal growth provided context and curatorial insight, I was left pining for moments of candid discovery in which I, the viewer, stumbled upon the negotiations between painting and structure that were readily identified by Hanos.

While Hanos’ exhibition will function as an abbreviated retrospective—sketches from his studies at MICA (BFA ’01) will be hung alongside academic paintings from his time in New York and the Pop Culture inspired and structurally evocative Rowhouse oeuvre—the artist’s ability to curate a full show may be stifled by his sedate pace. Both a return to Baltimore and an escape from New York, Hanos appears almost distracted by his new environs and the changes he has encountered.

His stylistic practice—the incorporation of direct, tactile references to place, a fascination with shifts and tropes found in millennial culture—demonstrates an aesthetic that, if given enough time to mature, would engender a diverse and compelling show. And yet, a few weeks out from the show’s close, Hanos appears at odds with time, unlikely to fully exhibit the potency of the ideas buried within his mind, absent from his canvases.

Without Hanos’ in person explanations, the show’s February 28th opening (and closing) may prove a more illuminating experience. Free to navigate stylistic transitions and to explore the nuances of spatially self-referential work, obscured analogies—between edifice and canvas, subject matter and biography—may reveal themselves to the viewer, even those that remain elusive to the artist himself. Once the works—commanding as they are in their nascency—are deemed complete and hung within the home’s naked interior, the ability for Hanos’ art to convincingly speak to the site without the mediation of the artist will prove a telling test.

Van Hanos, Intercalaris at Rowhouse Project will close February 28th, 6pm – 9pm

John Durovsik is a Baltimore-based writer, originally from Philadelphia, PA

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