Philip Hanson, 1973. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
Before studying art, Philip Hanson completed his bachelor’s in humanities at the University of Chicago. He especially enjoyed “close reading,” the practice of parsing and interpreting interconnections among words. Hanson also spent one year in an architecture program at the University of Illinois at Chicago prior to enrolling in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received a master’s degree in 1968.
Hanson began to receive acclaim for his artwork in 1968 and 1969 as a participant in the False Image exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center. Also exhibiting were Roger Brown, Eleanor Dube, and Christina Ramberg, and the exhibition title pointed to their shared fascination with theater and masks. Hanson also shared an interest in comic books and decorative abundance with his contemporaries, but where many of the Imagists employed a tone of sarcasm and slapstick humor, Hanson’s body of work is frequently described as romantic, sensual, and dreamlike.
Hanson’s career is as layered as his images. Though primarily a painter, early in his career he experimented with etchings, mezzotints, and aquatints, as well as hand-coloring techniques. The works for which he first received recognition featured ambiguous images of flowers, fans, jewels, and hands. In one of the artist’s early exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, art critic Dennis Adrian identified Hanson’s works as expressing metaphorical elements that communicate “the inner states of love and desire.” Hanson additionally drew inspiration from surrealism, interior decoration, and opera. In keeping with his interest in costuming, he also experimented with cloth constructions and with fabric wall pieces that he folded, stitched, crimped, and seamed into origami-like configurations.
Following these works, Hanson turned his attention to a series of paintings that pictured women seated at vanity tables, facing away from the viewer and appearing to contemplate their unseen reflections. Typically dressed in delicate blouses and absorbed in a culture of beautification, Hanson’s mysterious figures seem oblivious to the viewer’s gaze. From his Vanity series, Hanson turned his attention to re-interpreting elaborate male costumes, emphasizing the gilded and glittering elements common in fitted garments of the fifteenth century. While many of Hanson’s images are populated with figures and objects, his fascination with patterning is also evident.
The artist’s recent works combine text—often poetry—with layers of patterns and images, thus returning to a foundational interest. In 2013, Hanson retired from 40 years of teaching at SAIC. He continues to live and work in Chicago.
Untitled (Woman Disrobing) (1979)
Oil on board with artist's painted frame
In the 1970s, Philip Hanson completed a series of paintings that featured women shrouded in surreal, diaphanous garments. Either sitting in front of a mirrored vanity or standing in an abstract setting, the subject’s back is turned, thus revealing little about her identity. In each painting, the dress she wears is transparent, hinting at the rosy, soft skin below its many ruffles and folds.
In Untitled, the dress is reminiscent of a body of water; the crests and troughs of waves fall over her against a background of patchy, oceanic layers of blue paint. The materiality of the dress is established with a bright flourish of pink ribbon. The woman lifts the silky layers of clothing over her head to reveal her smooth, neatly molded posterior; the act recalls the removal of shiny cellophane from a newly minted product.
The intimate scene presented in Untitled is erotic yet foreboding and voyeuristic. Like fellow False Image artist Roger Brown, Hanson often incorporated the stage into his work; the curved, velvety valences, high arches, and dark scenery of this painting suggest the backstage of a theater. The actress removes her costume at the end of another performance, and with its removal, reveals her humanity. The illusion of the story—a microcosm of the world presented on the stage—is broken.