Mel Hanson

by Rubber Diamond blog

Artist Mel Hanson disappeared before anyone outside a small group of friends and family in California knew who he was. He was born in 1938. In 1962 he was dead. The precocious Bay Area painter left behind a mysterious group of pieces that remain sought after to this day.

In his early twenties, Hanson developed a mature, powerful aesthetic style combining elements of Funk Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop. Born in Stockton, Hanson studied at the College of the Pacific, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1960. Around the same time,  a group of poets, writers, and artists known as the Beat Generation, were spending time in San Francisco cafes and galleries decrying the status quo culture of conformity and consumerism that they observed around them. Their vision would later achieve fame as the primary voice of the intellectually disenfranchised along the West Coast. Poets like Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac helped articulate the rage and disaffection simmering just beneath the surface of American middle class society.

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Woman In Landscape 1961- oil on canvas

In the late 1950’s, while still in school, Hanson joined with several other artists including Jack Farlous, Terry St. John, and William Snyder, to live and work in an abandoned Stockton fire station. The group called themselves the Firehaus Five. At this time, Hanson painted using brushes loaded with pigment, and many of his canvases are peopled by figures inspired by the referential abstraction of David Park and German Expressionism. During the early Sixties, Hanson began to incorporate Pop culture imagery into his work as he developed a fascination with the darkly theatrical, even absurd iconography of Disney Studios. In his drawings and paintings, Disney characters like Goofy and Mickey Mouse appear as strange apparitions alongside portraits of people and animals.

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Untitled Self Portrait with Mickey Mouse 1962- charcoal on paper

Hanson’s interest in Pop Art can be seen in a dramatic self-portrait fabric collage made the year before his death. Self Portrait With Frankie Dewey’s Red Wig shows the artist smoking a cigarette and wearing a broad brimmed floppy felt hat. A bright red wig frames his sunglasses. The artist stares straight at us, the bony forms of his face giving him a frightening, otherworldly presence. The portrait is disconcerting, even menacing, as a sense of foreboding permeates the image.

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Self Portrait with Frankie Dewey’s Red Wig 1961- fabric and felt collage on wood panel

While it is difficult to gauge the impact Hanson will have on the history of American art, it is clear that the artist made the most of the brief five or six years he devoted to his craft. His art is honest and mysterious, translating into visual form a strange and urgent vision of Mid-Century American angst.

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