Bret Hanson has been playing guitar since he was 16. “At one point, I wanted to start using a slide guitar but I didn’t want to buy one because it was so expensive,” he says. “I thought to myself, maybe I can make one myself, it can’t be that difficult.” Such a bold and curious inclination seems quite fitting for an artist — an experimental mind constantly on the prowl for new visions and experiences. “I ended up making one and was shocked when it turned out well! I immediately began making guitars, ukuleles and banjos.” Hanson quickly immersed himself in the process of designing the pieces, using unconventional materials such as reclaimed wood and cigar boxes to forge distinct designs for each instrument. The craft required him to labor intensely over each instrument, imbuing unique attributes within each object before selling his creations online. Throughout this process, Hanson unknowingly ignited a passion for woodworking, one that he has carried over into other sculptural works since largely retiring his practice of instrument making.
Now Hanson has unveiled a new body of work for his show at the Salt Lake City Main Library, entitled Mapping + Unpacking, an exhibition of mixed-media works and sculptures. The show marks his second exhibition at the library, albeit with a very different approach to his craft than the show he debuted there six years ago.
To Hanson, this collection is decidedly more autobiographical than his earlier shows, and presents an exciting but challenging new chapter in his professional and personal existence. Arranged in distinct sections, the exhibition pairs two-dimensional works with a three-dimensional counterpart, which each corresponding to a chapter in the artist’s life. The pairings are visually provocative, offering an engaging insight into Hanson’s conceptual trajectory from idea to execution. Hanson’s affinity for mapping is both technical and personal, as he uses various printmaking techniques as well as wood to map memories and investigate the fertile connection between space and identity.
Even a cursory glance at Hanson’s mixed-media works yields a lush sensorial experience. As a printmaker, Hanson utilizes the medium’s richness to his advantage, creating various layers that accumulate to form a complex visual palimpsest. The idea of mapping is crucial for Hanson, who describes maps as “a way to understand the world and what one’s place is in it…[and a] pictorial symbol representing a space beyond itself.” Most strikingly, Hanson maps architectural structures and isolated segments onto experimental backdrops. Fragmented and removed from their origin, the forms take on even more visual potency, freed at last from strict utility: there’s something deeply profound in recognizing the gestalt fragments of a Roman aqueduct or triumphant dome, forms imbued with the grand significance of human ingenuity and cultural achievement.
Hanson’s interest in mapping began while studying as an undergraduate at Utah State University. At this point, he was experimenting with figurative work that he paired with diagrammatic illustrations of maps and engines. This seemingly unlikely juxtaposition allowed him to assess the similarities between technology and the human form. With a marked interest for intersectional forms in mind, printmaking became an apt tool for carrying out his visual experiments. “I began using Japanese rice paper, which allows you to see multiple images that sit atop one another,” he says. “I really gravitated toward its transparent nature, where the images all interacted with each other at the same time.” He eventually mastered printmaking techniques such as monotype, linoleum and screenprinting. While these labor-intensive processes produce incredible visual results, they require an expansive studio and an abundance of printmaking materials. Hanson eventually opted for a less burdensome home studio, where he is now able to craft home printmaking remedies that give his work a more humble and experimental appearance.
While studying at the University of New Mexico, where he received his MFA in 2007, Hanson’s fascination with Albuquerque’s architecture stirred in him an interest in the relationship between human beings and their built environment. He then abandoned figural work altogether, opting instead for the inclusion of architectural forms that he says are “more universal, easier to interpret and applicable to a broader audience.”
Many viewers envision antiquity’s grand nudes as art history’s foremost innovation. For Hanson, architecture is equally enlightening. “I was thinking about archeologists who study ruins of the past and infer from them what past civilizations were like,” he says. “It occurred to me that architecture was just as intimate a manner of getting to know humans as any figural depiction.” Indeed, Hanson’s prints are replete with famous architectural structures recognizable to any student in the humanities. In addition to the presence of famous structures such as the Florence Cathedral, Roman aqueducts make frequent appearances in his prints. Hanson’s work is a dual tribute to the beautiful simplicity of architecture on the one hand, and the complicated and labor-intensive practice of printmaking on the other. His two-dimensional prints combine various techniques such as lithography and screenprinting, which creates a visually enticing contrast to the sloppier, hand-drawn effect of lithography.
Hanson succeeds in what seems like a daunting conceptual task — to artfully combine the personal with the academic, the sensitive with the thought provoking. Hanson grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, in a religious family, and after graduate school, at a time when he considered himself a “Mormon artist,” his architecturally inspired works incorporated references to LDS meetinghouses and symbols from LDS temples. These symbols and the idea of mapping, especially through the stars, referenced a sense of “spiritual navigation.” Since leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hanson has used similar methods to make sense of his past and locate his spiritual present. “Leaving the church presented a bit of a turning point in how I look at myself and others,” he says. “I used art as an experimental way of looking differently at myself and the things I remember from the different spaces I grew up in.”
Although Hanson’s sculptural works are densely compact and meant to be viewed from all angles, they contain hinges allowing them to be bent and condensed. As a sort of sculptural pop-up book, they can be easily diminished and carried away. For Hanson, this tactile utility is a metaphor for religion, namely the notion that religious belief appears foundationally strong to the believer but can easily become foundationally weak and mobile upon further contemplation. “These three-dimensional pieces symbolize my experiences, [wherein I compare] a view of my life as being very structurally sound, with life as moveable, fluid and fragile.”
Sculptural experiments such as these have an undeniably fascinating role in modern art. Hanson’s collapsible sculptures are reminiscent of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s thinly-cut, orbital “Spatial Constructions,” of the 1920s, which imbued the delicately balanced rotating mobiles with Rodchenko’s Communist idealism. Sculpture is an apt medium for conveying intellectually potent philosophies, with artists such as Carl Andre, Auguste Rodin and Anthony Calder staking claim to vastly different iterations of the modern sculptural ethos.
Hanson describes his process as a “new cartography” or “a way to synthesize map-like language into a visual record of my life.” In the process, Hanson has created a visually dynamic and conceptually fluid experiment, one that requires no underlying context in order to gain full aesthetic effect. Indeed, there’s something inspiring and accessible about Hanson’s work, evidenced by the various marks and layers that coalesce on the surface of his prints.
When he’s not immersed in the act of artmaking, Hanson writes and performs music. While he’s keen to continue instrument-making as a hobby, Hanson has put it aside for now, compelled to devote more time to his own art. “I wanted to do [this] show because I had a new story I needed to tell, for other people and for myself. It was important for me to work through it so I could reflect on where I came from and where I’m going.”
Mapping + Unpacking: Mixed Media and Sculpture by Bret Hanson, Main Library, Gallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City, until June 9, slcpl.org.
Scotti Hill received her Juris Doctorate from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 2018, with a certificate in intellectual property law. She previously received a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History and taught art history courses at Westminster College and the University of Utah. She continues to write for 15 Bytes and the Deseret News.