I first came across Hanna’s work while scouting artists for the SEART exhibition in Stockholm last September. The attraction to Letters for Nicola Tyson was lightning-bolt instant. In a painting that is at once delicate and powerful, Hanna has performed the unique trick of animating a figure in a strange, contorted position without denying its condition of being permanently locked in its own material substance. The representation of the human body appeals to the viewer on visual, physical, and emotional levels while allowing Hanna to grapple with complex issues of influence and existential angst in subtle and elegant ways.
In this active engagement with Nicola Tyson you are dealing with the complexity of inspiration or influence, an issue that a lot of artists have a great amount of difficulty coming to terms with as they fear the risk of appearing “derivative.” However, by tackling it head on you’ve actually liberated an individual expression. Can you discuss how you arrived at this point? Were you always explicitly aware of the inevitable dialogues you have with other artists or rather did it come out of the recognition that by sidestepping this issue you were actually limiting yourself?
I had been making films and I knew I wanted to paint, I was interested in the actual action of painting but I felt blocked and I didn’t know how to start. Then I began to realize a connection between me being stuck and a fear I had of being influenced by other artists. I felt I needed to explore this fear I needed to accept influence as a way of developing my own personal expression.
You prefer the physical action of painting to filmmaking?
Yes, the physical experience of painting. I wanted to make works that were physically direct and I wanted the movement of the hand to be an element of expression. I was searching for a connection between the pictures, the action of making them, and the thoughts or feelings that surrounded this process. The issue of influence all started for me when I was in New York and I came across the work of Nicola Tyson. I was extremely fascinated by her paintings and even though I couldn’t see the connection between her paintings and the way I was painting at that time, I tried to understand that my intense fascination had to mean that there was something worth exploring. I realized I wasn’t supposed to recreate her paintings but instead to see her paintings through my own perspective, and from that perspective I was meant to develop my own paintings in a specific direction. It became clear that I could open myself up to all of the artists that I hadn’t previously been able to find direct connections to and this started a process in which my paintings moved through all the different stages of art history. At one stage I was even doing these old model paintings! By wanting to use paint in a physically direct way all these things came to the surface and even though I wasn’t always aware of it I just tried to allow myself to work in an intuitive way and to handle what came up without asking too many questions. What I really wanted to understand was this problem of influence…
Surely there is much more complexity than just being directly influenced by somebody. You saw this exhibition of Nicola Tyson in New York and you didn’t quite relate to it but it allowed you to come to this realization that influence is absorbed in a more indirect manner.
The interesting thing about influence is that I did relate to it, but I couldn’t understand it.
So it appealed to you on an emotional level, but you didn’t see a direct connection in your work?
Exactly. I realized that I didn’t need to see a direct connection in my painting for it to have had an influence. I think every process starts with a source, it’s the same source every time but this source can be explained in different ways and these ways depend on where you are at a particular moment and at that moment I was very focused on getting closer to my own personal expression.
Where does this source exist? Do you mean as something that comes from a complex place in your mind?
I guess all I mean is a basic creativity. It’s a place that I think everything comes from, and it’s hard to explain but I guess it’s really just as simple as what we call creativity.
We can think about a source that is abstract versus a physical source of an object painting – the fruit bowl in a still life, for example. But you’re more interested in a (as you say, basic) source that is more personal and intuitive?
Well, I think even when it’s a fruit bowl in a still life, you still have to choose the specifics of the still life, which colors you use, the perspective, the light, the arrangement of the fruit, all of these choices come from a source of basic creativity. Even though I’m working with pictures that are more representative of an internal experience the source is the same as if I was painting from life. This particular painting is actually based on a photograph.
Can you explain how this painting evolved technically?
At the time I had already started painting figures in strange or complicated physical positions, I found that I was very interested in the particular position of the figure in this painting. I had my boyfriend photograph me…
So the figure is you?
Yes, it started with me. It started with a photograph of me and then I developed it into the painting. I had a procedural plan but I had no idea what the outcome would be. There was something I was interested in discovering but I didn’t have a plan about how it was supposed to look, rather just an idea about how I was going to make it, which I think I followed that in the making of this painting. Like most plans, although you don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to end, you do have an idea of what you want to express or what you want to reach. But the process is very important. As it was for the paintings that I did in the build up to this painting…
How do those paintings compare to the final painting? Are they very different?
They are each a part of the same process but they are all somewhat different. The figures are in different positions or colors. They all express a connection that is very important to me – a connection between the physical and the psychological.
Why do you think painting is the perfect medium for you? You mentioned that you worked in film, how did you move away from that? Why did you go back to painting?
I actually started off with painting then I became interested in video, but the videos I made were always quite painterly, they are very much about movement and colors. I just find that there are endless possibilities with painting. Maybe if you preferred another medium you would see it in the same way that I see painting, but to me painting is the endless medium.
There is something particularly visceral about painting that seems to really come out in your work, there’s an open possibility for it to be very bodily and very direct.
Yes, exactly. This is very important. I explored photography as well but, like with films, photographs are taken from some common and known reality, even though I manipulated my own films and photographs, and even though I made them abstract at some points you never move away from the fact that they are directly taken from an external reality. I think that painting is, in a way, the next step because it is a reality too, but not one that we see. Painting is how I express the space between the physical and the psychological that I mentioned before.
There is something darkly sexual and psychoanalytically raw about this figure, how does your experience as a woman tie in here?
People say I express human relationships and that there is a sexual element in my paintings. Being a woman is of course crucial to my identity and I also see it as closely related to the issue of influence. In my fear of being influenced by other artists I also recognized a fear the level of my personality that had to do with being affected by others. This is a problem that concerns women in very specific ways, when there are so many ideas and opinions about how a woman should be or act you have to become very strong to maintain your identity.
You focus very much on being present in your painting process, does this focus spill over into your ideas about feminine power? Do you believe women overcome being complicated by ideas of how we should be by being fully present in our actions?
Well these actions are produced through the decisions we make. A decision could be anything, it’s about how you talk, walk, what you wear, what you do with your life, from the small to the big there are always these decisions and sometimes (or most of the time) you are not actually the one making your own decisions because you are so influenced by your surroundings. I think that these influences are extremely important and not always a bad thing but at a certain level you have to be aware about how they affect you and then make the decision again about whether you want to be affected or not. This demands an extremely strong position because of course we cannot be aware of all the things that affect us and form our individual perspective. The complicated or uncomfortable position of the figure in my painting relates to the position we are in when we are trying to get in touch with our own personal identities while also struggling with the influence of our surroundings. The painting has a lot to do with surroundings.
You mean psychological surroundings? Or physical?
Both. Everything. People, ideas, events, relationships, things that happen and things that don’t happen… It’s about the difficulty of coming to terms with the elements that form your identity.
This issue of decisionmaking is interesting, we don’t usually consider the minute decisions that we make on a daily basis, like how to cut your steak or which routes we take when walking in the city, but maybe it is in these unconscious decisions that we can experience pockets of freedom from societal control. Michel de Certeau discusses this in The Practice of Everyday Life: although an urban space is very much created as a structure of power, a pedestrian will move and take shortcuts through the streets in ways that are somewhat free or at least never fully determined by the planning authorities.
Yes, but I would argue that breaking it down even further we might see that these decisions are also influenced or controlled, although we are less aware of it. It’s not necessarily bad thing.
What are you up to now? You graduated from the Konstfack, you showed this painting at the SEART show last September, have you made any plans?
I have been very focused on painting, working in the studio and developing my personal expression. I would like to go on to do a Master’s degree but before that I need to see what directions I take in the paintings I’m working on now.
How do the paintings you’re working on now relate to this one we’ve been talking about?
They are closely connected. I’m still very concerned with the human body but there are more people in the paintings now, they are interacting with each other sometimes they’re dancing, but they’re always in complicated positions.