With his new exhibition ‘Ophelia Rising’, the contemporary American painter digs into the magnetic and magmatic depths of his personal history to gift the viewer with pieces of art that are as sincere as vividly evocative.
By Tommaso Cartia
My second time around at Wirth Galerie – the eclectic art salon space in NYC, sharply thought and designed by curator Sabrina Wirth – left me shaken and still shaking by the emotional intensity with which Stephen Hannock’s new works spoke to me, with the dazzling speed of a sudden thunderbolt.
Intimacy. I almost felt like I needed to come up with a new word for intimacy, maybe with a new world. As I stepped into the room and made eye contact with one of Stephen Hannock’s paintings, I knew immediately that I was stepping into a new world, a space lit up by a full spectrum of human emotions. I knew immediately that Mr. Hannock was telling me a story, and probably his own story, but more than that, he was telling us about our history, at the threshold of life and the mystery of the unknown. And I had no preconceptions about Hannock’s aesthetic, or the artistic reasons behind ‘Ophelia Rising’.
What I felt is that his Ophelia, notoriously depicted on the verge of drowning incapable of her own distress but still regally gracious in her own stillness, is somehow singing an ode to the beauty of a life lived to the fullest while she feels the swirling traction of the waters. A moment of suspension on the life’s stage, where gratitude and abandonment, ecstasy and grieving, have the same weight and dissolve one into the other whispering to us the secrets of death and rebirth.
Stephen Hannock’s pieces struck me as iconographies, fragments of moments where the timeline between present, past, and future is truly not alignable, but comes and goes in waves bringing sudden pieces of truths to the surface about to be submerged by the uproar of our subconsciousness.
It is later on during the presentation of the exhibition that I come to know that the ‘Ophelia Rising’ paintings are indeed intended as an ode to life, inspired by the life of Hannock’s late wife Bridget; by their family, by the emotional and physical places that Hannock’s traverses down the memory lane of emotions.
As stated by curator Sabrina Wirth: “the series centers around his wife Bridget, and the emotions the loss has inspired and evoked in Hannock’s artistic practice, the paintings in this exhibition are very much a celebration of life. When speaking about this body of work, Hannock enthusiastically describes it as depicting “a universal story”. The stories all come together in the final painting in the exhibition, “Hogsmill River Oxbow, Flooded: For Bridget”, a magnificent portrayal of the landscape where the Oxbow River bends, that includes written narrative woven in between the greenery, collages of both Chuck Close and Gregory Crewdson’s photographs, and then, on the far right, an image of his daughter Georgia seated on her mother’s memorial bench (appearing for the first time in his paintings) peering out dreamily into the horizon, onto the future, and into the next chapter.”
The night of the opening was also graced by the presence of Jason Rosenfeld, Hannock’s long-lasting friend and estimator, Editor-at-Large of the Brooklyn Rail and co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York) and Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), among others. It was precisely the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition curated by Jason Rosenfeld a big inspiration behind ‘Ophelia Rising’: “Hannock was struck by the story of Shakespeare’s Ophelia – a popular theme among the Pre-Raphaelite artists,” states Sabrina Wirth, “the story of a young woman tragically arrested in her youth resonated with him, and even more so because the imagined location where John Everett Millais painted Ophelia was the Hogsmill River, reminiscent of the Oxbow River that is the subject in many of Hannock’s paintings. When he began composing his own Ophelia, Hannock felt as though he was “literally picking up where [Millais] left off.
The pre-Raphaelites believed in setting a scene for their subjects, resulting in paintings with a theatrical stage-like composition. Hannock’s Ophelia series plays off (or “riffs off” as Stephen likes to say) this theatrical sequence, starting with “Emerald Willow, Waiting for Ophelia” a painting representing the environment where she would eventually lay. Other iterations of Ophelia present her in the morning fog, in the middle of the Oxbow at early dawn, and finally with her rising- her final chapter is one of resurrection and celebration: Hannock gives her the opportunity to move on. In a previous interview, Hannock said: “The Oxbow has become sort of a metaphor of a stage for me. That’s just another link to the episodes of my stories. I recreated the Hogsmill river, I turned it into a little Oxbow, and there are a whole series of permutations with every show that I do.”
On show at Wirth Galerie till November 1ist, ‘Ophelia Rising’ feels like an invitation and an occasion, for us to rise above our life’s miseries, our sense of loss and dissolution, to celebrate the richness of the gift of life treasured in memories that suddenly re-emerge from the abysses of the past to light up a future for us.
To find out more about the exhibition & Wirth Galerie: