Dreaming in the Afternoon Light

Hannah Lee, “Walkthrough” (2023), oil on panel, 48 x 36 inches (all images courtesy Entrance Gallery)

In January 2022, I concluded my review of Hannah Lee’s debut exhibition, First Language at Entrance (December 2, 2021–January 30, 2022), with this observation: 

This is one of the strongest debuts I have had the pleasure of experiencing in years. The obvious effort that has gone into each painting, along with the artist’s disinterest in developing a signature style, conveys an ambition and confidence that speaks well for Lee’s future. 

For these reasons, I went to see her second exhibition at Entrance, Hannah Lee: Outside, a few days after it opened. I was not disappointed. Of the six paintings and one hybrid painting-sculpture, which includes a shelf and mirror, the largest work, “Walkthrough” (2023), measures 48 by 36 inches. While the press release contextualizes this painting — “a new tenant viewing the empty apartment next door to her home studio” — I saw the scene of two workers standing by the windows of this empty apartment as being in dialogue with Gustave Caillebotte’s “The Floor Planers” (1875), which is one of the first times a modern painter depicted urban workers.

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Caillebotte’s painting portrays three workers with bare, muscular torsos, two of whom are talking to each other. They are heroic types rather than individuals. In Lee’s painting, the older, slightly hunched worker, framed by the window behind him, seems to be imploring the younger man, who is facing away. This impasse invites the viewer’s speculation. We are witnessing a moment of tension between individualized but anonymous men of different generations. 

At the same time, Lee’s painting speaks to the upgrading of tenement apartments, and the ensuing gentrification. As with Caillebotte’s three workers, the two men standing in this modest apartment most likely could not afford to rent or buy it. Lee devotes her attention to the afternoon light diffusing in the room, the uneven coloring of the floorboards, the pale blue and brown walls, and the yellow janitorial mop bucket and dustpan. Her desire for verisimilitude in  focusing on the tools and workers rejects moralizing or social messages without becoming didactic.

In “Breakfast” (2023), which measures 33 by 33 inches, Lee depicts 10 people seated around a circular restaurant counter, with other diners visible on the left side. Lee’s beautifully observed gathering of White diners defines a world that is not racially diverse. It shares something with Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942), an iconic view of four alienated people in an urban diner late at night. However, the differences are more telling than the similarities. In Lee’s painting it is morning and breakfast is being served; the circular counter evokes a vision of camaraderie. The viewpoint is from inside the restaurant, of someone seated at a table, rather than from the street. All of the details culminate in questions, starting with who is part of the circle and who is not. 

Hannah Lee, “Breakfast” (2023), oil on panel, 33 x 33 inches

There is a gentleness to the painting and the artist’s devotion to details that invites viewers to consider this and other questions, and to observe what is and is not present. Will there always be outsiders? What would an integrated society look like? Has such a state ever been achieved? 

What connects “Walkthrough” and “Breakfast” to the unpopulated paintings “Outside” (2023) and “Studio Light” (both 2023) is the artist’s preternatural recognition of the relationship between open and closed spaces, as well as the way both artificial and natural light inflect surfaces and ambience. In “Outside,” Lee depicts a street-level view of two large frosted windows in a modern building that extends in diagonally in from the left edge. Meticulously painted, as is everything in her work, the uniformity of the building’s brick surface is generic and cold. Parts of two second-floor windows are visible. We glimpse someone standing in a salmon-pink room through one; a greenish curtain partially covers the other. It is supposed to be the perfect color for cozy basements.

It is the two large, identical street-level windows that demonstrate what Lee can do with paint. Faint reflections of light from passing cars are visible on their surfaces, as well as a diffuse light that seems to come from inside. The reflections are so convincingly painted that I found myself staring at something I might not have noticed in real life. Through her attention to detail, lighting, and the color of the second-floor rooms, Lee transforms a banal view into something uncanny. Nothing in the painting seems forced; it is as if she saw this scene in a dream. 

“Studio Light” (2023), which measures eight by eight inches, takes Lee’s interest in light to another level. Working in a tonal palette of bluish-white to pale blue, tempered with whitish orange, Lee depicts a disorienting perspective, cropping the view so that nothing is quite clear. We are not even sure where we are standing in the room. I was completely mesmerized by this painting. 

In terms of both composition and subject matter, Lee does not repeat herself. I sense that her investigations are motivated by a range of preoccupations, and that she has no interest in packaging them. I believe her biggest goal is artistic freedom, and I applaud her for that. 

Hannah Lee, “Outside” (2023), oil on panel, 30 x 24 inches
Hannah Lee, “Studio Light” (2023), oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches

Hannah Lee: Outside continues at Entrance (48 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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