Dictators, Disasters, and Cheez Logs: The Art of Phil Hansen

Categories: Art/Museums

On the morning I drive out to Eden Prairie to meet Phil Hansen, there is a virtual white-out. Powdery snow snakes across a windy Highway 5. Large, remarkably similar houses line the cul-de-sacs and residential streets that seem to be forever doubling back on themselves, leading only to more houses -- or are those the same houses I just passed by?

After my editor viewed some of Hansen’s darker works on-line, he only half-jokingly suggested phoning in the interview or, at the very least, taking a friend with me. The large portrait of Kim Jong Il that Hansen did in his own blood and another of the Gary Ridgway, the Green River serial killer, are the two pieces that piqued his concern. Today I have opted to go it alone, and as I watch the houses scroll past the window, the only fear I have is that I will become permanently lost in suburban malaise.

Little do I know how lucky I am today. In his temporary basement studio, Hansen has carved out an anti-malaise space. Each piece is more complex than it first appears. It is impossible to resist the pull of his work. The surface images are adept and often attractive, but you also have to look beneath the surface. What at first glance is about dictators and death turns out to be a touching remembrance of the victims.

The “canvas” of the Kim Jong Il portrait, for example, is comprised of hundreds of bandages folded so that only the gauzy part is exposed. They look like small tiles. The “frame” of the portrait is made of band-aids, face down overlapping each other, lending them a flesh-like appearance. Yes, the portrait is made with Hansen’s own blood, which he had his MD sister-in-law draw for him, but as he pointed out on a recent Yahoo interview, “Five hundred cc's of blood seems like a lot, but it's just nothing. I don't even have scars on my arms from it.” The subtext is that what he did for the piece is nothing compared to the amount that North Koreans have suffered under the dictator’s reign.

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***

Hansen greets me at the door of his brother’s large corner house where he currently lives. Fair-skinned and lightly freckled, he looks younger than his 28 years and not nearly the type one would expect to be the creator behind such seemingly dark works. He wears his hair in a slick, spikey faux-hawk. Together with his wide, bright blue eyes this calls to mind Tintin, the plucky hero of the French comic books by Hergé. The living area behind him is remarkably clean and white, in a very unartist-like way. Must be his brother’s doing, I think, but it turns out his brother has been out of the country for four months. Hansen moved from his home state of Washington into his brother’s house in 2006 with for a two year hiatus to work on his art and see where it would go.

Hansen’s basement domain is almost as organized as the rest of the house. On a large table in his bedroom, posters and postcards of Hansen’s work are arranged in tidy piles next to a black plastic shelving unit full of the shipping supplies Hansen uses to fill his internet orders. He explains, laughing, “This used to be my bedroom. It’s kind of changed.”

The room next door is where Hansen works most of the time. There’s a computer on a desk in the corner, where he surfs the net, keeps his website updated, and edits and uploads files onto YouTube, the site that has become Hansen’s cyber-gallery—apropos for an aught generation artist. One wall is covered in scribbled portraits that Hansen has penciled for his latest project. A box light squats on the floor in the corner with a large negative of Hansen himself. In another corner, a web cam is pointed at a large piece of brightly-lit white paper on the wall, which is white with small bruises of black paint, evidence of a portrait of Bruce Lee that Hansen karate chopped using the paint-covered edge of his hand against a large paper canvas. A large table with scraps of paper sits next to a bookshelf next to the door. Amongst other flotsam and jetsam on the shelves is a small round brick of partially burnt matches which I initially mistake for a moldy cupcake. It’s a remnant from a piece that he set on fire. The white room is well lit, ready for Hansen to film for YouTube, even late at night when he gets much of his work done. The Beastie Boys rap eloquent through computer speakers.

The main room of the basement is full of Hansen’s work. Some pieces fill entire walls. There is no way to comprehend the scale of his work from just looking at it on YouTube. The low ceiling, stark lighting, and white walls and carpet lend an eerie feel to his already eerie subjects: the aforementioned North Korean dictator, the serial killer, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen, and George W. Bush. A box full of crumpled portraits, some with their eyes x-ed out – detritus from yet another project -- completes the scene.

Like the Kim Jong Il piece, the work acknowledges those who have suffered at the hands of the subject. The Bush portrait is made of the names of each of the American soldiers that died in Iraq as of April 30th, 2005. The Green River killer portrait is similarly made of the individual portraits of the women that Gary Ridgeway killed. But rather than paying homage to a killer, the piece is much more about remembering his victims and what brought them all together. As his father, Jerry Hansen, recalls, “I was with him one time when he displayed that in Seattle and he had a social worker come up to it and basically say she was real glad somebody remembered the people who were his victims. He had another person come up who had known a couple of the victims and was real glad they were remembered too.”

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The KKK piece is made of pages of the bible shrunk and magnified to create shades of grey from black to white. The companion piece is a huge sheet of paper covered in bible verses that, when backlit, reveal a portrait of Rosa Parks created by layering the verses to make black or white space.

“When I started these pieces the idea was at that time everything that you read in American media [about] Islam was just negative. And like any religion, there has to be positive. There has to be. So for me, these two pieces are about society, hopefully, being able to reflect and say, ‘in our past, yes, there was a time where our Christian ideal did have these two major opposing sides to it.’ And hopefully being able to look at it, recognize it and apply that to other cultures, other people that we don’t necessarily understand.” Hansen is, himself, a self-described agnostic.

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Not all of Hansen’s projects attempt to encompass such hefty ideas. He is perhaps best known on YouTube for his “Goodbye Art” series -– art that is impermanent and created, mostly, for on-line viewing. The idea was to “make a new piece each weekend, with a different theme each month, without concern for the extreme detail and absolute perfection.” He’s made pieces out of leaves, pinecones, snow, Oreos, candles, individually painted matches, chalk and other media that won’t necessarily last or that he intentionally destroys. He isn’t shy about sharing his process with his viewers. In fact, many of the YouTube videos focus on the process.

Some of the pieces are decidedly gimmicky, especially for such a high concept artist, and Hansen doesn't count all among his best work. But “Goodbye Art” has garnered a lot of hits on YouTube. A lot. The picture of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam self immolating made out of Oreo cookies got over 73,000 hits. The portrait of a soldier which he made by x-raying a box filled with sand attracted over 109,000 hits. In keeping with the idea of impermanence behind “Goodbye” art, he shredded the final image and destroyed the box.

The piece inspired one marriage proposal and a discussion (yes, an actual discussion) on YouTube about art and the importance of the process; why an artist might destroy their work rather than try to make money off of it, for example.

Another hit-generating piece of impermanent art was the portrait of Jimi Hendrix that Hansen made out of matchsticks. He painstakingly painted each one in red, black, and white before setting the whole thing on fire. This earned well over a million video views and over four thousand comments (and likely over four thousand uses of the word “awesome” or “awesomeness”).

The Hendrix piece illustrates another facet of Hansen, and shows that YouTube has proved to be an ideal training ground for an artist who wants “to make art that Joe Shmoe -- who would walk past a gallery and think absolutely nothing about walking past and maybe wouldn’t even look at the window -- that that person can look at my work and actually sort of be surprised that they liked it, they get it, they don’t know why, but they connect with it in some way.” In addition to the accessibility of the YouTube videos, Hansen’s boy-next-store approachability in his videos is also one of the reasons for his success. Fewer people would want to watch a video featuring a moody, seemingly unapproachable creator. As Hansen explains, “people ask, ‘Oh, so you’re an artist?’ I usually say, ‘no.’ I mean, I do art. Do I call myself an artist? I don’t know. I had this idea of people who call themselves an artists – it’s a construed idea, of course, but… I don’t fit my own idea of an artist.”

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And yet there’s tension inherent in Hansen’s aspirations because, on the other hand, he also wants “to make art that’s technically detailed, that’s intricate, that has multiple layers that you can tell there’s a process behind everything. So people that are really into art can appreciate it as well.” He is trying to find the balance between those. It was a hard balance to strike, working full-time as an x-ray technician. He was getting lots of hits on his videos and advertising agencies were starting to notice him.

Hansen began putting more pressure on himself to create more challenging and adept work. He was spending three and four days a week on small pieces of “Goodbye Art” that were, initially, meant to just get his creative juices flowing. He had little time left for big projects and rushing his smaller pieces meant that he was posting increasingly, in his opinion, sup-par work. “It just kind of got to the point where I didn’t want to put something out that the end product was crap.”

After three months of “Goodbye Art,” he stopped it. “I had some fun ideas, but nothing that I would ever say represents my art. It was fun.”

Jia Liu, a fellow photographer and graduate student at Carlson, watched Hansen through the “Goodbye Art” project. “I told him that small projects are fine but you shouldn’t force yourself to do that every week.” Liu was concerned that Hansen would end up just producing “trash.” The “Goodbye Art” was limiting Hansen. “I think as an artist,” Liu explains, “you should become quiet with your art and what comes up to your mind, you should work on it no matter if it’s a big project or a small project; you shouldn’t limit yourself.”

His final “Goodbye Art” piece in 2007 was a 7-foot-by-12-foot portrait that he made by rubbing the grease from a large order of MacDonald’s French fries on a piece of white paper, making it nearly translucent and revealing the black paper behind. “I loved the picture in a way,” he explains, “but it was kind of out of my norm. It wasn’t photorealistic. It was very simple but it kind of had this grotesque feel to it. I was just so unsatisfied and unhappy with the whole thing. I just said screw it. I put it up and then that was the end of it.”

***

“Goodbye Art” as a means to stimulate creativity hardly seems to be necessity for Hansen; the man remains a fount of ideas.

The first time we meet in early December, he has an idea for a series of photographs about the California wildfires. He’s about to take a trip to San Diego where Jeremiah, a friend of his who had to be evacuated during the fires, lives. He wants to find a spot that was hit by the fires and take two pictures of his friend. In one, Jeremiah will be painted entirely in black and shot from behind. In the next, he will turn around to reveal his front, which will be painted entirely in red.

The project is rooted in Hansen’s fascination with how the media can cover an event or tragedy or some sort of devastation to a saturation point, but as soon as the event seems over will move on to the next tragedy -- forgetting that any sort of devastation has an aftermath. The original California project has led to other ideas for more pairs of photographs of subjects camouflaged into and then set in stark contrast to their “natural” settings.

He also has a larger piece in the works. “In my personal opinion, [it’s] my biggest project to date in terms of technical [matters] as well as the involvement with it. I think the reaction to it – depending on where it’s shown, depending on how it’s viewed, I think the reaction to it might be a bit harsh, but I think that’ll be from people who don’t really sit and think about it.”

But Hansen resists actually articulating what the project entails. When I ask him about it, he grows quiet, pensive. It’s not that he is unable to talk about his work; it’s that he doesn’t really like to talk about his work until after it’s complete. “I’m very critical of myself and if I tell somebody what I’m working on and they don’t react well, I spend way too much time dealing on why they might have reacted that way. I spend too much time thinking about other people’s reactions.”

A week or so later, I witness this phenomenon in person.

I meet Hansen again for a cup of coffee in a dimly-lit Uptown coffeeshop. He’s wearing a grey and black tessellation zip-up hoodie, his winter-time trademark gear. His first announcement is that he’s brought back “Goodbye Art.” (“Hello Goodbye?” the YouTube consumers comment.) The decision was in part born out of basic need. Hansen makes no money from his YouTube videos, but they do drive a lot of traffic to his website where he sells posters and fine art prints of his work. “Now I kind of realize the power of ten to twenty thousand people a week looking at my videos.” In fact, he was selling so many posters before he stopped “Goodbye Art” that he was able to scale down his x-ray job to part time -- which, in turn, has given him more time to do these smaller projects.

The hiatus was a learning experience for him. First, he was surprised that no one seemed to notice that he had stopped the project. “People didn’t say anything -- [and] I was absolutely shocked. I’m putting a piece out every week roughly, and then all of the sudden, I totally cut out. I don’t say anything about it and I get no e-mails from anyone asking what’s going on, where’s it going. It’s like a TV show – it’s gone and you forget about it.”

Taking a break also gave him perspective on the potential for “Goodbye Art.” “For me, it’s good and bad. It’s bad because if I’m not feeling it, I’m going to force something that shouldn’t be forced. But the idea of creating something every week, it expanded my thinking in ways. It pushed me to develop new ideas – to push boundaries and different things that were personal boundaries.” Not art boundaries, he qualifies. “Just personal things I didn’t feel comfortable with. I’m like, you know what, if I’m not comfortable with it? Screw it. I’m going to do it.”

He came back to it reinvigorated. In the first piece, he took a hike in the woods with a hundred dollars worth of Cheez Whiz, found a log with an interesting shape to it and covered the log in the bright orange substance. The project, the video, and the picture of the end product that he took was about more than just a clever Christmas-time pun (although there was that too).

“Cheese is natural,” Hansen explains. “Cheez – that kind of thing out of a can -- is not exactly natural, but it’s still considered cheese. And so when I look at the photograph, I see something that’s supposed to be natural, supposed to be wholesome in a natural setting and, I tell you, it looks so unnatural. It stands out obnoxiously.” Hansen was pleased with the photograph of his Cheez log and surprised to find that when he walked to the opposite side of the lake, nearly a half mile away, he was still able to see the glowing orange processed product against the snowy backdrop. He posted the video on YouTube. “Goodbye Art” was back.

Hansen received comments that he was not expecting.

“The Web is what the Web is and people were flat out giving their harsh opinions. ‘This is the worst thing [you]’ve ever done.’ ‘It’s not art, it’s just covering up a log with cheese.’ If I went out in the woods and made a picture of a face with Cheez, the same people would be like, ‘That’s great.’ But no, they wouldn’t have any of it.”

Hansen is admittedly sensitive to criticism, but I am flabbergasted when I go to check out the comments on YouTube and find that 95% of the comments are laudatory at least and neutral at worst. The piece has stimulated conversations about art. Viewers find humor in the piece. The Web is what the Web is -- and it definitely gets much worse. Hansen has extremely high expectations of himself and his art. His perception of the on-line reaction to the piece has led him to take a temporary break from responding to the comments, something that he did with all of his other work.

Those few who did have negative comments about the Cheez log were, perhaps, offended because the piece seemingly showcased less of Hansen’s astounding technical talent, which he has in spades. In fact, one of the things that drove Hansen away from Northwest College of Art in Washington after just two quarters was the lack of technical instruction. “For the first two quarters, all they taught us was the stuff I learned in introduction art in high school. So it was depressing.” His only real regret is that he missed out on learning how to negotiate the art world, how to approach galleries, and get his work off of the Web and out into the rest of the world.

His technical skills extend beyond making photorealistic portraits out of unusual substances. In order to do what he does, he must also be skilled in photography, lighting, filming, and editing. His YouTube videos are short narratives in which the climax is the creation of a compelling piece of art.

A few weeks after we first meet, Hansen e-mails me the rough copies of his California wildfires project. The results are striking. In the first piece, his friend Jeremiah stands naked with his back to the camera and his body painted entirely black. The setting is a rocky landscape with sparse, dead, blackened trees set against an almost white sky. The shine of the black paint on Jeremiah’s skin is mirrored in the ashy black shine of the nearby boulders. He is at once a piece of the scenery and apart from it. In the second picture, Jeremiah is facing toward the camera and painted bright red. Something about the paint around his eyes makes him look like a satyr or some other mythical creature in a post-apocalyptic world.

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Hansen clearly soaks up the world visually. He is able to give it back to viewers ten-fold. It makes sense that he spends his working hours holed up in the x-ray room, serving, in a sense, as the eyes of the surgeons repairing broken limbs in the operating room.

Technical skill aside, what is evident in Hansen’s work is that his has an ability to focus that borders on obsession. He spent days and days painting matchstick heads for the Jimi Hendrix piece. (Only to light and burn them up.) His larger pieces often require such precision and planning that it is clear that none of Hansen’s art happens by accident. In 1400 Celsius, Hansen constructed a series of two by fours to look like the frame of a house. He then charred the wood to create the picture of a fireman that is only visible from a single point of view.

His father remembers that Hansen’s focus has been with him since childhood. “He would be focused on what he wanted to do and he could be very emphatic about what he wanted to do. He was always pretty intense, pretty focused kind of kid.”

Hansen's photography friend, Liu, echoes the observation. “He wants to put a lot, a lot into art – I can’t sacrifice as much as he can. I really appreciate that. He can spend tons of money or he can [be] in his workroom without a break for like twenty hours in a row. He’s a kind of crazy person.”

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***

The Internet serves as a way for Hansen to get exposure -- he’s been featured on Yahoo and CNN – and without it he would probably be toiling away in obscurity. But Hansen uses the Web to not only share his art, but as a way to create art. A way of building connections between people, too.

Some of his work has been interactive and global in a way that would be impossible without the web. To take one small, playful example, he invited visitors to his website to fill in a maze. The completed maze revealed a picture of Hansen. He then asked those who completed the maze to take a picture of themselves with the portrait and send it back to him. He received pictures from all over the world including Australia, Netherlands, Denmark, Holland, the Philippines, and Korea.

In projects like these, Hansen has used the Web for heightened social interaction, sometimes intense and sometimes whimsical. He’s taken every sociologist, psychologist, and anthropologist whose greatest fear is that the Internet will only serve to further alienate and isolate people and proven them wrong.

A much larger scale work is Hansen’s “A Moment.” For this piece, Hansen took a week off of work and camped out in his brother’s garage, ordering in food and only left the “studio” for bathroom breaks. He put a video on-line asking that people call his cell phone with memories of the moment that changed their lives.

Hansen spent the week fielding phone calls, taking notes, condensing the stories into single sentences and then adding them to a 120 inch wide rotation circular canvas. The words and letters formed single spots that, when completed, formed a picture of Hansen’s face surrounded by hands. He spoke with 600 people from as far away as Botswana, Russia, and Germany. It would be enough to sit in a garage for a week transcribing stories, but even before Hansen could begin fielding phone calls he was working on the project. He had to assemble a rotating canvas that could then be taken down so that it could be safely transported and shown in places other than his brother’s garage. His father recalls phone conversations about setting up the wheel. “He was doing a lot of exploration and learning about pillow blocks for axles and related kinds of things. And it was stuff that I knew he knew nothing about, but he got into and really got into learning about it because it was necessary to be able to make that big rotating picture.”

Hansen won’t share the memory that he would have contributed, but it is evident that the project was profound for him. Hansen realized that, details aside, our moments are not entirely our own.

Each person’s submitted moment was hardly unique. “We look at everyone and see ourselves as so different and judge people and racial divides, social divides --- those don’t really exist – we force them, we make them in our lives, but they’re not really there.” It calls to mind the story of the woman whose child dies and who goes to the Buddha to ask him to bring her child back. He says he can and he will if she brings him a mustard seed from a house that does has never known her kind of suffering. She asks at every household in the village, but to no avail. Suffering is one universal.

Hansen vividly remembers talking to a 22 year old woman who, at 14, was homeless, living in a car with her mother. It was her life-defining moment and today, not being homeless, she tries to help those who are. “But occasionally,” explains Hansen, “she judges people. And it shocks her. 'Did I really just think that about this person that was in the same situation I was at some point'?

His hope is that “A Moment” will have a similar effect on viewers. “I want someone to look at this project, walk up to it, read something and say, I’ve experienced the same thing. I’ve been there.” He taps the table with his finger for emphasis. “To not know the details, but to know that somebody went through the exact same thing. That was kind of an eye-opener. That means everything in my life that I go through is unique in my own life in same way – but someone else has gone through the exact same thing – it’s been worse in different situation and I need to look at it and recognize it. It brought out so much more how similar we all are.”

As diverse and varied as Hansen’s work is, one of the themes that runs through all of it is the ways in which individual stories and lives are interconnected. His piece “Influences” was one of his early YouTube videos that got a lot of attention. He coated his chest and stomach with layer upon layer of paint. Each new layer was a picture of someone or something that influenced him. After huffing paint fumes for the two days it took to complete all thirty images, he peeled off the paint in a single sheet and cut a silhouette of his head, replete with distinctive faux-hawk.

Georges Seurat had his layer as did an ex-girlfriend who encouraged him to get back into art. His high school art teacher was symbolized with a sunflower and the band Korn had their moment on Hansen’s chest. The picture of a dog represents a co-workers pooch who spent his days in a doggie day-care equipped with webcams. Owners could log in from any computer and check up on their best friend. Seeing his co-worker do this inspired Hansen to buy a webcam, which he used to record the piece.

Experience, like art, has layers, and Hansen is conscious of how he represents each of the experiences that brought his project to this point.

“That project wouldn’t have existed without that dog, without that experience and so I had to include the dog in the thing – ‘cause it wouldn’t be there,” Hansen explains. “Kevin Snipes from Yahoo, that was the first piece he ever saw and that was what got him to do the story, which is what got CNN to do their story, which – all of that adds together to this conversation.”



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