at The Harwood Museum of Art, Taos NM
Reviewed by Erin Currier
Not unlike tin scraps gathered, then painstakingly crafted and painted into ex-voto offerings under the dim flicker of propane lamps in the outer rings of Mexico City, Antigua, or Salvador, and not unlike the mid-century Beat “cut-ups” of William S. Burroughs scattered like lotus petals on a mosaic tiled floor in the junk-sick dawn of Tangiers, and not unlike the embroidered Ayahuasca-dreamt songlines of the Amazonian Shipibo, Anthony Hassett’s pen, ink and glaze drawings in Japanese Moleskin albums are rhythms of a history at once autobiographical and universal: poetic calling cards shuffled and laid bare in a line by an adept renderer’s hand that has the strength and fury of a fighter’s fist combined with the mystical empathy of a Stigmata.
Hassett’s drawings are visual scrap heaps gathered by the itinerate traveler (and, indeed, even a minor investigation into Hassett’s biography reveals a man who began hitchhiking as a boy, and matured into something of a serial hobo: traversing some sixty countries, and making returns—ida y vuelta, to many): passport photos, matchbooks with telephone numbers scrawled inside, hieroglyphs on the bathroom walls of bars, faces framed in the windows of passing trains, events accidentally witnessed or purposely observed from the landings of fire escapes during smoke breaks. Many are mementos from another place and time–a time of lunch counters, covert love affairs between sailors, newspaper routes on bicycle, telephone booths, electric typewriters in rented attic rooms; a time of jumping trains and of belongings bundled in handkerchiefs dangling from a stick. The work is nothing short of Jean Genet’s “A Thief’s Journal” put to render, and conveying all that occurs behind doors, in back alleys and back seats, on a rooftop, in the arroyos…
It is surprisingly refreshing work in our narcissistic era in which the oilspill slick Surface holds court and command in all of its selfie-stick, photoshopped splendor. Hassett’s work looks beyond the “frontal personality” and below the waist of “profile” shots. It is something of an antithesis to social media—defying the algorithmic in favor of the Real, in a brilliantly rendered revelation of the grotesque, maimed, flawed, and vulnerable, in all of its raw beauty and estrangement.
Taken individually, the subjects of Anthony Hassett’s drawings each embody a facet of the human experience: tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, indignity, absurdity, grace. They are fleeting moments of trial and tribulation caught, again, “behind the scenes”—on backlots, sometimes familiar, oft-times bizarre: baseball cards with a Shakespearean dimension. Taken as a whole, however, unfurled like Tibetan prayer flags or a roll of silver screen celluloid, Hassett’s albums depict the full arc of human pathos in epic proportion. The albums render Samsara itself, uncircled and laid bare for all to bear witness to that which simultaneously binds and unites us all. Viewers with lazy minds and faint hearts might easily dismiss some of the work as pornographic, yet this one-dimensional interpretation would fail to take into account the lineage of Indigenous Art from all over the world, including that of Tibet’s Bon and Buddhist traditions, with its “yabyum” copulating deities, for example, or India’s rich Kama Sutra tradition, which depict the full range of human sensuality—often for the purpose of spiritual transmission.
Indeed, in an excavation of comparisons to Hassett’s work, one might unearth a better trove in both Eastern and Western literary canons—in such sacred texts as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Upanishads, or the Popul Vuh; and in Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey, Eliot’s Wasteland, or Ginsberg’s Howl—than one might find in postmodern art.
In addition to being reminiscent of the Epic Poem with its initiatory or transformative journey fraught with violence, danger, eros, and awe, Hassett’s albums also recall the cinematic. On an aesthetic level, they often read like a roll of film stills: bordered in black as if seen through a cinematographer’s lens–different from the photographer’s lens–they are drawings ever in motion. One of the unique and signature aspects of Hassett’s work is this sense of movement, of forms passing through time, which he achieves largely through brushwork.
Apocalypse Now, the cinematic masterpiece that arose from Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous collaboration with Marlon Brando, particularly comes to mind in reference to the work of Anthony Hassett. There is no end to the primordial darkness to which the film dares venture, and yet a sense of “astonished wonder” permeates. There are even moments of great humor and empathy. The film has the power to transfix the viewer with a mystical beauty that is devastating, akin to a critique in the form of drowned Ophelia herself in her vessel—forever floating down the river of Time beneath a star-choked night sky. Hassett’s own work, as evidenced in the strange and magical drawings of Thompkin’s Square, achieves this level of poignancy. Like the film, his work in general contains an encrypted message that is at once political and spiritual: that this world does not have to be this way, with its wars, military, police, dictators, incarceration, oppression, torture, slaughter; rather, another world indeed is possible, a Pirate Utopia built on art, poetry, mirth, abundance and love.
Last Evenings on Earth is a condemnation—but also a poetic guidebook for a pilgrimage to a better place, a higher realm. By naming the things that are absent, he breaks the spell of the things that are, in the same way that Liberation from Samsara is possible. Anthony Hassett’s final works, works of a powerful alchemist mystic, dare us to do just that.