Three wooden figures--all born of a back injury, boredom and a chain saw--are the most obvious revelation emerging from the myriad layers of meaning in Greg Hannan's stark, darkly beautiful exhibition of new paintings and sculpture at Numark Gallery. They are the first carvings the 50-year-old artist has ever made, and they are exceptional.
Hannan discovered his carving talent in Quebec a couple of years ago during a residency funded by a National Endowment for the Arts International Grant. He was also recuperating from back surgery and was bored with being unable to lift anything heavier than the Sunday newspaper.
Although he was still wearing a rigid brace, Hannan wanted to do something physical and found he could sit in a chair while holding a chain saw. He began shaping a chunk of sugar maple with the saw and then finished it with carving tools owned by the residence. Carving proved to be a natural gift.
After the residency, Hannan kept carving at his fishing shack in Nova Scotia. The second, third and fourth pieces he ever made, a trio of burly male figures, are now trudging in a line through the gallery's front room.
"Commuter," Hannan's second carving, leads the way. He's a grumpy fellow in a fedora and raincoat with a sackful of heads slung over one shoulder. Behind him is "Pierrot," a figure named after the French clown, wearing a ruffled collar and pointy hat and carrying the moon on his back, followed by "The Melon Thief." The latter title comes from a Japanese noh play. In this case, it's applied to a decapitated figure carrying a round ball, symbolizing his head and the world, in his hands.
The show is also titled "Commuter." Welcome to the workweek.
The quality of the carving is amazing. The figures' garments drape perfectly. The men are powerful and kinetic. They lean forward from the waist, knees bent, as if walking into a stiff wind.
Even more impressive is the way the carvings serve Hannan's intellectual and aesthetic purposes. He is, by nature, an inquisitive artist, relentlessly investigating the psychology, physiology and pathology of human existence. There's a story behind every piece he makes, usually a straightforward narrative that follows a physical or metaphysical thread from reality into the realm of art.
No one but Hannan really knows these stories or can grasp all the levels of meaning he puts into each piece. Works that look simple, such as his paintings of the radar reflectors that top the masts of fishing boats, are actually filled with symbolism. The reflectors' colors tell which family each boat belongs to, and the letters and numbers are radio call letters.
On a metaphorical level, the paintings are about departing and returning and the systems we use to find our way home when the weather turns rough. By implication, they suggest the watery death that awaits when the forces of nature overpower man's systems.
The carved figures, too, are following a system based largely on faith: Walk in the footsteps of the person ahead of you, and pray they know where they're going, and don't collapse at the foot of the escalator.
Signs, signals and systems, both real and imagined, can be found throughout the show. In the series of abacus-like sculptural assemblages made from found objects, including dozens of rubber and cork balls Hannan fished out of the Potomac, some of the meaning can be deduced from the spheres' colors and textures.
The series, called "Progeny," is partly about how we keep track of our days and calculate their significance. But it is also based on Hannan's ideas about reincarnation and how a gene can be passed down through successive generations, mutating in response to environmental and/or biological factors.
Seen from that perspective, the abacuses become genetic snapshots of distinct personalities that share certain traits. Those traits are symbolized by the different-colored balls, which Hannan codes according to Judeo-Christian tradition. Green, for example, represents an article of faith, while red can be either sacred or profane.
The "Progeny" pieces read like a book. Your eye is drawn to the upper left corner, and then is pulled across the line of balls and down. As the lines go by, the balls' textures begin to convey more meaning than the color. Smooth and fairly unscathed at the top, they are often corroded, stained and encrusted in the bottom ranks, as if life had ground away their genetic content.
Although that's a grim prospect, Hannan doesn't really offer conclusions. He seems more interested in questions and investigations than in answers. In that sense, the works in this show seem very akin to Jasper Johns's paintings, sculpture and installations.
Hannan's work doesn't look anything like Johns's stuff. But the two artists do share certain traits. Both tend to create series of paintings or sculptures. Both utilize common objects in their sculptural works: found objects in Hannan's case, beer cans or paintbrushes in Johns's. Proponents see the artists' work as quasi-mystical explorations of the point at which art and reality intersect. Detractors view it as banal and essentially meaningless.
Johns once described making sculpture by saying, "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." Hannan does that, even if it means sitting in a chair holding a chain saw. The results are anything but banal. He couldn't make a meaningless piece of art to save his life.
Greg Hannan: Commuter, at Numark Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, through Feb. 26. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 202-628-3810.
CAPTION: A grumpy traveler, the French clown Pierrot and a decapitated figure make up Greg Hannan's enigmatic "Commuter."
CAPTION: "TheMelonThief," part of Greg Hannan's sculpture grouping "Commuter," at Numark Gallery.