Mutations of Progress: Maria Hansen at Pump Project

The unwavering march of progress, of societal convenience and betterment with a blind eye to consequences — what consequences? Damn the consequences! But there is always a response, a reaction to action, as Maria Hansen depicts in tight grouping of watercolors at Pump Project on Austin's east side. Within her flickering, vignette-like compositions, we find that some of these Mutations of Progress develop into favorable conclusions on their own, when life is left to run wild. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor

Maria Hansen | Pripyat, 2013, ink and watercolor on paper, 29 x 37” framed. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.

A nuanced reading of this theory is Pripyat, named for the abandoned Ukrainian city that was epicenter to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Considering fatal radiation levels at the time of the accident, there was fear that the region would be overrun with mutated animals. Hansen adjusts and hyperbolizes this notion by 1) utilizing tact (the animals are thriving, free to roam about unadulterated) and 2) anthropomorphizing to absurdity. As in, sure there may be the “town lush”, taking pulls from a vodka bottle while perched in a matryoshka doll, but check out his neighbors' chess game! The pack of wolves occupying the Brutalist building seem the most true to life. Pripyat begins low to the ground, like the viewer is crouched (or perhaps at a wolf's eye-level), and soars in a v-line into the evaporating distance. You can practically hear the wind whistling across the deserted, faded landscape. Hansen drained her palette to primarily muted tones, with jolts of bright colors to echo both the former tragedy and underline the rendering's otherworldliness.

Maria Hansen Mutations of Progress installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.

Maria Hansen | Plant For Sale, Needs Work, Foundation Problems, 2013, ink and watercolor on paper, 37 x 29” framed. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.

Her paper preparation — treated with coffee, sea salt (“to create a speckled gravelly texture”), selective drips of isopropyl alcohol, ironing, water bath (and repeat) — imbues a charged, vintage quality, and she does this before laying ink and paint to the surface. Oddness ensues, like the industrial skeleton of Plant For Sale, Needs Work, Foundation Problems, whose pachyderm base and smoke-stacked ceiling reminded me Haruki Murakami's short story “The Dancing Dwarf” — a truly bizarre read, where the elephant factory is merely the tip of the weird iceberg (sort of like Hansen's drawing). The bespectacled figure spectating for scrap metal in Innocenti Factory (once responsible for manufacturing the Lambretta scooters occupying a candy-colored pile on the right side) navigates against strong diagonals of the surrounding buildings, which fire toward a central vanishing point.

Maria Hansen | Pickering House aka “Slumpy”, 2013, ink and watercolor on paper, 25 x 29” framed. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.

Hansen's renderings breathe life into boarded up, defunct buildings, particularly Detroit's now-razed William Livingstone House, titled Pickering House aka “Slumpy”. Confused? I believe she is highlighting two here: Salem's historically protected Pickering House (still standing, albeit after a few centuries of restoration work) and the namesake French Renaissance “Slumpy”, iconic for ruins fans until its collapse in 2007. Time's 2009 survey “Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline” indicates preservationist attempting to maintain the Livingstone mansion, despite its inexorable decline and eventual demolition. How did the National Register of Historic Places choose the colonial Pickering House but not the Livingstone, with that classic conical roof and façade? Hansen captures it in its sepia-toned, crumbling majesty, surrounding it with “thought bubbles” of objects that may have once existed inside, the soul of the structure.

Maria Hansen | War Weighs Heavy on the Heart, 2012, ink and watercolor on paper, 25 x 29” framed. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.

War Weighs Heavy on the Heart is the prominent image in promotional materials, and, according to Hansen, it inspired her Pump Project show. In it, a young Ernest Hemingway stares out over a tangle of Milanese rooftops, devastated over rejection by his Red Cross lover, nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (herself inspiration for Catherine Barkley in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms). Harvard University professor and literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. noted World War I's impact on Hemingway and other modernists, who “lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilization” and created a new style “in which meaning is established through dialogue, through action, and silences — a fiction in which nothing crucial — or at least very little — is stated explicitly.” Hansen indicates such sea change in Pripyat — perhaps the animals aren't really playing chess, but they're flourishing — and in measured degrees in Innocenti Factory's old treasure-hunter. Loss itself, whether from heartbreak or natural or manmade disaster, is always challenging. Hansen highlights what happens in the aftermath, when the roots of progress grow back stronger.

Maria Hansen | Innocenti Factory, 2013, ink and watercolor on paper, 29 x 37” framed. Image courtesy the artist and Pump Project, Austin.


Maria Hansen is an Austin-based artist and illustrator. Mutations of Progress, Hansen's solo debut at Pump Project, continues through December 21, with public hours Wednesdays and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment.

Brian Fee is an art punk based currently in Austin, TX, but he can usually be found in New York, Tokyo, or Berlin, depending on the art season.


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