Hannah Barrett received her BA at Wellesley College in German and Printmaking in 1989 and her MFA in Painting at Boston University in 1998. She has also studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA and attended a One-year Fellowship at the School for Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria in 1994.
She has exhibited widely at Regina Rex Gallery, New York, NY; Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, New York, NY; Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston, MA; Childs Gallery, Boston, MA; The Gibson House Museum, Boston, MA; Lesley Heller Work Space, New York, NY; NEWD Art Fair, Brooklyn, NY; NADA Fair, Artadia Foundation Booth, New York, NY; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA, plus many more. Barrett has received numerous awards some of which are the MOTHA Award Recipient, New and Upcoming Artist of the Year; Faculty Development Fund, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY; Boston Cultural Council, Finalist Painting Grant, Boston, MA; and Fire Island Artist Residency.
Barrett has taught as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY from 2008-2015 and as Visiting Full Time Faculty, Painting Area at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Currently she serves as the International Program Coordinator, Berlin at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.
A: You received the Artadia Award in 2007. Can you talk a little bit about what you were working on at that time?
HB: That does sound like a very long time ago. I had just completed a series called The Secret Society which was 15 black and white portraits. Each one was an invented character based on a combination of at least two cartes de visite from a collection of 19th century actors that belongs to the Boston Public Library. The titles such as Dame Critchley-Midgely came from a website of 19th British peerage. Painting the portraits in black and white gave them the appearance of old photo portraits and implied the sitter was real. The black and white was a way to stay with the period and lend credibility to my fictional world.
A: How has your work changed since receiving the award?
HB: My interest in updating or subverting traditional genres, mainly portraiture but also still life and interior, has been pretty constant. But my life has seen some big changes over the past 13 years and with that my style has undergone various phases and developments. Moving to New York in 2009 challenged me and gave me permission to paint more directly, so my work from 2012 to 2015 is more painterly and larger scale. I still used collage or at least picture archives as the basis for paintings through 2016. Starting in 2013, I started traveling more for my academic jobs and for the first time relied on small sketch books to make my work. I could always spend half an hour here or there drawing characters out of my head, and gradually my imagination just took over.
A: Your recent show ‘Transitions’ was on view at Childs Gallery in Boston, a retrospective consisting of works from various series. Can you talk about the development of this show and how it came about?
HB: The show was the idea of Richard Baiano, Director of Childs Gallery, who has been a huge supporter and resonates with my gender fluidity and sense of the absurd. Richard wanted to put work from 2006-2018 together in one space so that conversations across different series were possible. Frankly, I was worried since I always envision and exhibit each series by itself. I work in very intense but compact series and then move on, so each one looks and feels quite distinct. But since Richard manages the gallery’s very eclectic collection spanning the 16th century to the present, he’s much more seasoned and fearless mixing periods. The Childs staff installed the show in their very Bostonian gallery interior with their signature salon style and it looked fabulous. I was surprised that as much as I’ve changed over time there’s a lot of continuity. Whether it’s tightly rendered small panel paintings, like the series The Family Jewels , or 6.5’ x 6.5’ canvases like Summer Shepherds, humor, the love of color and decorative patterns, and gender nonconformity feature in every painting. (Gallery website is: childsgallery.com)
A: In the past you’ve noted that, “My aim is to create portraiture that deviates from the conventional male or female, and to explore the resulting pictorial and conceptual possibilities,” can you speak a little on your painting style, and your process as you are creating these works?
HB: Portraits are the only type of painting that operate as a surrogate person as well as a work of art. On the one hand, all of the formal elements are in force- color, design, paint handling, but at the same time, an emotional spirit is actually looking out of the painting back at you! This ghostly presence is the part I like, what I dislike is how they’re locked into social conventions: it’s “Captain Dulwich and Mrs. Captain Dulwich”, prisoners of binary gender. I prefer to leave gender open to interpretation: plenty of ruffles, beards, handbags, and flashy rings to take the story a few ways.
A: Are you working on any specific projects right now? And Where do you envision your work going from here?
HB: Lately I’ve made my figures much more creaturely or monsterly to place them clearly in the realm of fiction where their personalities will shine. For a few years I painted single figures in interiors, simple shadow boxes decorated in the style of the figures. Recently I’ve experimented with placing the figure outside, either in quasi landscapes or townscapes. I wanted to see what would happen without the four walls and the fake 1-point perspective. These look like fairy tale settings and backdrops rather than functioning like landscape space. They still feel artificial and like shallow stage sets.
When we went into the Covid-19 isolation period I started some little portraits just 24” x 18” so that I could work smaller and focus on the subject. These have the usual detailed outfits and eccentric hairdos. I’ve put a shadow behind each figure so they feel like they are standing in the room. These have a kind of urgency for a physical presence and longing for company. One day I fantasize about having the time and resources to work large enough that I can put a few figures into a single canvas.