Hannah Abert: Inside/Out
I first met Hannah Abert to exchange some mummified iguanas for a painting of hers. Abert is a collector. Oddities and side-of-the-road finds decorate her one-room apartment which doubles as an art studio. Her book cases are stuffed with poetry, philosophy, and psychology. Her floor is draped in a drop-cloth, and her cat, Charles, skirts around the canvases and broken mirrors that lean on walls and lay scattered across the floor.
A mixed-media artist with experience in painting, sculpture, and even a few experimentations with noise, Abert started as a photographer. She started taking photographs when she was younger and depression began to darkly color her world. Photography was a saving grace.
“I would carry my camera with me so that I would be more aware of things,” Abert said. “I would pay attention and be like ‘Oh that’s actually cool, I don’t hate being alive.’”
The camera was a way of seeing and shining light on the brighter things. In a way, the collecting Abert still practices seems a continuation of that early photography. The objects that litter her apartment are dear to her. She showed me owl pellets she’s been dissecting, dried butterflies, green plants, and even a full bird carcass which is frozen in her freezer among her groceries. These things bring her joy.
During the pandemic, Abert began scanning the objects in her apartment and incorporating the scans into her newer works. In this way, Abert is as much an archivist as she is an artist. She captures bits and pieces of life and files them away to look back on later and examine like a scientist would a specimen.
While photography and scanning offer a lens to focus on external surroundings, her artistic practice allows her to commune with her internal world.
“I think the connection between my external and internal world is making art and writing and scribbling and stuff,” Abert said. “That's the only way I know how to make a bridge and not get so in my head and only see projections of what's there.”
Creation has been a boat for Abert, carrying her through the choppy waters of self-perception and chaotic thoughts.
“If I don’t make things, then everything just gets stuck in my head,” Abert further explained. “[Making things] is a tangible way of working with my thoughts.”
Her thoughts stretch out both verbally and figuratively across her works. In some pieces, Abert starts with a blank canvas and paints words onto it, layering color and collaging items until the painting is multi-dimensional. The words are often illegible, drowned in brush strokes, just faint enough to be recognized as writing but not clear enough to pull any meaning from them.
When asked to describe her thoughts, Abert was surprisingly quick to answer.
“I think it's like a bunch of buzzing energy in there,” Abert explained. “Like if my head was full of bees and they were each making a different tone and that was the different thought — it's just a swarm of them and they are all buzzing around together and interacting together to make their hive and make the honey, but it's just chaos and it doesn’t start.”
Abert’s most recent work has been a series of zines made in the early and late pandemic. The newest zine consists of mixed-media self portraits, studies of self both internally and externally. Photographs of the artist are hidden behind scribbled thoughts, blotted paint, and in some cases, scans of objects in her apartment.
“I started making new paintings with self-portraits,” Abert said. “That was just a way to deal with this relationship of being with myself and just existing in my mind, but also existing in my space and to force myself to get comfortable with the fact that I’m a human being by making myself deal with it everyday.”
The many mirrors (broken or pieced together) in Abert’s apartment evidence this hard work of self-exploration, as do the many journals and sketchbooks on her shelves. A closet full of paintings both finished and half-finished point to the ongoing nature of Abert’s artistic practice.
“My work is just me diggin in the dirt,” Abert said. “Trying to figure out what's going on here.”