It’s a date is a column of Contemporânea written by Alberta Romano dedicated to studio visits with artists from Lisbon and from all over the word, both in person and online.
Episode N5: Hannah Tilson
Naples > London, March, 2021
I can perfectly recount every single phone call I’ve answered this year, just like, some years ago, I could perfectly recount every single video call I’d been on. "Video-call me!" screamed the showgirl Valeria Marini in one of the first Italian commercials for a mobile phone with an internal camera. It goes without saying that no video call was actually going on in that ad, just like it didn’t in the following ones by the same company. The quality of those early video calls was so poor that showing them on TV would’ve been daunting.
Today, post-2020, we struggle to conceive a call, especially if we’re talking with someone we know, that doesn't involve a video. And if you think about it, it's suggestive that the same year that took us away from each other’s faces due to the use of masks has made us incapable of hearing a familiar sound without matching it with a face.
It feels like we need to be surrounded by faces.
And I think this could be a suitable way to introduce my recent conversation with Hannah Tilson.
Hannah Tilson lives in London, where she currently studies at the Royal Drawing School.
She is also a musician and plays trombone in a band called This is the deep.
She virtually welcomes me into her studio in London, where she is surrounded by paintings.
Looking carefully at the wall behind her, I begin to notice that most of them portray a human figure.
Alberta: “Is that you, the one portrayed there?”
Hannah: “Oh… yes, actually I am surrounded by me, well… I guess that wearing a mask means that they don’t necessarily need to be seen as self-portraits, but yes, they are, they are portraits. A pattern of portraits, I would say…”
I could have stopped my virtual studio visit there. Hannah's work is an explosion of patterns and shades, and when I heard that sentence I felt something explode in my head. Probably, it was all those colours. Some mixed memories occurred to me, most of which can be traced back to Pirandello’s masterpiece: One, No One and One Hundred Thousand.
“The idea that others saw in me one that was not the I whom I knew, one whom they alone could know, as they looked at me from without, with eyes that were not my own, eyes that conferred upon me an aspect destined to remain always foreign to me, although it was one that was in me, one that was my own to them (a "mine," that is to say, that was not for me!)—a life into which, although it was my own, I had no power to penetrate—this idea gave me no rest.”
Hannah starts breaking the ice by telling me about her stay in the countryside during the first lockdown, when, every week, she would draw herself wearing different items. In order to make that happen, she built some theatrical sets where to literally immerse herself. The result is a rollercoaster of colours and patterns where, although we might find it difficult to define human or animal shapes (when present), we can easily get carried away by the lines that compose her textiles, as we slide upon the curved ones to then go up through their grids.
“Yes, the human figure is not fully formed,” Hannah adds, “and I like to treat both the body and the pattern as landscapes.”
My rollercoaster continues. I think there is a huge potential in thinking of the human body as a landscape, because the ways in which somebody can read a landscape are potentially infinite, and, since it is constantly mutating, it is impossible to label it.
Then, while we talk, Hannah shows me a self-portrait in which her face is mostly covered by her hands.
A: “Wow, you know what? This reminds me of some old photographs from the 80s in which women were asked to pose so that their hands would sort of frame their face, with the belief that these poses made them look gentler, and affable… but then you know… they all look like…"
H: “… not being themselves but kind of forced to be someone else?!”
A: “Yes, exactly!”
Not by chance, the more Hannah shows me her most recent paintings, the more the human figure disappears, sometimes completely swallowed up by patterns, other times simply unrecognisable due to what, to me, seem to be space helmets. A new imaginary, drenched in experimentation, opens up in front of her. It becomes even clearer to me as I stare at what Hannah made at the end of lockdown. She has created a whole series of new collages and assemblages in which she put two or more paintings together, reconnecting with her previous embroidery experiences.
In particular, she shows me a large painting made up of strips of intertwined painted canvas. Here the fact that she plays with the construction of a possible identity is more than explicit, but nevertheless engaging. It is here that, perhaps more than in any other painting, any shape can become a changeable part of a layered landscape.
Before saying goodbye, Hannah wants to show me some amazing Japanese woodblock prints she’s looking at the moment. The way in which the backgrounds of these paintings blend and mix with the clothes of their protagonists is enchanting, and I can fully understand why she likes them.
The attention to our appearance and to what we wear in order to shape it has always been interesting to Hannah. As a matter of fact, the first time I bumped into her work was through Instagram, and I believe that, to this day, it is still one of the very few pleasant discoveries I’ve made that way.
The first series of works by Hannah Tilson that I saw (the ones that prompted me to slide into her DMs) was her Slade degree show. There were a series of human-sized paper-doll clothes, the ones with the little tabs we used to play with as kids, and they were hanging from the ceiling, surrounded by huge red and blue checked paintings, each one called Glamorous Approach.
At the time, I found the pictures of the entire installation simply brilliant.
Our Skype call is now about to end when we both remember that, the day before our online studio visit, Harry and Meghan had had their interview with Oprah Winfrey. We feel obliged to at least mention it. Always better than Covid-19. After this, I confess to Hannah that the whole mood of that interview gave me a pink vibe, but I probably didn't make myself clear, and she thinks that it was our interview that made me think in pink. Which it didn’t, by the way. Funny how, even at the end of our chat, we got lost in colour.
The Mystery Box is made out of links, randomly arranged at the bottom of the page, that will take you to things we’ve been talking about during the studio visit. The way in which they are presented is not only a nostalgic way to remember the magic suspense that belonged to early internet structures, but also hides the hope to tickle the curiosity of the readers a bit more than the classic footnotes.
Hannah Tilson (b. 1995) is based in London, where she graduated with a Bachelors in Painting from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2018, during which time she also studied on exchange at the New York Studio School. She is about to graduate from a scholarship programme at the Royal Drawing School, in London. Recent exhibitions.
Alberta Romano is an art historian and contemporary art curator born in Pescara, Italy in 1991. She is currently the curator of Kunsthalle Lissabon. Since 2017 she has worked with the CRC Foundation in Cuneo, coordinating the acquisitions for their contemporary art collection. After graduating with a BA in Art History at La Sapienza in Rome and with an MFA in Visual Cultures and Curatorial Practices at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brera in Milan, she attended the curatorial program CAMPO16 at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. She has written for Artforum, Flash Art, Contemporânea and Kabul Magazine, among other magazines.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Hannah Tilson. Pattern Vortex, 2021; Portrait Hannah Tilson, Photo: Joseph Ironmonger; Pattern Portrait 1, 2020; Leopard Masked Me, 2020; Concealer, 2020, Photo: Richard Ivey; Protective Prints, 2021; Miss Prints, 2020, Photo: Richard Ivey; Homemade paint on paper, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.