Karen Hanmer

Artists' Books & Installation


Love in the Afternoon
Artists' Books by Karen Hanmer
Vespine Gallery, Chicago
January 19-February 28, 2004

One standard trope of postmodernism is the reuse and recontextualization of cultural texts, objects and forms. Karen Hanmer’s work clearly follows in this tradition, but exchanges the ironic detachment of much postmodern work for a nostalgic sweetness, a wistful yet savvy embracing of history both cultural and personal that is more poignant than clever.

Her sculptural books They All Laughed and Destination Moon, which bookend the history of manned flight, combine culturally familiar images with the earnest and hopeful pronouncements of advocates of flight, as well as with their echoes in popular music lyrics.    

Cultural fantasy is also the subject of Hanmer’s rebound romance paperbacks. Prominently displayed on a low curved table with red reading chair, these mass-produced, disposable dreams of love everlasting are recast as elaborate, precious objects, like the loves described within, matching the drama of the romance with the drama of the presentation.

Even the books which do not overtly recycle cultural materials play on our expectations and highlight them through contrast. I remember my first, expresses desire no less than the romance novels.  Once the reader gets past the humor of the “switch,” the testimonies to the beauty and fascination of software and the act of programming presents a desire as obsessive—yet also as poignant—as that depicted in the rebound romance novels. Poignant as well is the love portrayed in the terse I can still feel you next to me. The physicality of the book is inescapable, less suggestive of human flesh than animal skin. One is left wondering about the object of desire being addressed. The tenderness is enhanced by this ambiguity of address, suggesting an openness to the possibilities of love.

Finally, the glass-covered Big River returns to an intertwining of forms: popular music, game, history. Reminiscent of Joseph Cornell, the impossibility of the game matches the impossibility of the narrator's desire and matches also the impossibility of the myths of American history.  

The poignancy that flows through Hanmer’s work suggests, deftly, the tragic overreaching of the fantasies and desires with which we surround ourselves.

Reviewer Steve Harp is a photographer and Professor of Art at DePaul University, Chicago, IL.