James Hanley loves to tell stories, both in his work and in person. His oil paintings, often larger than life, are complex narrative works referencing history and contemporary and classical culture, using the figure as central focal point and protagonist, and frequently take weeks and occasionally months to complete. Sometimes his jokes and stories can seem to take quite a while too.
His works on paper, on the other hand, are, in their own way, one-liners, punchlines. They are an indulgence, snappy, droll and cynical, free from the time commitments and commercial pressures involved in producing larger scale work. Working on paper has given him the opportunity to engage with the same ideas but in a speedier, looser and less formal way, providing a more flexible and immediate method of continuing the exploration of familiar themes and images. Essentially humorous, full of trompe l’oeil devices, in-jokes and out-takes, and frequently burdened with truly shocking puns as titles, these works serve to underline the provisional nature of meaning and the playful possibilities of working on paper.
James Hanley’s works on paper form a strand of his practice which has become increasingly significant and useful to him, and which feeds in a very real way into his overall work. Works on paper are reflective of all of his key interests – the individual figure, the weight of history and its relevance or otherwise to contemporary life, the absolute necessity of a sense of humour, the challenges of representation, the pleasures of illusion.
Some works on paper are completed in a single sitting, such as with work from the life room. This concentrated focus for a finite period of time on the person being recorded is liberating, compared to the usual level of preparation required for larger work, and naturally creates a situation where each attempt is a chance to try something new.
Working in the life room is something that appeals by its very nature to James’ sense of tradition and continuity. For a particularly sociable animal, who spends such a significant percentage of his waking life on his own in his studio, the pleasure of working regularly with other artists in the life room is immense. Experimenting with different materials and media, while sharing the experience with artists who work in various ways and at varying paces has expanded his working vocabulary, allowed him examine his own working methods and opened him to new experiences.
Texts adapted from an essay by Órla Dukes for A Decade of Works on Paper, a catalogue produced in 2005