As You Like It, a series of new paintings takes it’s title from the pastoral comedy by Shakespeare. The play at its core can be seen as a tale of artifice and affectation versus nature and sincerity. Further gender is being used as a double-bluff to make for the comedic moments and an undercurrent of frisson, so typical of Shakespeare’s plays. It has been mused that the location of the play from 1599, the Forest of Arden may be a wordplay not only on Stratford –upon –Avon or the bard’s mother’s maiden name but in fact also the Ardennes, a forest rich mountainous region stretching across Belgium and France.
The Antwerp painter Karin Hanssen takes the opposition of artifice and nature as her lead point and refers in passing to some of the characters and scenes in the play, for example the painting As You Like It being a free rendition of the wrestling scene between the meak Orlando and the dominant Charles, where the weaker Orlando finally wins to impress Rosalind. Hanssen chooses to represent the fight, a man is kicking another on the ground whilst Hanssen’s Rosalind and Celia are walking past, dispassionate and indifferent. The scene takes place in front of a palace ruin yet the focus of the women is set on the landscape and horizon beyond. The painting Rosalind is a portrait of a woman lying in a field of flowers. Sweetness and romance are entwined with another reference of a much darker nature, that of Millais’ Ophelia.
Rosalind leads us to another work F.H. which shows us a portrait of a young woman who has mannish features. The hair seems unnatural and could be a wig. Much emphasis in the painting lies on the scarf, an ornament that covers and distracts the attention from the personality of the sitter. The initials F.H stand for French Songstress Françoise Hardy on whom the portrait was based but also for the gender opposition femme/homme, as in the play Rosalind becomes Ganymede.
Other works function as a framework, subtly reinforcing the artifice/nature opposition, such as Figue ( Fig tree) which appears like a true to nature study, yet shows a cultivated fig tree which can be bought for interior decoration. A pretty sight, albeit just an illusion. The Fence (defense), a large –scale landscape painting focuses on a dominating white garden fence rather than the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding landscape. A group of people gathered around the fence seem to steer the painting more into a debate about inside and outside or mine and yours than the embrace of the idyll. Petty needs take over, nature becomes a backdrop that can be claimed by ownership and a distant alluring hope for sincerity.
The painting The Secret reminds us that Hanssen whilst taking a narrative path for this exhibition continues to work with found photographic material. The photo, the painting was based upon, captures a moment where two sisters meet when the Berlin wall was opened for a short period, after they have been separated for many years. Rather than capturing the emotional bond, the women engage distantly as if unsure of the truth of their connection. The scene alludes in part to the final scene of the play where the two alienated brothers re-unite. The two women in the painting are clearly having an intense connection yet their contact remains uncertain, as if the gulf has become too wide.
Hanssen’s technique is exquisite and yet she utilises it to the point where the traditions of the still life, landscape painting and the family portrait in the widest sense become distant, arranged or essentially disrupted by their conventionality. The artist playfully references traditional painting and cultural mannerisms but by allowing this to override the more emotive contents of some of her works, she also derises the affectation of her medium with her slight of hand. As You Like It as a show reminds us that the pastoral idyll is nothing but a conceit, much in the Shakespearian sense and yet the play is but the departure point for Hanssen’s main engagement with social mores and opportunism stifling passion and expectation.