Art Review: Jan Hankins' work at Gallery Fifty Six reflects dreamy new mood

Allegory-rich paintings defy easy interpretation

Jan Hankins, 'Off the Rails,' oil on canvas.

Jan Hankins, "Off the Rails," oil on canvas.

For years, if not decades, we could count on Jan Hankins to be the local artist with a conscience, the painter whose vast canvases habitually eviscerated capitalists, generals, politicians and their cronies with outrageous, surreal, frequently humorous and sometimes gasp-inducing imagery.

Jan Hankins, ‘Parsimone Copiose’

Through the month of March at Gallery Fifty Six, 2256 Central.

Call 901-276-1251.

In his exhibition “Parsimone Copiose” at Gallery Fifty Six, the imagery is familiar, but the tone and mood seem different. The exhibition title would translate, loosely, from Latin as the oxymoron “copious parsimony.” Hankins’ recent paintings feel more personal, inward and dreamlike (rather than nightmarish).

Not that the artist has abandoned his typical sardonic or macabre point of view. One piece, for example, titled “I Love Ribs,” depicts a ribcage engulfed in flames; it’s a human ribcage. In another painting that refers to the interior of the human body, “Steam Generator,” a woman’s torso has been opened to reveal a mechanism that resembles the strict and closely crowded pipes of a pipe organ. Both of these pieces use the color red, one of Hankins’ favorite hues, in a vivid and evocative manner.

This interior-of-the-body motif comprises one theme of the exhibition, along with a theme of urgent rising (and, we assume, of aspiration); of gold coins and their reference to wealth and greed; of violins and the creativity of writing and making music. Gold coins and violins segue into a two-painting motif that features a blond woman, lean, lithe and almost masculine in her muscularity.

In “Gold Strike,” she performs on a violin, but instead of stroking the strings with a bow, she strikes the instrument with a hammer, the result being gold coins cascading from the violin’s body. In “Parsimone Dormire,” one of the exhibition’s signature pieces, the sleeping woman lies naked under a tree, her legs submerged in a stream that flows by, a snake coiling and writhing up her body toward her face; a rainbow arches across the background, leading from an area of dark clouds and rain to a lightening of the sky and the faint pink of either sunrise or sunset.

These hallucinatory paintings defy interpretation, as dreams often do, yet they convey a sense of fertile symbolism and strangely of hope and optimism, virtues we don’t usually expect from this artist.

Also defying interpretation is a 76-by-96-inch work the like of which has not been seen in the city before, not even from the teeming, feverish imagination of Jan Hankins. “Off the Rails” is cartoonish, mythic, fairy tale-like, provocative, superbly rendered and dense with what seem to be layer upon layer of imagery and allegory. The lone streetcar that has gone off the rails in the midst of a great brambly and twinkly lit forest — and is that a dim Sleeping Beauty caught in the undergrowth and her palace seen obscurely in the background? — seems not destitute or misdirected but oddly triumphant. No writer wants to admit that words fail, but this painting, part Disney, part Dali, all Hankins, must be seen to be believed.

Hankins always works best at the largest scale possible, if only to fit in all the ideas with which his brain brims, but this exhibition presents a number of small pieces that, with one exception, the oddly beautiful and faintly disturbing “Tarkiln Bayou,” don’t begin to convey the scope of his talents. They seem like outtakes from larger and better works.

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