Press / Artweek

Moira Hahn at Koplin Del Rio Gallery
Shana Nys Drambot

The ancient tradition of ukiyo-e, like the work of Moira Hahn, is both sacred and profane, and like Hahn's work, depends on an almost excruciatingly high level of detailed craftsmanship for its intrigue.

Ukiyo-e, or "images of the floating world, is regarded by many as the crown jewel in the ancient art of Japanese woodblock printing. Depicting nearly every aspect of Tokyo's vibrant Edo-period culture, including theater bills, geishas, tea houses, landscapes, poetry and philosophy, many of the prints were in fact street posters as well as fine art, spiritual instruction, books, and had ceremonial functions. They were made by some of the most famous icons of the genre, luminaries including Hokusai, Utamaro and Hiroshige. The dynamic was very much analagous to the legendary relationship between Paris' Moulin Rouge and Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec.

For Hahn, this heady mixture of high and low, public and private, message and medium blends into other dualities, like that btween the ancient and the modern, the personal and the historical. The strategy of appropriating the style and/or substance of ancient techniques in the service of contemporary aesthetic practice is well established. Every artist working in that idiom proposes a unique proportion between elements, and what is most striking in hahn's work is how heavily weighted toward the evocation of the "original" the images are.

In scale, most are not much bigger than two feet long and are narrow, scroll-like, and tend to read easier from right to left. In line work and composition, they reflect the precision and compositional density associated with ukiyo-e. Her understanding and rendering of Japanese architecture, calligraphy, dress, posture, facial expressivity and the ready acceptance of magical creatures and the physical reality of legend that characterize the works of this period are seamless. Each object is painstakingly represented, from single hairbrushes to fire, textiles, liquids, foliage and patterns. Every centimeter of every composition is fully occupied with color, line and symbolism, to delightful and slightly disorienting effect.
Works like "Ukiyo-e Re-Mix Series II/ Revenge of the Tori" and "Beisieged" appear to depict scenes that would be instantly recognizeable to the viewer in another context. The actors are all manner of birds and cats, dressed in human clothing and performing human tasks inside human architectural spaces, but humans appear only in the form of the occasional threatening spirit. The scale and consistency of her stylized hyperrealism binds the works together despite their strangeness. Each image seems a frozen moment in the unfolding of an urgent melodrama. Only a few clues to their whimsy and artifice emerge, such as Sanrio characters on trinkets, giving only slight satirical breaks to the earnestness of the pictures.

"Heaven and Hell Series III" is one of the few pictures depicting a single main character against an opulent background of pure pattern, referencing the aspects of ukiyo-e that were more involved in advertising or perhaps celebrity portraiture than cultural tales. A pert little fire-dog creature with burning blue eyes and a wide grin looks adoringly out at the viewer while behind him, every color in existence forms itself stormily into licks of fire, amoebic bushes and psychedelic skies. A few puffy blue cartoon dogs hover, silly modern counterpoints to the ancient figure, along with one seriously menacing tattooed warrior. In its humor, the painting celebrates a love of color, pattern, and irony equally expressive of the ancient Eastern world as Italy's roccoco, or our own propensity for informational inundation.

Works like "Late Sun" reveal a more Western relationship with the watercolor medium itself, demonstrating Hahn's facility not only with line work, but with this most difficult to control medium. Organizing objects across the lower middle of the picture, and painting them with an exaggerated high point of view as their shadows stretch out behind them in the late day sun, Hahn creates abstraction and drama at the same stroke. Her ruddy color-fields are so thick and rich they read like gouache. Her lengthening shadows owe much to conventions of Flemish still-life painting. Her choice of objects acts as a kind of keystone to the whole show. A squirrel, the cage from which it recently escaped, some votive candles featuring Catholic saints, curled incense- in effect, it references, through inversion, the iconography that runs throughout the rest of the work. Western religious traditions, a familiar animal, an escape from domestic realism, all of these things are clues to the psychological, cultural and aesthetic motivations of the exhibition's foundation, revealing a profound investigation of identity that goes far beyond a curiosity about multiculturalism and evinces a true appreciation of the nature of hybridity.