Born Toledo, OH, 1969 / BFA, The Ohio State University; MFA, Ohio University / Lives in Ferndale, MI
Adrian Hatfield begins a painting with the most paradigmatic of painters’ actions—a gestural flooding of the surface with paint, a fast fluid marking and puddling of the space, abstract, colorful, atmospheric, lyrical. But the next steps in the process are much slower, more thoughtful and measured. In executing his most recent paintings, Hatfield makes a digital image of his abstract beginning before inserting and arranging various collected graphic imagery, planning the painting digitally. Eventually, graphic images are screened onto the actual painting surface, and fragments of various canonical artworks are painted into the piece. Each painting is a startling mix of quoted images, torn from some other context and pushed together into something new: a mash-up of high and low culture, scientific and religious signs, and an anxiety-laden blend of the sublime, uncanny and abject.
This kind of collage-based process has a strong presence in contemporary art—as expressions of semiotic inadequacy where arbitrary floating signifiers question the conveyance of meaning itself, or similarly, as ambiguous offerings that present, in the phrase of John Ashbery, a perplexing “open field of narrative possibilities.” A quick look at Hatfield’s paintings makes these seem like credible interpretative options, but a slower take reveals a much more directed purpose. Because so much of this appropriated imagery references landscape, nature, and our ways of degrading the environment, the work presents a wide-ranging ecological crisis where expulsions from Eden butt up against the Marvel Comics character Ego the Living Planet (Probe 7, Over and Out, 2019). Along the way, the paintings touch on cosmology, art, consumerism, religion, sex, and violence, and because of the ecological context, they invite us to see these subjects as complicit in environmental disaster.
The scrambled signs are sometimes subtle and nuanced, fragments of Frederic Church landscapes, for example, and at other times blatant, even smartly stupid, the titular character from the comic Nancy declaring, “No – – – I don’t like it – – -” (If this isn’t nice, what is?, 2018). The paintings have a whiplash effect; the more esoteric, slowly recognized references are harshly punctuated with in-your-face bursts of superheroes like The Swamp Thing, the erotic character Cherry, and the sci-fi horror film The Thing. The linear illustrations of Albrecht Dürer, Gustave Doré, and Aubrey Beardsley shift almost seamlessly to the graphic marks of DC and Marvel Comics. Into these crazed worlds, Hatfield paints clouds, cosmic starry space, and ominous blobs (The Shape of Things to Come, 2019). The paintings demand our attention through a catalog of technical and material seductions, mimetic games, and surprising references. Their skillful, witty construction engages us in a sometimes satisfying, sometimes frustrating whirl of signs.
These recent paintings make use of and extend some important long-term elements of Hatfield’s work: humor, intellectual playfulness, the grotesque, reference to other artworks, and a deep, unsettling anxiety. For example, the painting After Heade (2017) cites the Brazilian hummingbird paintings of Martin Johnson Heade but with a beautiful monstrousness. An earlier work, A Commonplace Day (2014), gives us an unsettling mash-up of Francisco de Zubarán’s Lamb of God and Jan Weenix’s Still Life with Dead Hare (plus the title reference to Thomas Hardy’s poem). In the sculpture King of the Impossible (2011), Hatfield situates a sheep and a dinosaur in a diorama landscape worthy of a Sienese painter. The two paintings use sublime tropes as expansive spaces for uncanny, deformed creatures. The sculpture offers a disturbing strangeness of time. Hatfield has stated that he wants these artworks to be “absurd, mournful, unnerving, and yet oddly hopeful.”
But these earlier pieces do not revel in excess the way the newer ones do. Excess does some very serious work in Hatfield’s recent paintings; it ramps up the sense of disorientation that has been a consistent, anxiety-producing affect of his art. A frenzy of diverse images, a veritable murmuration of signs, heightens the disorientation already present in his uses of the uncanny and the sublime. And these bewilderingly disparate images prompt a fierce collision of semiotic systems—Goya’s Disasters of War meets the luminous landscapes of the Hudson River School meets Marvel comics. This absurd tangle of signification creates an exhausting sense of urgency in the paintings, a semiotic apocalypse that becomes an analog of environmental catastrophe.
Timothy van Laar, April 2019
Copyright Essay’d 2019