Friday Featured Artist: Jason Hanasik
by Julie Alvarado
AltDaily, September 16, 2011

Originally a Hampton Roads native born and raised, you now reside and work out of California. Tell us how you think living on the West Coast has influenced and/or changed you or your work, creatively speaking?

The move produced a necessary change in myself and subsequently my work. After a few years of living in San Francisco, I finally became completely comfortable with my queerness. (And I mean queerness in both a textbook definition of non-normative behavior and my sexual identity.) It was, and continues to be for friends I have living here, an incredibly tough road to travel: being queer in HR. (God help you if you’re queer within the queer community here.)

As soon as I was able to accept all aspects of my identity, I finally had the space to look at what I had been making for the past seven years and realize what it was really about. That is to say, I could finally own it and shape it rather than just continue to make objects based off of instinct and intuition. The latter (being able to shape one’s work), in my opinion, is the mark of someone actually making artwork as opposed to it making them.

Much of your work examines different issues and expectations in our society. Can you tell us more about some of the issues you explore in your work?

From a young age my parents taught me to be incredibly aware, in touch, and okay with my feelings and emotions. Be they anger, hurt, rage, depression, love, et cetera. Sometime around the age of 20, I became aware of the fact that my contemporaries, specifically the men I was surrounded by, suffered greatly when it came to expressing and inhabiting their feelings. At 28, I finally realized that what I was making was work about the inner emotional lives of men. Rather, I should say, that’s the broadest focus of my work. In specific projects, I explore the ways in which we construct and understand family, the home as both location and an idea or container for experiences and expectations, and the ways in which we build men in our culture. However, sweeping through all of these sub-projects is a strong focus on the ways in which men process these changes, expectations and upsets.

Your series, “He Opened Up Somewhere Along The Eastern Shore,” focuses on two soldiers, both at home and overseas. Do you think part of your interest in doing a series on subjects who are military had to do with growing up in the Hampton Roads area? What are some of the other reasons you focused on military members as subjects for this series?

Most definitely!

When I moved to the Bay Area, one of my first friends was appalled that I had friends who were in the military. His misconceptions about the reasons why military personnel choose to enlist hit me pretty hard and I realized, he, like many, didn’t understand the complexity of not only the military machine, but the toll the experience can take on one’s life. I think everyone who grows up and/or lives in Hampton Roads is touched by the military in some way. While those of us who are civilians may not know the experience first-hand, we have a much better understanding of the military’s intricate operations than someone who understands the military via news accounts and photojournalism.

I started “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore” because a childhood friend, Cpl. Joshua Sticklen, died during a tour in Iraq and while I could grieve openly about the loss, I watched mutual friends of ours who were in the military struggle to find “appropriate” ways to grieve. I realized the expectations these men were under and wanted to insert a new possibility into the cannon of images of military men which offered a broader view of their emotional response and experience during wartime.

I should also note that I chose to work with “the military man” because I knew that that body represented one of the normative, ideal bodies in Western culture. As my research progressed, I came to understand that they are actually far from normative. I hoped that if I could complicate the military body and unmask the inherent contradictions we place on those which inhabit said body, then I might be able to expand the scope of acceptable masculine performance in everyday society.

Perhaps a question will make more sense: If we were to allow our “heroes” to emote fully then wouldn’t that allow those of us not wearing the uniform a broader (acceptable) emotional and masculine performance?

What is the contrast between the intent of your work and the perception of your work? For instance, have you ever had someone react in an unforeseen and unpredictable way to your work?

Yes, when I first started making “He Opened Up Somewhere Along the Eastern Shore” the critical response to my work was, at times, incredibly misguided. Reviewers saw the work as (and I am paraphrasing) basically “a gay guy getting off over male Marines.” Thankfully, while the initial rejections stung, I soldiered through and, with the help of an incredible support network, I continued my investigation and finished the project. In 2009/2010 two essays came out about the work which considerably refocused the conversation surrounding the project. The first one came when I was short listed for the Aperture Portfolio Prizee; the second one came when the Society for Photographic Education’s Journal, Exposure, ran a multi-page spread with an essay on the project. Both essays, in my opinion, finally saw the work for what it was and I realized that when working with something as engrained and overused as the military body, there was going to be many dissenters along the way!

On the flip side, while I was experiencing rough critical reception, audiences who were looking at the project were telling a completely different story. During the first full show of the work after my master’s exhibition, a friend noticed two women crying, approached them and asked them why they were crying. They shared that their sons had just recently returned from Iraq and that the work finally gave them some entry into why their sons were acting the way they were. Needless to say, I forgot all the problematic critical recepti on and (re)realized why I had started making the work in the first place.

What are the best and worst parts of being a full-time, working artist?

The best part: Seeing and feeling that I have found purpose in and for my life.

The worst part: I never shut off and I rarely find myself on vacation or maybe I am always on vacation, it’s hard to tell these days. It’s funny, I think the “worst part” could be in the “best part” description as well!

Some of your commercial work includes photos and video for Gap Inc. What are some differences and similarities in your commercial and personal work?

When I finished my BFA, I stopped making commercial work completely but when my sister suddenly passed away last fall, I didn’t know what to do or make until I found myself in tears after watching Google’s contribution to the “It Gets Better” project. While I had never shot a video before, I felt this ball of energy in the pit of my stomach and decided to walk into my Vice President’s office and ask him if I could make Gap Inc.’s contribution to the nationwide project. He surprisingly said, “Yes!” after we both found ourselves in tears watching the Google video again. I completed the video two weeks later.

When the video launched, I started receiving messages from friends far and wide saying that the video felt like a moving version of one of my photographs. I suddenly realized, there doesn’t have to be a line between my commercial and personal work.

I think I will probably dip in and out of the commercial art world as my career progresses but I have become much less interested in all the “checks and balances” involved in the process. That being said, in situations like the “It Gets Better” project, there is no way I would have ever been given the opportunity to speak to so many people without the help of an international company. In retrospect, I look at the IGB video as my piece used by Gap Inc. rather than a video I made for Gap Inc.

What are some of your creative influences?

Books inspire and delight me the most. After that, probably other artists’ work and the videos my friend Terry Girard sends me via gChat. Here are a list of books, if you are so interested:

Carver, Raymond. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Wilson, Eric G. Against Happiness.
Young, Ian. The Stonewall Experiment.
Vidal, Gore. Clouds and Eclipses.
Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation.
Kemp, Jonathan. London Triptych.
Hooks, Bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.

You have a two-person show, “WAIT ‘TIL YOUR FATHER COMES HOME,” opening on Saturday, September 17 at the Lorrie Saunders ArtGallery, which explores “the normative ideal of American masculinity.” Can you tell us a little bit more about the theme and content of this show, and how your work interacts with that of fellow artist Nathan Vincent?

Nathan and I have been talking about doing a show together for years and finally our schedules aligned and we found a supportive and open space (thanks Lorrie!) to explore the common trends in our work. The conceptual part of the project was kick started back in January when I found myself looking for a book to read on a drizzly afternoon in Seattle, Washington. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, by Bell Hooks, caught my eye and after a few pages I had a feeling it might even change my life. (Excuse the dip into hyperbole.) About halfway through, I ordered a copy for Nathan. He, too, had a visceral response to the content and we decided that it would be the loose base for our show.

“WAIT ‘TIL YOUR FATHER COMES HOME” idiosyncratically meanders around some of the ideas Hooks presented in her book. I think it’s safe to say that we are both interested in the way our society builds men, how we allow them to perform masculinity and how we reprimand them when they fall out of line.

Rather than setting up the show as a “here is Nathan’s take on the idea and here is Jason’s,” our works co-mingle, complicate, and compliment each other throughout the exhibition. Neither of us believe it is our job to answer how men should act or perform, rather, we are both interested in asking questions of “what if?” or “why not?”

Any words of advice for aspiring artists, photographers, and designers?

Don’t wait for an opportunity–create it. Making the “It Gets Better” video for Gap Inc. taught me that I could make videos. No one would have ever asked me to make that video, I had to step up to the plate. In Hampton Roads you really have to create opportunities for yourself and the work that you make. The “Art In Storefronts” project is a perfect example of “out of the box” thinking applied to a contemporary situation/opportunity.

If you’re a young curator, find a back room and curate a show, start having happenings in your apartment, host monthly salons in the park. If you’re an artist, organize a show in your parent’s spare bedroom or clear out your own bedroom and host it there. People are hungry for new experiences, so they’ll come if you get the word out. While the “white cube” (gallery) is sometimes the ideal setting for a show of your work, it might take a few “less traditional” exhibition spaces to entice gallery owners to take a chance on showing your work. To be honest, some of my favorite experiences exhibiting my own work have happened under much less pristine situations than the clean and clear white walls of a gallery.