ARTIST IN RESIDENCE: Allen Hirsch
7 SEPTEMBER - 31 December
YCG Fine Art is pleased to present its Artist in Residence Project. Over the course of the following year, a different contemporary artist and a virtual exhibition of their work will be featured on this website for a period of three months.
I am delighted to introduce our third artist, Allen Hirsch, and his exhibition, Lit, on view till 31 December, 2019.
Allen Hirsch is a quiet man. In my experience, quiet people are generally the ones most worth listening to, since most of their time is spent absorbing the world around them. Nothing could be truer of Hirsch, whose observational skills are so extraordinarily sensitive they are just shy of qualifying for superpower status. Endlessly fascinating to me, this ability to get at the very marrow of matter, and even to distill somehow the invisible essences of things, makes Hirsch a rare soul. Animals, those most excellent judges of character and a frequent subject of Hirsch’s art, routinely seem to pick up on his enhanced acuity and depth of feeling. The artist has consequently forged some amazing relationships along the way, particularly with his beloved capuchin monkey, Benjamin, the focus of an Emmy-winning documentary released in 2018.
While it might be tempting to call Hirsch’s heightened sensitivity a gift, the word implies something that is passively received, and there is absolutely nothing passive about how Hirsch uses art to communicate his reflections. In fact, he has spent many years assiduously studying perception and how it works from both optical and psychological perspectives. Using various techniques at different stages of his career, he has repeatedly painted his own image in sundry emotional states, often alternating the hand he uses, and then rigorously analyzing his features, especially his eyes. At the heart of this process stands the desire to gain a better understanding of the division of the psyche: how the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa, and how this comes across in facial expression. The rigor of his approaches has enabled Hirsch not only to produce a remarkable visual catalogue of his own evolution, but also to capture, in deeply memorable ways, the individuality of his sitters, from his elderly neighbor Irene to Bill Clinton, whose inaugural portrait he painted in encaustic for the National Portrait Gallery.
Hirsch’s critically-acclaimed portraiture also reveals his profound appreciation of Old Master paintings, especially those that offer glimpses of seventeenth-century Holland, from its intriguing tavern dwellers to its humid, cobblestone streets meandering beneath a leaden sky. This affinity for the Dutch Golden Age comes across in Hirsch’s landscapes as well, whether he is painting sun-drenched huts off Chirimena’s beach or little figures trudging through the Lafayette Street snow. As with so many of the subjects that touch him, Hirsch has refused to remain on the surface and instead has become a true connoisseur of Dutch art and its techniques. In particular, he has an enduring connection to Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), whose quiet genre scenes in carefully articulated interiors touched a nerve in Hirsch from the moment he was first acquainted with them. Indeed, to admire Hirsch’s geometric sensibility in his treatment of space and especially his capacity to exploit the revelatory powers of light, is to recognize that the specter of de Hooch is never too far off.
Hirsch is constantly dissecting what he calls “the miraculous effects of light” as well as their perception by the human eye, and that particular analytic passion manifests itself in all of his work, from his thickly impastoed genre scenes to his string paintings. At the forefront of his handling of this essential component in his work, is the understanding that:
“The light in each part of the day, in each part of the world, is different. Its color, texture and luminosity imprints the setting with its own unique stamp just once in history.”
Hirsch’s empirical experience of how natural light operates in different corners of the globe, combined with his study of Dutch chiaroscuro and his interest in the characteristics of technological light, has enabled him to achieve within his work a remarkable range of luminosities, each invested with its own veracity and mood.
Of all the phenomena that shape our environment, light is the most entrancing. It is a purveyor of truth, a catalyst for spiritual revelation, a tonic for depression, an instrument of aggression. It helps us reach conscientiousness in the morning, and some believe it is the last thing we see before death. Light, whether natural or man-made, can be warm, harsh, constant or fickle. It can lift our moods or crush our illusions. To look at Allen Hirsch’s oeuvre is to experience light in myriad facets filtered through the mind of someone exceptionally in tune to both the present and the past.
The results are scintillating.
Please click below to enter the Virtual Exhibition
(Los Angeles, b. 1959)
Allen Hirsch’s artistic talent revealed itself early on, as evidenced by the portraits he produced as a youth, including a remarkable likeness made at age fourteen of his childhood hero, J.R.R. Tolkien. After his first self-portrait was featured in a young talent exhibition in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery, Hirsch went on to study art at Camberwell in London, receive a B.F.A. from Syracuse University (1982) and a Masters of Art from Rosary College in Florence, Italy (1985). He rounded out his studies at Skowhegan (1985) and the New York Studio School (1986).
In 1982, Hirsch moved to New York City, and in these early years, experimented with different techniques, including painting only with a palette knife. Having lost his only job at Pearl Paint, he started showing his work on the street near the Whitney Museum. Among the passers-by who took notice of his paintings was Eugene Mihaesco, then one of the top illustrators for TIME. Mihaesco invited Hirsch to stop by the publication, which resulted in the artist doing covers for the magazine over the course of the next ten years. Among the more famous of these, one may cite: Muammar Qaddafi (1986), Ayatollah Khomeini (1987), “Kiki” Camarena (1989) and Rajiv Ghandi (1991). In 1986, Hirsch was asked to do a cover entitled DRUGS: THE ENEMY WITHIN. As he was going through a personal ordeal at the time, he decided to harness his own distress for the project and use himself as a subject. The result, an unnerving self-portrait seeping anguish, was the recipient of several awards.
Hirsch’s work for TIME paved the way for him to paint William Jefferson Clinton’s inaugural portrait in 1993 for the National Portrait Gallery. A photograph from the period records the artist presenting the painting to the President at the White House, where the work subsequently hung for several years. In 1997, Hirsch was commissioned to paint a portrait of Luciano Pavarotti (La Scuola Collection) and opened the HP Gallery in Soho. Around this time, the artist also increasingly favored working in a “cube-like” manner “to submerge the image.”
By the late nineties, Hirsch was spending his summers in Venezuela and testing out new methods, including working in cement and on burlap. The artist also developed a technique called “string painting” that entails drawing or painting an image on a series of strings, which are then separated to allow space between them and suspended over a backdrop. String painting enabled the artist to both break down and soften form, and to explore another aspect of spatial vision. In Hirsch’s words: “In string paintings, the eyes have to change the focus away from the strings themselves in order to perceive the image. This means blurring the strings and focusing behind them. As space is the eyes’ change of focus, this in effect, is creating space.”
Over the years, the artist has built strong friendships in Venezuela as well as a deep connection to the country’s fauna and flora. This has yielded a collection of paintings that not only speak of the artist’s love of Venezuela, but also of his finely-honed powers of perception and his understanding of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Venezuela was also the site of Hirsch’s encounter with an orphaned capuchin monkey, who came to be known as Benjamin. The two developed an amazing bond, and their story has been related in an Emmy-winning documentary entitled “Long Live Benjamin” (2018).
His inventiveness in painting has led Hirsch to other creative pursuits. These include real estate development, such El Santuario de la Laguna, an eco-tourism complex in Venezuela, and patented products like HandL, a new way of holding cellphones, which is currently in Verizon and Staples stores. Hirsch also helped found La Esquina, a famous Mexican restaurant in Soho which has public art dedicated to Benjamin on view both within and outside the establishment.
Hirsch, who still resides in New York, is the author of several books and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.