C’naan Hamburger

Anna Gregor, Whitehot Magazine, 4 April 2024
The world appears blurry in the galleries in lower Manhattan: landscapes are hazy, figures faded, and interiors vague. Painted thinly in muted sepia, ochre, and rosy palettes, the paintings seem to have passed through skin-smoothing Snapchat filters and vintage Instagram filters from the early twenty-teens. One cynically suspects that this filter-aesthetic in a painting performs the same function as a filter in a photo: obscuring the deficiencies of the actual image or painting by suppressing detail while adding a layer of nostalgia that yearns for--and finds pleasure in yearning for--that lost detail. The blur, fade, and muted palette suggest an unbridgeable distance between viewer and depicted object: an erotics of nostalgia. But nostalgia without anything to be nostalgic about. Nostalgia for its own sake.

But not so in Vanitas at Charles Moffett Gallery where C'Naan Hamburger's egg tempera paintings are on view. Though also paintings of landscapes, figures, and still lifes in a muted palette, Hamburger's paintings don't succumb to nostalgic vagueness. On the contrary, everything about the paintings-paint application, image, formal relations-is in sharp focus. Not the focus of a camera lens or filter, but of attention: hand, eye, and mind working reciprocally. These paintings weren't made to be scrolled past in a feed (or the circumambulation of a gallery space). They quietly ask for the same focused attention that went into their making.

All seven paintings in the exhibition depict New York City streets and buildings, many with a focus on the construction, reconstruction, and maintenance of public sites. Hamburger takes advantage of the city as a constructed environment composed largely of juxtaposed rectangles (much like paintings): flat surfaces painted and re-painted, postered with messages, covered in dirt, worn away, cracked, and patched.

In Painting Class (2023), Hamburger depicts the Canal Street Subway entrance, partially obscured by the corner of a building. Canal Street and the cars driving on it recede behind the entrance. An MTA employee in an orange vest kneels to apply a fresh coat of paint on the faded yellow steps leading to the station underground. At first glance, the juxtaposed rectangles that make up the scene (sidewalk pavers, building faces, windows, boxy cars, even the MTA employee's body made geometric by the design of his safety vest) appear to depict deep space unified by one-point perspective. But with longer looking, this presumed spatial illusion begins to disintegrate, much like the individual brushstrokes that compose the image. The MTA employee doesn't fully grasp the rail he holds in his left hand or the paintbrush in his right. Shadowless, the figure and its surrounding objects don't quite seem to be tethered to the ground. Cars assumed to be in adjacent lanes, going in different directions, actually appear to be nose to nose, gridlocked. The building parallel to the road seems to butt into another building at an angle that suggests an intersection, but the two buildings are so close that no road could fit between them. There is no touch, no depth, only adjacency-at least with regard to the represented scene.

In contrast, the paint handling, which first appears flat, reveals itself to be built up to significant depth upon close examination. Egg tempera, a characteristically flat painting technique that mixes ground pigments with an egg yolk binder, is built up, tiny stroke by tiny stroke, into a densely woven image. Earlier strata of brushstrokes, detectable beneath the visible superficial layer, show the painting to be an object constructed in time with a history. In the lower-left corner, the weave of the fabric mounted on the wood panel peaks through the paint, its frayed edges formally echoing the long, thin brushstrokes. The rhymes of history and the passage of time are embedded in the materials Hamburger uses. Egg tempera is one of the oldest painting techniques, largely replaced by oil and acrylic paints today. The animal protein binders of the rabbit skin glue gesso and egg tempera are made from animals no longer or never living. The natural pigments mixed with egg yolk are extracted from the strata of the earth. Some of the paint is even made from non-traditional found pigments that Hamburger has harvested from the city, literally embedding the material history of her subject matter in the paintings: city sidewalk in Painting Class and scrapings from the exterior of the MET Breuer building used in the depiction of the Breuer's interior in Wall Power (2024).

The title and found pigments make clear an analogy between "fine arts" painting and the everyday painting done by the MTA employee, between a painting and a subway stop, and between the tradition of painting and the history of a city. The MTA employee Hamburger depicts adding a fresh coat of yellow paint to the well-worn subway step is doing the same thing she did when she applied the yellow egg tempera to the panel. They both tend to a shared past: he to the surface of the infrastructure of daily life; she to the contemporary moment in the tradition of painting. Is the infrastructure underlying both crumbling? One gets the feeling that the world is held together by nothing more--and nothing less--than our commitment to the mutual maintenance of this web of brushstrokes.

Hamburger's material choices and stylistic echoing of past paintings (most notably those by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Edward Hopper) attest to her commitment to the tradition of painting she now participates in. But her choice of contemporary city scenes make this commitment a carrying forward of the past into the future, rather than a nostalgic idealization of the past. This differentiates her from most of the other paintings on view in Lower Manhattan mentioned earlier. Hamburger's paintings construct the present moment from the remnants of past present moments. One gets the sense that each stroke responds to what came before. They commit to detail instead of suppressing it, to presentness rather than fading into nostalgia. Most importantly, they are truly vanitas paintings for the contemporary moment. They ask us to attend and to feel the buildup of history and the passage of time, reminding us of our mortality, rather than suppressing that existential dread by scrolling on to the next mildly pleasing, blurry still life in our feed. C'Naan Hamburger: Vanitas is on view at Charles Moffett, 1437 Washington Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013 through April 24, 2024.