Testaments to Treachery and the Trampling of Souls in C von Hassett’s Don’t Repeat Don’t Repeat
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled,” meaning that the realization of any man’s greatest achievements, whether private or public, comes at the expense of the masses.” C von Hassett understands this better than most, as his solo exhibition at MASH Gallery reads like a primer for the dispossessed, a lexicon of dark and sinister images that are ominous yet also humorous in a wryly sardonic kind of way. Tackling topics like mass murder, starvation, lynching and, well, Adolf Hitler, Hassett’s images function not so much as dark harbingers from the past or warnings of things to come, but as testaments to the treachery inherent in the human character, which is its own kind of warning. These paintings feel more urgent than ever, as there is an almost palpable sense of dread in the world today, and Hassett does not shy away from the gritty, unnerving truth of where we are and what we’ve come to.
Paintings of iconic figures such as Adolf Hitler can be difficult to navigate for the simple fact they carry with them the burden of history. Really, the only way to take on such subject matter is through abstraction — not hitting the mark directly, but slightly off kilter, and that’s exactly what Hassett does here. He tightens the field of focus to include nothing but the narrative as it unfolds before us. He resists the urge to provide us with specific information about place and time. Thus, his figures appear to float, timeless and weightless in empty space, and the result further emphasizes the abstracted elements of the image rather than illuminating any literal or specific content.
In addition, Hassett’s technique of flattening out the picture plane and rendering the faces of his figures in gray tones, not only further exemplifies a dark and foreboding future but also serves to create distance between the viewer and the figures. These paintings are all oil on canvas, yet the richness we associate with traditional oil painting has been strangely reduced, or wiped clean, as it were. In Field Work, for example, a young woman sporting an eye patch stands pointing a shotgun at the back of Adolf Hitler’s head. Behind the two figures is a yellow road that begins and ends nowhere. Hitler is shown wearing a button-down dress shirt and a sports coat, rather than his usual brown Nazi party jacket, and he appears to be smiling slyly. Again, the faces are grayed out, placing the emphasis on the winding yellow road behind them. Is this a reference to the famed and fated Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, and if so, then these two figures have definitely veered off course. Hassett hints at a narrative within each of these images, though never explicitly commits to one in particular. It is as though we as viewers were suddenly dropped into the scene; we become voyeurs, passive onlookers as the past and the future collide.
The past and the present, and perhaps even the future, appear to merge in many of Hassett’s paintings. In Woman Pisses Herself, as an example, Hitler sits with a woman who could be his mistress, Eva Braun. On the table in front of them is a baby that the Führer prods with a needle. The image suggests the horrendous human experiments conducted by the Nazis. The child becomes nothing more than an object of fascination, and the entire image is devoid of color except for the bright garish pink of the woman’s dress. One now cannot help but associate the image of a pink dress with tragedy as in Jacqueline Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas in 1963. Again, there is the conflation of history and tragedy, of past and present, of a narrative that sadly is as topical now as it was in 1940’s Nazi Germany.
Hassett has also included a few very moving portraits of children. In The Sibling (see images below), the artist paints the figure as though we as viewers were seated next to him. His body is emaciated and he rests his huge head against an arm that appears fragile and weightless. Because we cannot see the figure’s face, we are forced to take in the reality of his life’s condition. The image is reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s famous photograph of a migrant woman surrounded by her starving children, each of whom has turned away from the camera. As with that seminal image, Hassett, like Lange, is asking us as viewers to not be passive onlookers, but to interject ourselves into the scene playing out before us — to activate our hearts not simply as an act of sympathy or compassion, but finally and necessarily as an act of protest.