Hannah Barrett’s Gender-Bending Paintings Couple Whimsy with Social Commentary
“You start off with pieces, and as you fuse them, unexpected things happen,” says Hannah Barrett, whose gender-bending portraits of an invented and eccentric cast of characters are currently on view at Boston’s Childs Gallery. In “Hannah Barrett’s Imaginarium,” she disrupts notions of identity and self-presentation, while offering a wild romp through changing styles and attitudes throughout history and into the present day.
To come up with these scenes, Barrett begins by looking through binders of found images, which she collects from sources that include vintage fashion advertisements and brochures, old family photographs, calendars featuring pictures of people dressed and posing in period costumes, and research into historical manners of dress and styles of portraiture. Drawing bits and pieces from each, she paints them into a new whole.
Gender and its associated expressions and expectations are at the heart of Barrett’s work. By mashing up male and female features in each of her portraits, she presents, as she has described, “a challenging idea of what constitutes a person.” As in Summer Shepherds (2013), which features two male/female figures taking a tea break against a backdrop of green, rolling hills dotted with sheep. Their faces and hair are composed of a medley of masculine and feminine attributes, blended together not quite seamlessly. Their clothing is also mixed, with the figure on the left clad in a green dress that stops short at the waist, meeting a pair of blue pants, complete with a pronounced codpiece. A pair of furred chaps completes this ensemble. To the right sits a figure wearing a cowboy hat topped with an elaborate arrangement of feathers. A white collar and red tie encircle the subject’s neck, complementing a gray suit fronted with a panel of lace.
While such characters are meant to be humorous, they also reflect serious considerations. They pose a challenge to viewers, which Barrett sums up with a question: “[…] [W]hat is an ideal person in people’s heads—what is an ideal gender?”