The Flemish artist Karin Hanssen paints in oil as well as draws figuratively. The work is compellingly contemporary and significant due to the process through which she arrives at her work and the questions it raises about the medium, whilst mastering it. Karin Hanssen 's paintings are medium to small scale, figurative and her colour scheme is of muted tonality.

The contents is at once peroquial and subversive. Her work is usually produced in series, although crossovers between series exist.

The source material consists of found photographs from magazines or film stills. This is clearly revealed in her collage prints, which show the cuttings she uses for her work. They are largely derived from documents of the Fifties to the Seventies, a period of great confidence and idealism in the Post-war Western world. The images Hanssen chooses show scenes of domesticity or leisure and most of them are snapshots of contemporary life of an urbanised society. The scenes focus on the unquestioned Western morality of the post-war generation, with portraits of women shopping, caring for children or chatting to each other as friends, whilst men are represented in their work environments in their role as husbands or exploring on their own. They reveal an idealised society which has no genuine connection to nature nor the wider context of the city and engages with both through rigid social rituals. Naturally the source being magazines and movies they all purport a directive view, more of a manual for social behaviour, rather than the actual reality of it. The portrayed are defined through their respective positions at work and at home. Landscapes feature large on the canvas, yet, they are being consumed as a backdrop to ritualised visits to the countryside during structured weekends away or holidays.

All the people portrayed in Hanssen's work have a disengaged quality, unaware of being recorded, they turn away from the viewer. Even when portrayed in context with groups of friends or their spouse, the moment which is captured shows them alone, sunk in thoughts or unaware of their connection to others. Cades Cove shows a panoramic view of a rich American landscape. It is clear through the signage and a fenced platform that the landscape has been declared a national park, a sightseeing spot, therefore a regulated environment. Its meaning as the land of the forefathers is reduced to mere explanations on tourist information boards. Hanssen's protagonists do not engage with the landscape, they read the explanation about it. As the viewer cannot decipher the written word on the painting, the portrayed appear isolated and disengaged form the viewer, as their backs are turned. Hanssen thereby produces the unsettling scenario that we see what her protagonists are not appreciating. The result is a feeling of alienation of the protagonists from each other, from their history and origin and of the viewer from the depicted.

'Scene 10' focusses on a young woman in a bank lobby. She is surrounded by other people, although she is captured standing at the edge of the room looking outwards. The scene itself is strikingly familiar and undermines familiarity at the same time. Its central concern is the lack of communication which is the hallmark of much contemporary discourse. The scene is common, but the fact that its focus is the young woman slightly off-centre to the painting is interesting. Whilst much contemporary psychology engages with the increasing isolation of man from their environment, in the painterly tradition this representation of aloneness within a social environment is visible as early as in Jan Vermeer's work from the beginning of the 17 th century. The Dutch painter's family scenes already isolate singular figures and show them to be disengaged from their viewer or the others portrayed around them. The determination of their belonging is defined through the social context of being a member of the family, a servant in the household or a teacher. Karin Hanssen pushes this much further by allowing multiple perspectives in her paintings to reveal a simultaneous state of belonging and un-belonging.

The undertone of a critical observation of a modern Western society connects all of Hanssen's works. The individual of the Enlightenment and beyond is self-reflexive and relates from within to his or her surroundings and other individuals. The modern individual in Western society is inherently alone. As she chooses to portray her subjects during in-between moments their detachment is highlighted. Their raison d'etre is their environment, the job they engage in, the shops they are on their way to or the groups they organise their free time with. Even when portrayed alone with nature, such as ' Scene 9 (Venus)', the woman is at once celebrating her loneliness in nature yet also with her style of dress and pose attempting to capture the attention of another. Her gaze is directed away from the viewer, but her body language reveals her to be aware of being observed. The painting shows a clear dichotomy between asserting freedom and yearning to belong, as well as that of an essentially female gaze presented at the same time as a potentially male viewpoint.

The figurative realism of the scenes forbids any references to the uncanny. The works remain firmly rooted in the factual realm, backed by the fact that they are simulacra of actual documents. As they show people engaging in everyday chores, at work or at leisure the paintings retain a timeless or rather untimely quality. Hanssen has approached this with some rigor. In titling her most recent series Timestructures' she is aware of the overlaying of current and past impressions, which she takes to a point where they merge into one as a representation of familiarity. Recognizing the themes as such presupposes the viewer to belong by race and social standing to the same group of people, which she chooses to portray. On the other hand as she relies on formulaic sources, such as fashion magazines and vintage films, her protagonists can also become the other as a stereotype. It is this openness to interpretation, which makes the work compelling viewing.

Karin Hanssen 's work at first glance is about acquiescence of those voices that have found the expansion of art into the realm of media, documentary and well beyond the edge of the canvas unsettling. Upon deeper engagement the work begins to unravel into a puzzle of references across time and media, creating a tension, which makes the work less and less placeable in history. Her approach also reveals the artist's relationship with the depicted to be ambivalent. Her works are at least in appearance romantic and show her belonging to the heritage she reproduces. However, the detachment inherent in the lack of engagement of her protagonists, the shifts in the paintings' perspective and muted colouring also point to the fact Hanssen is distancing herself from the depicted as not representative of herself.

At last one has to return to dichotomy being the underlying thread through her work. Karin Hanssen successfully represents simulated reality in an authentic manner, which renders it truly contemporary painting. Her work offers a unique and compelling argument for the continuance of painting in a post-modern context, both in its theoretical richness as well its unequivocal beauty.


Bea De Souza, 2004