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Elevating the Mundane into Art

CFA alum sees beauty in everyday industrial objects

Hannah Cole embarked on an ambitious project while a College of Fine Arts graduate student: painting views from moving cars. Over a five-year period, she grappled with numerous artistic challenges—having to deal with motion, the inability to fix the eye on both a car’s interior and the landscape outside at the same time, and the myriad reflections, mirror images, and inset images of different angles of the road. But she says the experience taught her a lot about painting in a very complex space.

When Cole (CFA’05) left Boston and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2008, she sold her car and began walking from apartment to studio to anywhere in between. It opened up a whole new way of seeing. “On foot, the world is incredibly different,” she says. “There is detail and close-up and all these amazing textures and patterns of the city.”

She became entranced with the kind of everyday industrial objects most of us take for granted: manhole covers, the plastic vegetable crates and metal roller gates familiar to anyone who’s ever shopped at a Brooklyn bodega, the webbed neon-colored fences that ring urban construction sites. In the process of painting these urban fragments, Cole’s extraordinary attention to detail imbues them with a reality separate from their mundane purpose. A manhole cover or the security gates over a brownstone window become for her a way to contemplate the exquisite geometry and texture found everywhere on city streets.

Hieroglyph Hannah Cole

Hieroglyph, 2009, oil on canvas, by Hannah Cole. Courtesy of the artist and Slag Gallery, N.Y.

Cole’s gritty landscapes—a fusion of geometric abstraction and realist composition—are the subject of a small but beautifully realized show, Hannah Cole: Caring for Surfaces, on view at the Sherman Gallery through December 18.

The artist says she likes to draw on widely shared experiences in her work, so she began painting the quotidian elements of city street life “because I’m interested in connecting with a broad audience. I’m every bit as interested in a telecom worker’s experience of art, or a young child’s, as that of a more initiated art-appreciator. Art is at its most powerful when it opens our eyes to something that has always been there. When my work succeeds, it’s because it brings that feeling of beauty or magic to something someone knows already, but has never thought of as special.”

In Hieroglyph, Cole takes an ubiquitous street scene—the markings that utility workers spray on road surfaces to protect underground utilities during construction—and elevates it so that it’s like seeing the spray-painted symbols for the first time. Seen on canvas rather than on asphalt, the imagery is at once familiar and fresh. In Brownstone Window, two metal gates, both with an intricate diamond pattern, form an ornate latticework grid that frames an ordinary window. By focusing on such everyday objects, she says, she hopes to instill in viewers “a sense of being more present in the beauty of the world that is around them every day.”

Brownstone Window Hannah Cole

Brownstone Window, 2015, acrylic on cut Tyvek w/grommets, by Hannah Cole. Courtesy of the artist and Slag Gallery, N.Y.

“I think viewers will certainly respond to her ability to bring attention to the urban details that go largely unnoticed, things we walk by every day and do not acknowledge their symmetry and beauty,” says Lynne Cooney (GRS’10,’16), artistic director of Boston University Art Galleries.

There is so much texture to Cole’s work that it’s sometimes hard to resist the urge to run your hands over a canvas. She frequently incorporates Tyvek®, a synthetic nonwoven material frequently used to protect walls from air and moisture filtration, in her work. Her father was an architect, so she was familiar with the material’s flexibility and resistance. For her, “the more grimy and complicated” the texture “the better, because it presents me with a great problem to solve about how to translate it into paint.” Cole tends to approach her work scientifically, asking herself, how do I structure the painting, how do I build it up to support the parts I’m excited about, and how do I put a skin on it.

A few of the paintings in the Sherman Gallery show are oils, but most are acrylic. She says she switched to acrylic paints when she became pregnant with her first child. “Because I paint in so many layers, I quickly realized that it worked better for my painting needs than oil. I will often go with oil on the last layer, if oil gives me an effect I want better than acrylic does. But otherwise, acrylic paint has become so high quality in the last decade that there’s no compromise with it anymore.”

Emily Manning-Mingle (CFA ’09 ’10), left and Hannah Cole, reunited at the opening of Caring For Surface, an exhibit inspired by Cole’s life in Brooklyn, New York. Cole said the texture and details of the city streets became her inspiration when she moved to New York. Roller doors over stores at night and walls are the subject of many paintings at the exhibit. Cole works on canvas but also uses sheets of Tyvec, a material made with plastic fibers and is usually used to wrap houses before shingles are installed. Her father being an architect, Cole said she knew about Tyvec’s flexibility and resistance so she could cut fine lines through it without tearing the sheet.

Emily Manning-Mingle (CFA’09,’10) (left) with Cole (center, in red) at the opening reception for Hannah Cole: Caring for Surfaces, on November 6. Photo by Smaranda Tolosano (CAS’16)

Cole, who grew up in Arlington, Mass., describes her painting as “one part meditation, one part Yankee work ethic. I can enter what I’d call another state, a meditative state. It’s in many ways where I feel like I’m using all my skills and intelligence toward a single end, and I can get to a place where I don’t feel time pass, where I am completely absorbed in the painting problem at hand.” As for the Yankee work ethic part of the equation, the artist says, she adheres to a strict set schedule, and once in the studio, “I just get to work.”

It’s likely that Cole’s subject matter is about to change. She recently moved to Asheville, N.C., lured by the opportunity to have a bigger studio. As for how the move to the mountains of North Carolina is likely to affect her work, she says: “Who knows? It’s scary to let go of a subject I know and love, but I do trust that the next thing will come, just as it did when I sold my car.”

Hannah Cole: Caring for Surfaces is on view at the George Sherman Union Sherman Gallery, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor, through Friday, December 18. The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., closed Monday; free and open to the public.

John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Elevating the Mundane into Art

  • Hannah Cole on 12.04.2015 at 10:32 am

    A big thanks, John O’Rourke, for a great review.

  • Joel Gill on 12.04.2015 at 1:37 pm

    Nice Hannah! Congrats.

  • Ellen Pober Rittberg on 12.04.2015 at 8:20 pm

    As a B.U alum. I’m thrilled to see this talented worthy artist displayed where I spent time (the union) where I went when I came up for air from my studies. Kudos, Hannah!

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