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Words and Pictures

Four drawings by Hannah Antalek.

When we were kids, my younger sister used to hide things between her mattress and her box spring. Invariably, the things she’d hide were either precious to her or stolen from my room including books, notes to or from crushes, photos, clothing, and candy. She didn’t think I knew her secret and I wanted it to stay that way. I did my best to cover my tracks when running reconnaissance missions to repatriate any favourite clothing that she’d disappeared from my closet. Every once and a while I’d find something legitimately juicy – a note passed between school desks or ripped from a diary page on which she had poured out her sweet, tender heart. Of course I’d feel guilty devouring her secrets, but the thrill of furtive entry to my siblings inner thoughts and feelings overrode any decent sense of proprietary. 

Hannah Anatalek’s four new drawings have a youthful and diaristic nature that offer the same guilty pleasure. The drawings are small but powerful. They were made table top in a Covid 19 era bedroom with unfussy materials such as markers, pencils, crayons and gouache — all of which were supplies close at hand. The images are dense and kaleidoscopic with horses, fields of thistles and flowers, fairy castles, halloween bats, and vintage Disney villains. Easily categorized at first glance as clever doodles, the artworks hold a density and gravity that make them much more than that. They are talismans that activate that memorialized space between adolescence and adulthood and made in a ritualistic practice of remembering and misremembering. 

With a prolonged look, the system of creation reveals itself through the mark making. This system is linked to a hierarchy of memory from the badly recalled through to the imagined and appropriated all of which for Antalek is highly personal and codified. “I start with the horses first. In marker, I start trying to draw them from memory, failing most of the time to get it right.” There is a swift pace set in these works. You can feel it. Markers afford a transparent and hatched effect as horses and fields are roughly mapped on the page. After the markers, she moves on to the pencils and crayons and then to gouache for fine detail as the image builds. Adding to the sophisticated compositions, white space is utilized with the precision of an entomologist to pin in place shapes representing bats and birds and butterflies. 

Hannah’s favourite holiday is Halloween. The childish joy of Trick or Treat juxtaposed against the terrifying origins of the day runs through the artworks. In “Safe and Sound” coloured serpents thread through the grass startling the horses and writhing over the princess castle. In “Flora Shakespeare”, butcher’s blades have severed hapless pink daisies so that they gush bloody blue fluid. We suspect that the pretty violet flowers in the mid ground are likely to be poisonous nightshade. In “The Alarm Colored Shadow of a Frightened Ant” wild colts flee through brush fire and a wicked old wolf beckons us to revel in their plight. In “Oasis”, brushy birds of prey fall from the sky with pointed beaks turned downwards like knives. Further danger is foreshadowed by two muscular snakes, each coiled at and framing either side of the pony enclosure. 

The conjunction of seemingly naive imagery with imminent peril leads us to be curious about the genesis of these works. The works feel confessional but are also heavily coded like a diary written in cipher. The act of doing this reveals conflicting intentions in the artist — the desire to document but also a shyness to exposure necessitating camouflage. We know the artist has shared something intimate, but the key with which to crack the code is known only to her. 

Antalek’s reasons for making these works are guided by the same impulses as those operating in the outsider and naïf genre. 

Outsider artists are renowned for the way in which they use compulsive art making for deeply therapeutic reasons. Trained artists who adopted the faux naïf style (such as Paul Klee) did so to borrow the provocative power of the authentic drive for unfettered self discovery. Many contemporary artists (such as Genieve Figgis or Nina Chanel Abney) have continued in this vein. However, what does naïf look like for an American girl child raised in the 1990’s? Antalek gives us the answers: a pastiche of jack o’lanterns, pastel coloured sticker books á la Lisa Frank, ponies, backyard picnics, and family vacations in minivans. 

Antalek is a trained artist putting herself into the outsider mindset of non-academic, compulsive mark making with a repetition of personal symbology. She does this in order to investigate and work through her own history, including undivulged trauma. Working from family photos and individual or shared attempts to remember the events that are depicted, Antalek often elects to surrender the factual and go with the invented. In doing so she creates revisionist narratives that conflate her lived experience with debris from the environmental and the generational. What she does not strain to recall, she borrows deftly as ready mades. The end result is a sweet and sour exercise of revisiting the past, if even a partially fictionalized one, in order to move steadfastly into the future.

About the artist: Hannah Antalek graduated from The Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in painting and a concentration in art history. Hannah is a recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and completed residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Studios of Key West. Her most recent exhibition was at Spring/Break Art Show. She currently works out of her studio in The Brooklyn Navy Yard.Her website is: hannahantalek.com and her Instagram profile is: @hannah_antalek.

About the writer: Jennifer Mawby is a contemporary artist and sometimes curator and art writer with a focus on projects for artists using accessible language. Jennifer is the co-founder and director of Vantage Art Projects. Her work can be found here: www.jjtmstudio.com and on Instagram: @jenniferjeanmawby.