Massachusetts-based artist Stephen Hannock creates vast atmospheric landscapes that are almost cinematic in their scope. Using only photographs and sketches as an initial guide, the artist’s dazzling terrains are primarily the product of his mind’s eye. In the finished work, nature becomes the backdrop to a complex narrative about sense of place shaped through multiple layers of images and text.
Although this painting appeals to the long-standing relationship between artists and Niagara Falls, Hannock aims to reclaim this history and draw new perceptions from the environment. He explains, “To render the great falls of Niagara has been a tradition among painters for generations. Then, to appreciate a celebrated vista anew is always the challenge. I’ve ’set the stage’ for my stories (written throughout the composition) from a perspective below the falls . . . looking up to the towering volume of falling water.” Here, Hannock incorporated reproductions of works by artists such as Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Frank Moore, and Cindy Sherman that came to mind when he considered the myths and oral histories around the natural wonder. Inscriptions on the cliffs, which are based on a sequence of thoughts that evolved from the artist’s research and experiences, function as a visual diary. Each of these components dissolves into the rhythmic expanse of the work—only to be discovered by the attentive viewer.
While Hannock had envisioned an image of the Falls for years, it was an encounter with Phoenix—a sculptural installation by artist Xu Bing (Chinese, born 1955) on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013—that prompted him to realize it. Bing’s work features two monumental birds fabricated entirely from materials harvested from urban construction sites in China. Images of this sculpture are partially concealed among the rocks in the lower left-hand side of Hannock’s painting. The impetus behind Bing’s work resonated with the artist, prompting him to ponder the ways in which the volume of the Falls has been transformed by the hydroelectric plants that surround it, giving rise to further industry and commerce. Hannock has described Phoenix and Niagara Falls as “the two most dynamic pieces of industrial art in North America,” and The Great Falls; for Xu Bing (MassMoca #180) is a celebrated pairing of these cultural symbols.
Label from Picturing Niagara, September 30, 2017–August 5, 2018