Artist's Statement: Jason Hanasik on the Myths of Masculinity

by Jonathan Curiel

It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.

The last two months have been dizzying for photographer and video artist Jason Hanasik. Besides a big exhibit at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery (401 Van Ness, through April 27), Hanasik's work is featured in a photo show that opened at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The overlapping exhibits showcase Hanasik's full artistic range -- the Smithsonian work features a high-school military student doing a military salute, while the Arts Commission work looks at the foreclosure of his parents' house, where he was raised. Hanasik, 31, spoke to SF Weekly about the power of art to delve into issues of loss and of masculinity, why a group of Marines opened up to him for an art project, and why his parents will never see his exhibit at the Arts Commission Gallery.

Q: You're in the Smithsonian with 47 others who were finalists in a photo competition held by National Portrait Gallery. The contest asked for portraits. Yours was titled "Sharrod (Turn/Twirl)." It's an intense work that's inspired intense reactions. 

A: I went to the exhibit last week in Washington, D.C., and I walked in on two guys in front of it, and I figured out through overhearing parts of their discussion that they were on a first date. They were both military men. I grew up around military men (in Virginia Beach, Virginia) and it's easy for me to spot them. They were discussing the difficulties of holding a salute for as long as Sharrod did -- how Sharrod is starting to shake in places. You can see the tension in Sharrod as he attempts to hold this salute, and where he breaks and doesn't break. I'm always caught up in this notion of how we expect people to perform or act or react. As the two men got up to leave, a young boy came running into the gallery and started to salute them but he was really just mimicking Sharrod. This happens in every city that I've shown the piece. These young children see Sharrod and start mimicking him, which for me is perfect, because that's exactly what I'm trying to talk about -- that the salute is just mimicry. With Sharrod, I was looking at how the military machine builds men right in high school.

Q; Your work at the Art Commission Gallery is rooted in the foreclosure of your childhood house in Virginia Beach, Virginia. On one TV, a video plays of a 1988 filming, where you as a boy and your sister as a girl are in the house as it's being built. On a nearby TV, a video plays of a 2010 filming, in the same house, when it's on the verge of being foreclosed. At the gallery, the TVs are in a room that you say resembles the den in that house. It's even got wooden slats like it's the start of a new house. Very unnerving. Very thought-provoking.

A: I flew to my childhood home in the fall of 2009 and I didn't realize that my family was in the financial situation they were in. My father had lost his job, though for a long time he and my mom continued a sense of normalcy for my sister and me. When I flew in, they brought me right to the house and sat me down in the den. They were playing the 1988 video. They were reminiscing while they were telling me they were losing the house. So I was caught in a very weird existential space, because it was both the beginning and the end. The structure that I hired a contractor to build inside the gallery is a very loose representation of that den where I first heard the news. The den is where the family hung out in - a place where the family discussed ideas. In the beginning of the 1988 video, me or my sister say, "Welcome to the Hanasik home." This becomes this echo chamber that we were caught in. I have to say, this was the scariest piece I've ever made. I basically walk into my old house when I go the Art Commission Gallery.

Q: The artwork is about much more than foreclosure. In fact, it took you a few years to bring the art project to fruition

A: In 2010, three major things happened: My first real relationship, in which I lived with a partner, ended; my family lost their home; and then my sister, Jennifer, passed away suddenly, at age 27. So it was this year of intense loss. It's taken about three years for me to figure out what to do with this piece so that it didn't rest on sentimentality or nostalgia. The project is really about expectations and ephemerality. One thing that I kept experiencing was, "Well, Jennifer was supposed to be alive. She should be here. The house should be here." That was coming from me and my family. The title of the piece, "We Always Thought the Walls Would Protect Us But Suddenly We Realized They Were as Weak As Our Frames," gets to this idea that we build these expectations into various aspects of our lives - our relationships, the structures we build, the family unit - and they're going to break apart. So this is the first piece out of a much larger investigation that I'm currently working on that looks at that idea. I'm working on a short film - my sister was an aspiring filmmaker, so I'm collaborating with the archive I have of her work, and recreating a film that's both about her life but also about this sense of expectation and ephemerality.

Q: Your parents will never see the piece, though. Why? 

A: Last summer, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. My mom lives in Norfolk, Virginia, and my dad lives in San Diego. They've been to virtually every single show I've ever had. They are incredible supporters. But I've kept my father away from this show. And my mother -- well, she came with me to Washington, D.C., and she was like, "Yeah, I don't really want to see your show in San Francisco." Its understandable.

Q: In 2009, Aperture Magazine gave you an Honorable Mention for its Aperture Portfolio Prize, for your project, "He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore." That project features photos of military men who make ambiguous poses for the camera. In one, a man named Steven, wearing military fatigues, is lying in a bed of flowers. In another photo, a man in shorts is carrying two bottles of urine. 

A: Well, that project also explores death. One of my childhood friends died during his first tour in Iraq. His best friend is my best friend's younger brother -- they're all Marines -- and I watched him fall apart, and also the men around him fall apart. And they're trying to negotiate how to maintain this expectation of American heroism and military masculinity, in the confines of a body that's dealing with trauma. Now that I look back on it, it's less about this dichotomy of straight sexuality and queer sexuality, and it's really about the inability to maintain any sense of normativity. In graduate school, I was saying that the Marine is so far out of what's considered normal, and that the queer-identified person is also so far out. These Marines would not talk to each other about the trauma they were going through, but I would enter the picture and I became the repository for these stories. I didn't represent a threat. They didn't see me as someone who was going to judge them against the norms of normativiity because I was so far removed from that myself. With "He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore," I'm looking at what happens when that unit of military personnel has gone through something that the military doesn't prepare them to deal with, and it breaks the unit, and they have to figure out how to be themselves.

Q: You say these photos were misinterpreted by your professors at the California College of the Arts, where you got an MFA in Visual Arts. 

A: The project started between my first and second year of graduate school. I showed my adviser my work and said, "This is my thesis, and this is what I want to work on. There's something here." And he said, "Yeah, there's something here, but you need to make more pictures and flesh this out." My adviser was the queerest white heterosexual male I've ever met, in the most amazing way possible, but other professors at the school -- these white, male heterosexual professors -- had these really naive responses, and were like, "Oh, these are your surrogate boyfriends." There's this cliche in gay, male photography of using a stud and beefcake as a subject, and I said, "I don't just look at these men as sexual objects." These professors were misinterpreting vulnerability in men as being something sexual. I got really uncomfortable, because the men I photographed had been so vulnerable with me. I didn't want these men to get wind of this and have it suddenly send them into a tailspin. So I came clean with Steven, and told him, "This is what I'm thinking of." Instead of shutting down, he opened up further. He said, "I totally get what you're doing, and I think we need it." He showed me some photographs that he took in Iraq, that then became "Steven's photograph of a man carrying two bottles of piss." That became one of my pieces.

Q: For a while, you had a "day job," but in 2010 that turned into much, much more because of your participation in Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project

A: My sister, who was lesbian, died the same time that all the teen suicides were happening across the country. She wasn't bullied, and she didn't commit suicide. But I was caught in this crazy moment of grief at the same time that that was happening. Google was the first big corporation to release a video (in 2010). The day they released it, it hit all the blogs that I read. So I'm at my desk in tears, and I just happen to have a meeting with my vice president at the time. I was totally flying under the radar at Gap, in this crappy job on purpose -- just so I could make enough money to do my artwork, and not have to think about work outside of my work day. I said, "You don't know this, but this is what I do on the side. And we need to make this video, and I'm going to make it." And at the time, I'd never shot a single live-action video in my life. He turns around, and he's balling after watching the Google video, and picks up the phone and calls the president of Gap, and he says, "We're going to make a video and we're going to release it, and I need your help." And two weeks later, we release it. Not everyone in that video is queer-identified. A lot of them are straight. Some of them are gay. I saw it as an incredible opportunity to use a major global retailer as a bully pulpit to talk about what I wanted to talk about this -- this notion that there are other opportunities, and how to imagine another world. That video got out and it had some success, and there were some really great commentary that came back to Gap and to me specifically. Then Gap made a job for me that was called "The Storyteller." I went around making videos for them and figured out how to better tell their story to their 25,000-plus marketers in their field. That was an interim position. I jumped six levels. And now I manage a team that's focused on digital strategy.

This interview was originally published on SFWeekly's blog "The Exhibitionist."