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Dreaming in the afternoon light

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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 first exhibition, First language at entry (December 2, 2021-January 30, 2022), with this observation:

It’s one of the strongest debuts I’ve 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 his second exhibition at the Entrance, Hannah Lee: Outside, a few days after its opening. I was not deceived. Of the six paintings and a hybrid painting-sculpture, which includes a shelf and a mirror, the largest work, “Walkthrough” (2023), measures 48 by 36 inches. While the press release contextualizes this painting – “a new tenant looking at the empty apartment next to her home studio” – I saw the scene of two workers standing in front of the windows of this empty apartment as being in dialogue with “ Planers” by Gustave Caillebotte. (1875), which is one of the first times a modern painter depicted urban workers.

Caillebotte’s painting depicts 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 slightly hunched older workman, framed by the window behind him, appears to implore the young man, who faces him. This impasse invites speculation from the viewer. We are witnessing a moment of tension between individualized but anonymous men of different generations.

At the same time, Lee’s painting speaks of the modernization of apartments and the ensuing gentrification. As with the three Caillebotte workers, the two men who were in this modest apartment probably did not have the means to rent or buy it. Lee devotes his attention to the afternoon light streaming through the room, the uneven coloring of the floor, the pale blue and brown walls, and the yellow bucket and dustpan. Its concern with verisimilitude by focusing on 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 insane people in an urban restaurant late at night. However, the differences are more telling than the similarities. In Lee’s painting, it is morning and breakfast is served; the circular counter evokes a vision of camaraderie. The view is from inside the restaurant, of a person seated at a table, rather than the street. All the details lead to questions, starting with who is in the circle and who is not.

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

There is a softness to the painting and the artist’s dedication to detail that invites viewers to consider this question and others, and to observe what is and is not present. Will there always be strangers? What would an integrated society look like? Has such a state ever been reached?

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

It’s the two identical large windows at street level that show what Lee can do with paint. Faint reflections of light from passing cars are visible on their surfaces, along with diffused light that seems to come from within. The highlights are painted so convincingly that I found myself looking at something I might not have noticed in real life. Through his attention to detail, the lighting and the color of the rooms on the second floor, Lee transforms an ordinary view into something strange. Nothing in the painting seems forced; it is as if she had seen 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 ranging from bluish white to pale blue, tempered with whitish orange, Lee portrays a disorienting perspective, reframing the view so that nothing is quite clear. We don’t even know where we are in the room. I was completely mesmerized by this painting.

In terms of composition and subject, Lee does not repeat himself. I sense that her investigations are driven by a range of concerns, and that she has no interest in conditioning them. I believe his greatest goal is artistic freedom, and I congratulate him on 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 the entrance (48 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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