Portrait of an Artist: Jason Hanasik

Q: What is your name, where are you from, where do you live now? 

A: My name is Jason Hanasik. I am from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and I currently live in San Francisco, California. 

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: I mainly work with photography, video, and installation. 

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?

A: I have an MFA in visual arts from California College of the Arts and a BFA summa cum laude from the State University of New York at Purchase. I have served as an adviser in the graduate program at California College of the Arts and am currently the senior manager of Digital Brand Communications in the Marketing Department at Gap–North America.

I include my day job since the role was created for me after I created Gap Incorporated’s contribution to the international “It Gets Better” campaign. This video, my first live-action video, not only launched my commercial/editorial career but also positioned video as a major component in my artistic practice. 

Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?

A: When NPG relaunched in 2006, I took a quick trip to DC to check out the museum and completely fell in love with a series of exhibitions that looked at a single important individual through the various “portraits” [the “One Life” series] they left behind/sat for during their lifetime. When I moved to the West Coast in 2007, I lost touch with the museum as I burrowed into my studies.

My interest and knowledge of the programming reignited during the run of the exhibition “Hide/Seek,” a show I was very interested in seeing and luckily did see before it moved to other venues. Consequently, when a few friends told me about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, I immediately put the next entry date on my calendar! Being a part of the lineage of the organization is definitely a dream come true. 

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

A: I submitted the video installation Sharrod (Turn/Twirl).

I began working with Sharrod, the main protagonist of the piece, at the end of 2008 while I was home on holiday in my hometown, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. At the time, I was completing the project “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore” and was not only hungry for a new project but also very interested in how the military grooms and sculpts its young recruits. (The idea was a natural transition from the project I was finishing up.) Sharrod’s mother and my father were coworkers and friends, and by happenstance, Sharrod was also a freshman at my alma mater, Salem High School. Most important, he was enrolled in the military’s high school preparatory program NJROTC, the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp. 

Sharrod (Turn/Twirl) was created during the winter of 2010. Earlier that year, Sharrod told me a story about an experience he had at a mock boot camp. According to Sharrod, the commanding officer made all of the young recruits stand at attention to be inspected for long periods of time. Sharrod shared that a few of the young men started losing their balance, and one passed out because they were locking their knees and stopping the blood flow to their brain. (I should note that I have always been fascinated by the military salute and have even tried to re-create the perfect salute myself in my bathroom mirror.)

I asked Sharrod to re-create the salute as a durational exercise, but this time my camera would be the one doing the inspection. After about ten minutes, I was thoroughly bored and told Sharrod that the idea was a bust and apologized for wasting his time. As I began breaking down my equipment, Sharrod, holding the salute, turned slightly and I saw what would become Sharrod (Turn/Twirl). I set the camera back up, explained my vision and captured the raw footage that would become Sharrod (Turn/Twirl).

Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.

A: I’m really interested in openness, transparency, cycles, and expectations. I’ll leave the latter two, cycles and expectations, for a later question and will instead focus on how openness and transparency inform and in some ways guide my inquiry and focus.

When I was a teenager, my parents sat my sister and me down to tell us a family secret. At that moment, my family’s narrative split into two—the reality I had been living and the one in which I was asked to rectify and assimilate. As the years went by, I began to see ruptures in the various lives all around me, including my own. For example, friends’ parents were catching spouses in extramarital affairs; I was hiding my sexuality from my family and some friends; friends/soldiers were struggling with the deaths of other friends but unable to share publicly because they thought it was not masculine/honorable, etc.

These schisms between a secret/private emotional life and a public experience confused me greatly. When I finished the initial process of coming out, the breach I was seeing in other lives began to become the focus of my work. This awareness manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes, I choose to focus on the disconnect mentioned above, and ask questions about why it is present and what motivating factors perpetuate the schism between private and public. Other times, I choose to document and present an unguarded picture of the things I often see hiding in plain sight.

Q: What are you currently working on? 

A: I am currently working on a project called "We always thought the walls would protect us, but suddenly realized they were as weak as our frames." The installation will open at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery as part of a two-person show called “Conversations 6” in early 2013.

The piece continues my interest in family, affect, home, loss, collaborating with my subjects, and storytelling but introduces my recent fascination with theater into the mix. “We always thought the walls would protect us, but suddenly realized they were as weak as our frames” is the first in what I imagine will be a series of projects/manifestations about what I experienced and have been processing since 2010. In 2010, my first long-term relationship ended, my family lost our home due to consequences stemming from the recession, and my little (and only) sister died very unexpectedly.

This first project deals mainly with the loss of my family home; however, as I have been making and writing about the piece, I realize that there are definitely references to the departure of my boyfriend and the sudden loss of my sister. 

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: My work has definitely changed over time. In 2002, I made a portrait of my parents, Jeff and Jackie Hanasik (below), which basically opened my eyes to not only the power of images but also clarified for me—and I think my audience—what I was up to in my work. From the moment I brought that picture into my junior seminar at SUNY–Purchase to about 2006–7, I was primarily focused on creating medium- to large- format, somewhat static portraits.

By the time I entered graduate school in 2007, I was restless and bored with the process, practice, and especially rules of exhibiting photographs. The photography world had burst open as weblogs proliferated and the photo world seemed to get bigger. This was awesome but seemed somehow smaller, as I felt like I was seeing the same types of pictures over and over again. Video and installation became more interesting to me, as did nontraditional exhibition formats being explored earlier in the decade by Wolfgang Tilmans.

While boredom was definitely a motivating factor, I know now that it was really frustration about not being able to create experiences that truly transported my viewer into the spaces, mindsets, and/or questions that I was trying to develop and was curious about in my work. Over the course of the last five years (and two long-term projects), my practice is now richer, more diverse, and my intentions and concepts have become much more nuanced and, I hope, clearer to the viewer.

Q: Tell us about a seminal experience you’ve had as an artist.

A: In the fall of 2009, I presented my first solo exhibition, “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore,” in New York City at +Kris Graves Projects. As the opening reception was winding down, and only a few people were left in the gallery, two women caught my attention, so I went over and introduced myself. One of the women appeared to be consoling the other one and I asked if everything was all right. With tears in her eyes, the woman who was crying looked up at me and said, “Thank you. My son returned from Iraq a few months ago and well, he just didn’t seem right and I could not understand. Tonight, after looking at your project, I think I understand what he is going through. Thank you.” Needless to say, that interaction has stuck with me ever since. 

Q: Who is your favorite artist?

A: Naming just one is much too difficult, so instead, here are a few: Larry Sultan, Paul Cadmus, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Jesper Just, Collier Schorr, Dan Flavin, and Paul Chan.

Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?

A: Larry Kramer. He’s popped up a lot for me in my twenties. I just recently had the chance to see The Normal Heart at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and thought it was absolutely amazing. His “portraits” in that play and in the book Faggots are incredible. I have no idea what we’d make together, but I think the way he uses personal biography as an igniting force for drama, portraiture, and storytelling is really compelling and in line with my own interests and practice. 

Q: What inspires you?

A: Expectations and cycles and finding ways to expose these, unravel them and ask questions why we fall into/accept them in the first place.

Growing up in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, I was inundated by narrow views of masculinity and femininity and the conservative religious right. Although my family traveled up and down the East Coast a lot as a kid, it was not until I entered my twenties and moved to New York and then San Francisco that I realized how much I was beholden to suffocating ideas about gender presentation, sexuality, and family dynamics.

As my work has matured, I’ve been able to investigate these earlier experiences, locate them in culture and embark on new projects that explode them open. Ultimately, I hope to ask questions that motivate viewers to locate and examine similarly closed perspectives in themselves.

This interview originally appeared on the National Portrait Gallery's Blog "Face to Face."