Glen Hansen's representational paintings convey a straightforward premise: that the soul of a city is reflected in its architecture. On his canvases, the Manhattan, New York, artist has captured the iron-and-concrete identities of New York City, Paris, Venice, Prague — and now, Kansas City. His latest collection, at the Central Library, culls 30 graphite and oil drawings featuring iconic KC architecture, from the TWA Building's cartoonish rocket ship to the crisscrossing street signs at 18th and Vine.
The Pitch visited Hansen at the Central Library's gallery as he prepared to open Kansas City Project.
The Pitch: You've painted buildings in New York and Paris. Why turn to Kansas City?
Hansen: Why not? It's a great town. Fischbach, my gallery in Chelsea, New York — their biggest client is Commerce Bank. They have a museum in the bank with some of my work: Jonathan and Nancy Lee [Kemper] commissioned a piece for the bank's entrance. We kept in contact over the years, and Jonathan called two years ago and asked me to do an inaugural poster for the Kauffman Center, designed by Moshe Safdie. I looked him up, and he's an amazing architect. I came down and shot 12 rolls of film in one week. I really got obsessed with the project and did 10 or 12 pieces. I asked for a sample of the metal on the Kauffman Center's roof, and I did a painting on that. I painted so the steel would peek through the sky.
What first drew you to architectural forms and features?
You go to art school, you get influenced, you end up copying your instructors — they paint the figure, so you paint the figure — but then you realize that's not really you. I asked myself, "What do I know really well?" And my family's a family of builders and craftsmen. I've done some bricklaying and carpentry. They say paint what you know, and I know architecture from the inside out.
Your paintings and drawings are precisely rendered, and some of your work has had an almost photorealistic look.
I work from photographs, but when I'm looking through the camera, I'm thinking square. My work is based on the square. It started with a Victorian house with a widow's walk. It's a box on top of a box. They work together. Working within a square is part of that process: It's like the camera lens. With taking photos and with painting, I'm thinking: How do I put that in a square and create a tension?
I've been in photorealism shows, but I don't know if I want to be considered as one of them. We all work from photographs now. I'm flattered, but at the end of the day, I'm just a representational artist wondering how to manipulate the surface.
Is your work influenced by any particular architects or artists?
Early on, I loved Edward Hopper and Maxfield Parrish. The old masters, too, particularly Caravaggio and Ingres. Ingres was a neoclassicist who distorted the body in figures, but in subtle ways, like a back with two extra vertebrae. He predated Picasso in a weird way. And I wondered: Why did he do that? Here's a guy who can draw anything, and he decides to move things around and distort them. The camera can do that, too. Some lenses distort a lot. I don't want my paintings to seem too much like a photograph.
Caravaggio dealt with really dramatic lighting, and he would manipulate you into seeing the painting, placing the viewer so far down on the picture plane, for example. I like to do that kind of thing.
Did you discover anything unique about Kansas City through your work on this exhibit?
It's a great town with great museums. The people here are really nice. They're not as stressed as New Yorkers.
As far as the architecture, yes and no. There are European influences, for sure, just like New York City. Like the Power & Light Building. I saw it and thought: That's like our Empire State Building. Everything's coming from the past.
But then you have oddities, like the Town Topic sign. How quirky is that? It almost relates to the Moshe Safdie design. To complete the cityscape of Kansas City, you can't forget about those: the TWA Building, the Strahm sign, Winstead's. It's not just historic buildings.
With this exhibit, I focused on drawings, little vignettes. I wanted to just get the essence of the building. In some of them, you can see that I'm building up the lead on the edges, so you have a little process captured within the drawings. If there's interest, I wouldn't mind doing paintings from some of these. The Majestic, especially — that's definitely a Hopper-style painting. I started putting color in, and it became a painting more than a drawing.
A lot of your work focuses on architectural elements set against the sky: a cupola instead of the whole house, for example, or the Town Topic sign. What does isolating those features allow you to do?
It's about building against sky, juxtaposing nature and the man-made. It's about light and space and tension between the two, how a cloudscape relates to certain angles in a building. I've tried to add other things in before, organic materials or figures. I did a painting of a Victorian turret with a cat curled up in the window, and I rendered the shit out of it — its whiskers, its fur. And then I thought: Is it really about the cat? Or is it about the architects who built the building? So I painted over it.
I know architecture, I love architecture, and to me, it's about the craftsmanship: these craftsmen who don't get attention. There's a human element in this stuff. My family were craftsmen. They worked with their hands, and I think they're underappreciated.