Walk with me, dance with me

Sherman Sam ( artist, writer)

In discussing the nature of how he approaches his characters, John Travolta once spoke of having to find their walk; that is, he was looking for his rhythm. For painters we don’t find rhythm in our walk, rather we do it in the studio. We change our moves there too; walking turns to sprinting, which sometimes becomes dancing or flying. All this happens, of course, on the surface of the picture plane. There are rhythms to life, rhythms to living, but most important, there is a tempo to creativity.

On being questioned about her working day, Marie Hanlon had this to say:

“Do I have a rhythm to my day?… yes… work and eat, work and eat! My ideal work day starts about 9 o’clock. I work in a relaxed but concentrated way taking a few leisurely coffee breaks and a walk at lunchtime. Finishing time is about 5.30, dinner is then cooked and afterwards I glance at the days painting, making adjustments to this and that. I try to work in this way as much as possible but sometimes life gets in the way. The more mechanical tasks I can do in short time spans, but long runs of time suit me best when working out ideas.”1

In the past Hanlon has created quiet meditative work. These were singular objects, calm, measured, interiorized, at times related to the serenity found in the work of Americans like Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin, but also filled with a joy akin to an Ellsworth Kelly. In the past few years however, calm was not what was required.
Something more dynamic, perhaps more appropriate to the currents of our times has surfaced. She says that now the “starting point for a painting may be triggered by almost anything -­‐ a piece of barrier tape wrapped around a post, a length of wire or even the residue of marks accumulated on pavements over time. The objective is not to represent the thing seen but from it to make something new, something different, something more…”2 Very simply, this is Hanlon at her most playful; and play after all is the nature of the artist today and always. It is the perpetual drive at the heart of creativity. This ‘method’ is far from that of Martin’s and Ryman’s, perhaps closer in spirit to Kelly, but is now related more to the approach of Mary Heilmann or Richard Tuttle – both joyful artists.

Like her earlier paintings, all this new work initially appears to be ‘uncomplicated’ and ‘easy going’. Last year at the Rubicon, Hanlon exhibited works painted on birch plywood. On these surfaces she created simple forms – circular lines, irregular shapes, half circles, skeins of colour, grid-like rectangular structures – all jostling and pushing at the edges. Using light ‘pastel’ shades or even just white (that most malleable ‘noncolour’), much of the cream-coloured birch was left exposed. The shapes and lines suggested at once both the mechanical and organic. Hanlon’s work seemed to be moving into a more experimental phase with a new vocabulary. This year in Visual, and Rua Red, she has further expanded her horizons. There is less exposed surface, instead forms dance on unevenly painted fields of colour. Her compositional sense and recent liberation has been described as ‘freefall’, but really it is like a walk in space where elements seem to float. Abstract music is probably the closest analogy. Like jazz where improvisation is essential and pure sound pushes against shifting rhythms, Hanlon’s pieces waiver as if in a structured but eccentric dance. If the tempo of the Rubicon compositions can be described as stately, then at Rua Red a jazzy spirit has been let loose.

If we described what has gone before as being non-representational, Hanlon is now veering closer to abstraction and abstracting. These are no longer self-contained objects. Where her previous work seemed detached from the world, now it is evocative of things that surround us, exteriorized. Her latest work hints at a more narrative quality, though there are no obvious stories. In all, they still retain the spare nature of her earlier painting, yet gesture, form and colour now combine to create a dynamic buzz.

In 1996 Samuel Walsh spoke of Hanlon’s work in terms of ‘scent’. Drawing on the idea of essence – a word common to non-representational painters and one used by Hanlon herself – a painting ‘might suggest the essence of an experience rather than its pictorial description.’ But he also relates it to perfume, a distilled experience which ‘we can visually smell with our eyes…and distill from that experience something which Marie Hanlon thought when she decided to make one space larger than another or added a complimentary to a colour to make it darker or lighter.’3 This idea of distillation is still a part of Hanlon’s working method and drive, but now add what de Kooning once called a ‘slippery glimpse’ and you have a better picture of her. ‘Content’, the Dutch master famously suggests, ‘is a glimpse.’ That is a canny reference both to the content of paint but also of subject, and certainly Hanlon’s results waiver between being felt and depicted. She is, I believe, turning to the world.

Very simply it is a sea change. There is a new rhythm to this work, and Hanlon is, in fact, developing an entirely new voice and vocabulary. Nicolas Bourriaud is wrong, it’s not relational aesthetics, here today it is a rhythmic aesthetic. The idea for such an aesthetic is inspired by Henri Lefebvre. For the French philosopher/sociologist, the rhythmanalyst ‘calls on all his senses. He draws on his breathing, the circulation of his blood, the beatings of his heart and the delivery of his speech as landmarks. Without privileging any one of these sensations, raised by him in the perception of rhythms, to the detriment of any other. He thinks with his body, not in the abstract, but in lived temporality.’4 That is, the rhythmanalyst, like Hanlon, tries to stay in the moment. It calls for a sense of being in the world, taking one’s pulse from the world rather than bending it to one’s will.

In an essay about inspiration and happiness entitled ‘The current of the river of life moves us’, Agnes Martin suggests that artists move and live with the flow. I suspect this is what both Lefebvre and Hanlon are seeking. Lefebvre does not prescribe a cure to our ‘out-of-rhythmness’, rather he advocates a heightened awareness of our situation first. Likewise Hanlon’s works say, ‘be in the flow with me.’ Like Lefebvre, Hanlon is not offering solutions to the world’s ills nor critiques either. Rather she is showing us one more way to be. ‘Walk this way,’ these paintings seem to say…

Sherman Sam, London 2010

This essay is a re-­‐edited version of an article written for Marie Hanlon’s 2009 Rubicon Gallery exhibition.

Marie Hanlon, email to author, 22 April 2009.
Marie Hanlon, Artists Statement, 2010
Samuel Walsh, “Scent” in Marie Hanlon (Dublin, 1998), unpaginated.
Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space time and everyday life (London, 2004; First published as Éléments de rythmanalyse, Paris 1992),p.21.