Merging the elaborate workmanship of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, a cast of characters out of Animal Planet, and a color sense that makes Op Art seem bland, Moira Hahn crafts paintings that are very much her own. Her watercolors—for that’s what they are, despite their dazzling patterns and precision—are exquisitely wrought, creating intricate narrative scenarios of raging warriors, in the style of 18th and 19th Century Ukiyo-e prints: what the Japanese called “pictures of the floating world.” However in the floating world of Hahn’s pictorial imaginings the creatures that do battle are animals: cats, birds, and apes for the most part, usually with human limbs (and an occasional rampaging Godzilla thrown in for good measure). Lest the viewer attempt to decode the works with a simple formula, they all derive from different motives. “Some of them deal with political issues, some of them are more personal, and some are just me goofing around,” Hahn laughs. “I have this little visual morgue of images, some of them I hang onto for years.”
Although Hahn clearly wears the painterly kimono of a Japanophile, she is not of Asian descent. “My Dad was stationed in China [after WWII],” she recalls. “His friend was stationed in Japan ... He was always sending us cool things: Asian Barbies, with satin futons and kimonos; a model tea house, with tatami mats and an iron kettle... Sumi-e scrolls, I still have some, with monkeys.” The make-believe worlds she immersed herself in a child included classic Japanese animation. “When I was 6 or 7 I saw my first anime, NBC imported ‘Astro Boy.’ Even at that age I was pretty taken with all aspects of Japanese art.” Eventually, Hahn attended CalArts to study animation. Her early work was in black and white (“I wasn’t comfortable with color” she admits). After taking her portfolio to Masami Teraoka, she became Teraoka’s studio assistant for five years, from 1979−84.
The battling animals peopling her artworks derive from a real-life source: the feral cats and wild birds from her own backyard. When Hahn lived at Seal Beach, she had frequent sightings of blue herons from a rookery across the street. In 2001, Hahn moved to a neighborhood in Long Beach that was rife with bird feeders that attracted local cats, as well as wild parrots. “You’ll see a lot of parrots since I moved here,” she says. “[The works are] almost autobiographical as to where I’ve lived.” In Hahn’s heightened allegory, these fauna are transformed into avian and feline warriors, who are shown doing fearsome combat with each other or preparing for it. Despite their aura of playful whimsy, the events she portrays are often savage: a fair assessment of the Darwinian struggles of the natural world, and of our own. Says Hahn of her work, “I do love animals, but I don’t think I’d call it sentimental.”
In one work, an intruding cat breathes fire into a print shop where various birds (including a heron and a parrot) are creating “Wanted” posters of local cats. In Demon Dojo, Hahn depicts a training camp for cats, for combat against tengu—mythical wild dogs that look like birds; the losing cat falls next to a bird mask, amid a swirl of robes in a veritable spectrum of colors. In Apparition, a monkey samurai, in flames, menaces the house of a cat family whose children peer out at it from a window. As apes often stand in for humanity in Hahn’s work, one might interpret this as an ode to global warming. But one need not read them too solemnly: With their startling technique and memorable tableaux, Hahn’s vivid portrayals of interspecies warfare don’t need literal interpretation to brand themselves into the mind’s eye.
Moira Hahn’s solo show “Night Vision: Works On Paper” could be seen this winter at Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Culver City, from January 10 - February 28, 2009. Her work was also on view at the Pacific Asia Museum, in Pasadena, “Ukiyo-e Re-mix Series: Fight or Flight,” from February 18 - April 18, 2009. She is represented in Seattle by Roq La Rue Gallery.