ELIZABETH HARRIS GALLERY | APRIL 2 – MAY 9, 2015
Julian Hatton’s recent paintings speak to a healthy self-confidence not only in his artistic process, but also in the very enterprise of abstract painting. Given the circular proposition of abstract painting, which takes painting as its subject matter, a Hegelian flourish, by way of Alexandre Kojève, seems appropriate. Kojève outlines two existential positions in the Hegelian worldview: the Wise Man of the Stoics and the Philosopher. The Wise Man is satisfied with who he is, complete and fulfilled in his self-understanding. The Philosopher is fundamentally discontented, because at bottom he is never sure of what he is or what he wants. Hatton’s paintings contradictorily combine the two stances. Like the Wise Man, Hatton has apparently made abstracted landscape painting his home, and during his career has given himself over wholeheartedly to its process. Yet in that process, dealing with the facts on the canvas, Hatton shows the restlessness of the Philosopher.
The show of works completed since 2012 breaks down into two sets. The earlier, from 2012 to 2013, consisting of 24 × 24 inch panels, all inhabit Hatton’s familiar territory of organic forms in an abstract landscape, yet mark the culmination of an evolution in process and focus. In the ’80s and early ’90s, his references to actual plant shapes such as ferns or trees were much more pronounced. There was something ecstatic about the work—much of it done outside from direct observation—that seemed to channel Charles Burchfield’s passionate Yankee pantheism. In an email, Julian described his relationship to nature at that time: “It was in a way an external dialogue, a conversation with landscape, or a dialogue dependent on external stimuli.” During the ’90s, Hatton shifted his work habits from painting outside to working more and more in the studio. The dialogue moved from an external one with landscape to an internal dialogue which, according to Hatton, “channels memory of landscape through a ‘studio’ mind, more intentional, and self-conscious.”
Self-consciously working through memory has yielded a body of intricately structured organic abstractions full of formal play. The very deliberate, highly worked-over translucent surfaces, like a Diebenkorn from the Ocean Park series or a Matisse from his early Nice period in the 1920s, read slowly. As is the case with the other small panels, in “Green T” (2013), the entire composition feels tightly wound, as if, like a Chinese puzzle box, pulling on one shape would cause all the other shapes to collapse. The sense of compression extends to the dynamic range in the colors, which consists almost entirely of mid-range blues and greens. An indigo rectangle in the upper right corner almost threatens to throw the whole image off-balance, and is only held in check by the massive eponymous green T that strides across the breadth of the picture. The pictorial logic of this piece and the others from the 2012 to 2013 group rest almost entirely on how Hatton divides up the picture plane. Any suggestions of representational space are fleeting.
Unpacking these tough little pieces requires patiently tracking Hatton’s process, especially his pentimenti. “Black Cherry” (2012 – 13), has a central section that looks largely painted over. Yet sustained looking brings out the three serpentine bands at the center. These bands become the focal point of the composition, riveting our attention like whispered words onstage. Hatton’s highly nuanced compositions in this series suggest the Wise Man’s contentment with a certain way of working.
However, all the careful working and reworking caused Hatton to become restless, and like the Philosopher, begin to question himself. In his email, he admits frustration with the glacial pace of his studio practice at the time: “The creation of the smaller ones […] was more like moving chess pieces; slow and pondering […] The range of paint handling grows slowly […] too slowly […] IMO [In My Opinion].” In 2013 he expanded his studio in upstate New York so he could get a much longer take on the work, opening up the possibility of painting on a different scale. Everything in New Season from 2014 onward is in the much larger 60 × 60˝ format.
Hatton said of the larger works: “Drift Pin showed the way.” This reviewer agrees that it is one of the more engaging works in the show, and, like the other large paintings, a different experience from the earlier pieces. Gesture plays a much more important role, as the movement across the canvas becomes an event involving the whole body. While the colors keep to the blues, greens, and browns of a scene in nature, the whole composition feels much looser, with passages of overlapping brushwork rather than the tight, interlocking forms characteristic of the earlier work. For example, a central dark band of dark greens and browns snakes in from the right side of the canvas. In a smaller work it likely would have been much more clearly delineated to create lateral tension, but here the band almost dissolves into the rest of the image. While Hatton gains in energy and variety of paint handling with the larger works, he loses the pictorial complexity and dramatic compositional compression that make the smaller works so satisfying. Hatton has taken a major turn in his practice in just the past year, and it will take time for his hand to catch up with his ambition—but the restlessness of the Philosopher in Hatton’s painting practice has already done its job in keeping the work fresh.