Glen Hansen (b.1961) paints picturesque views of some of the world’s great cities—Paris, Venice, New York—but avoids the straight-on perspective of the traditional tourist vedutte in favor of quirky compositions. His spring exhibition at the Fischbach Gallery in New York City, entitled “Praha,” recorded his exploration of the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague. Hansen’s precisionist oils achieve an extraordinary verisimilitude. He sketches and photographs his subjects in a preliminary effort to capture a city’s rich architectural detail and quality of light. Prague offers a wealth of medieval, Baroque and Beaux-Arts structures. Yet the artist does not simply document the cityscape; he translates it into compositions that register strongly on the two-dimensional canvas. He frequently uses the somewhat unusual square format, playing warm, yellow stone against blue sky and generating dramatic shapes. In Church of St. Nicholas (2005) curvaceous roof lines are set against an irregular wedge of blue. The concentration on the upper reaches of the buildings and a sharply angled viewpoint are disorienting tactics. The painting is both an evocative architectural memento and a bold visual statement on its own terms.
By editing out the street-level bustle of the urban milieu, Hansen emphasizes the magical quality of the city, defining Prague by its skyline. (He played variations on this theme in a 1990 show, “New York City Turrets.”) The absence of human activity focuses attention on architectural forms, but the fragmented framing of the buildings suggests a particular observer in a particular place. These are not textbook illustrations.
In Praha—Spires (2006) the view of fanciful cupolas and steep, red-tiled roofs is sandwiched between shadowed and sunlit slabs of other buildings. The sky, streaked with cottony, shaded clouds, carries as much visual weight as the striking building at the center of the picture. Sometimes, this Old World city can take on a vertiginous feel, like a scene from that classic noir film, The Third Man. Despite the sunny blue sky, 1870/1895 (2005) is a painting of shadows, with a boldly silhouetted vintage street lamp—jutting out from the dark mass that crops the image on the right—looming over the Beaux-Arts building behind it. In a witty echo the street light, which looks out-of-scale and enormous because of the angle, mimics the shape of the lantern cupola atop the building. Hansen tries another conceptual strategy in Trilogy (2005), which showcases one of Prague’s multi-spired Gothic turrets. He looks down on the city from a loggia with arched apertures, and the dark masses of the columns, in virtual silhouette, set off three views of towers and luminous sky. Trilogy could be a homage to German Romantic painting.
The sky plays a crucial role in all these paintings. Another of Hansen’s series on exhibition here takes a different tack. Several paintings are close-up views of the Orloj, the city’s medieval astronomical clock, details of its elaborate allegorical program. The figures—Death and the Piper, Vanity and Greed (both 2006) —are seen against a background of weathered stone and deep shadow. Without the sky, the effect is claustrophobic, despite the artist’s evident rendering skills. The colors are muted, as if a medieval grisaille had been hand-tinted. Such sculpture is difficult to depict, and some of the best versions remain those of nineteenth-century photographers, with their huge glass plates and long exposures, who often achieved a mesmerizing clarity. But Hansen’s sky paintings are very fine, allowing the architecture to breathe and demonstrating how to balance lovingly observed detail with vibrant negative space. “Praha” is on view through April 15, 2006, at Fischbach Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 759-2345. On the Web at www.fischbachgallery.com