Sue Scott Gallery

Jane Hammond: Artist as Magician

Sue Scott, Freedman Gallery, Albright College, Reading, Pa & Orlando Museum of Art (exhibition catalogue)

Imagine a world of your own making. You stake out the territory, define the boundaries, create the terrain and inhabit it with characters of your choosing. You determine how and when these characters interact. You vary their scenarios and situations depending on what you do or do not want to communicate. You become increasingly fluent in an esoteric language, and over time your artificial creation becomes as real to you as your natural environment. You think in terms of the images; the characters inhabit your dreams, they demand to be heard. The line between reality and illusion blurs.

Over ten years ago, Jane Hammond began collecting and compiling images, for what reasons she was not quite sure. Reflecting her far-reaching interests, the images were selected from books on magic and puppetry, science manuals and children's "how-to" books, as well as charts having to do with alchemy, phrenology and Eastern religions. They encompassed instructions on tying knots and dancing the tango. Cross-cultural and multi-dimensional, there were several varieties of fish, crustaceans, animals and all types of people, among them no less than seventeen clowns. Sailing vessels ran the gamut from a large 17th-century ship to a small, unmanned canoe. Over time, some images were kept, others discarded or filed for future use and a grouping of some 276 found images developed. The grouping became a system, the system developed into a language and the language transports us into Jane Hammond's unique world.

Today this system, or matrix of images, forms the wellspring from which Hammond draws. But why work within a system? Since her childhood, Hammond has been intrigued by systems and classifications—she once gridded a fifty foot square in her property and labeled and classified everything in it. As an adult, she is interested in the relationship between thinking and language—ranging from intuitive leaps of imagination to the ways in which experience is stored, relayed and recalled in the mind.

As an artist, she came of age during a post-Minimalist era, when much of the art, primarily conceptual and process art, was accompanied by instructions. So in many ways the development of a system was a logical evolution because it both gave her a container for her art and kept itself open to change.

Even Hammond has been surprised at the freedom her system has afforded. Instead of being limited to 276 images, she can—through changes in scale, recombinative associations, the use of images as surrogates and variations in the way the paint is applied—exploit the system to paint any number of styles and communicate any number of messages. One realizes her art is not just about the images depicted, but that the images are a vehicle to express deeper ideas. Thus while one work can be highly personal and autobiographical, another an exploration of the senses, a third a commentary on the art world and another an attempt to capture scientific phenomena, they all speak of the shifting complexities of the self in the era that we live. Even at the level of depiction, the obliqueness of any given painting prevents a single reading, leaving the final analysis open-ended and elliptical.

As the poet John Ashbery perceived, it's as if Robinson Crusoe landed in a library rather than on an island.

 This is best illustrated by the comparison of several paintings. Untitled, (28, 157, 272, 179, 64, 96, 45, 244, 247, 109, 146, 185, 9, 234, 207, 228, 246, 214, 112, 177,4,118,201, 125, 130, 157,35,161, 114),1993, for purposes of clarity called here "Red Sea," was a sequel to the "Swimming Pool Painting," in which an Esther Williams character poses on a ladder at the side of a pool. Floating in the blue water are the heads of a number of characters from Hammond's found images. Above them, in cartoon-like bubbles they shout their numbers in the system.

The intricate layerings of the "Swimming Pool Painting" were unveiled slowly, even to its creator. In addition to its sexual quality—a woman (Hammond's alter ego) in a bathing suit surrounded by male personae—Hammond realized the painting was a metaphor for her art. She, the artist, is surrounded by images from her world, floating in an aqueous medium symbolizing both water and paint. The logical next step to Hammond was to make a painting that addressed "the condition of being an artist and the world I live in."(1)

 In "Red Sea," the color of the water changed from blue to red, the images floating are not just men, but men, women and objects that reveal the complexities of both the system and the art world. The Esther Williams character sits on a boat, surrounded by the tools of her trade—paint pots and brushes. This time, the sexual aspect of the character is downplayed by having her head replaced by that of a clown. In the upper left-hand corner of the painting flies an American flag.

 Switching the color of the water takes the setting out of the real and into the world of metaphor. The water is transformed to the visionary, the subconscious in which characters from Hammond's matrix float. Though only their heads show, one assumes the whole is there beneath the water, like an iceberg. As Hammond notes, "The heads are a real phenomena which imply other levels of experience that accompany them."

Hammond crowns the central autobiographical character with the head of a clown. Among other things, this plays with the notion of the surrogate. The clown, like the artist, lives apart from society. Often, the artist, like the clown, critiques, entertains and comments on that society. In addition, it reverses the visual dynamic previously established as opposed to floating heads that allude to that which is unseen beneath, for the central character she presents the body, but obscures the head. As with Hammond's work as a whole, there is the implication that a character from one painting will live a separate life in another painting.

The placement and use of the flag has both formal and iconic connotations. During the process of working on the painting, prior to the inclusion of the flag, Hammond confronted the spatial problem of the sky/background. One day, when she walked into her studio, she noticed how closely the painting visually mimicked a flag with its horizontal shape and the bands of red water that resemble stripes. In addition, she realized the upper corner of a flag was analogous to the location of her sky. Hammond saw that the proportions worked out perfectly to create a visual rhyme, where "the flag is to the painting as the blue heraldic sign is to the flag."

Apart from formal considerations, the flag is rife with iconography. One could say that the artist depicted in the boat is a kind of intermediary between the visible and imaginary (the submerged bodies and the visionary water) and the culture at large (the flag).

Compare this with Untitled (31), 1991, the least visually complicated, yet certainly the most conceptual of Hammond's paintings. Instead of the myriad images of "Red Sea," this painting has one—the path of a fly on the wall. Untitled (31) provides understanding of the way in which altered scale can change the impact and meaning of a cypher. Though this image makes its appearance in other paintings, there the scale has been enlarged to become the sing le subject of the painting.

Much like her system as a whole, this painting is an attempt to assign order to a random event; in this case, the recording of a path that will never be repeated. It also serves as an example of the way Hammond not only layers paint but meaning. At first glance, the painting appears to be an abstract design. Upon close examination, one realizes that the appearance of chaos has order. At the same time it remains nonspecific, referencing both the micro and macro cosmic; the path could just as easily be the random trail of a meteor as the course of a small insect.

It was during the process of Untitled (31) that even more meaning was layered on through oblique references to art history. Hammond first dipped a string in oil paint and snapped a one inch grid across the entire surface—a reference not only to the Minimalist grid, but to the grid painters have used throughout history from John Constable to Pablo Picasso. In each square, she painted individual dots of white, shaded with tones of yellow and green, in a way that simulated a Pointillist painting. The emulation was not only stylistic but philosophical, for Hammond felt that the atomized, dissected approach of the Pointillists matched the scientific nature of the image. It satisfied her search for "a marriage between the sign and the method of painting." There is even a reference to "Action Painting" the term coined by critic Harold Rosenburg to describe the painting of the Abstract Expressionists. For like the webs of paint that chronicle the gestures of Jackson Pollock, Untitled (31) traces the path of a body acting in space.

Two of the paintings in this exhibition, Sore Models II, 1994 and Pumpkin Soup, 1994 came out of a collaboration with the poet John Ashbery. In the spring of 1993, Hammond asked Ashbery to create titles for which she would then make paintings. (Previously, her paintings were untitled, with the numbers in parenthesis referring to their place in the system.) Commissioning these titles is an interesting innovation in Hammond's system, perhaps indicating a move from the analytical to the literary.

The result of this collaboration has been more fertile than Hammond ever imagined, spawning to this point more than a dozen works and taking her art stylistically into several new directions, including shaped canvases and collaged surfaces. The flash of inspiration was immediate upon reading the title Sore Models as an image of Buddha's feet leapt to mind. The execution, however, was not as facile, as Hammond searched for a way to embody the image. The result was two canvases—roughly human scale—shaped as a right and left foot placed side by side. Since then, Hammond has painted on canvases and panels shaped as a book, a house, a predella and a bunch of asparagus—all images from her matrix. The act of pulling images from her repertoire and giving them three dimensional, sculptural form further demonstrates the remarkable elasticity of her system.

Sore Models I and II were inspired by tantric art, chart-like paintings that refer to Eastern spirituality and mysticism. Like the move from reality into metaphor from the "Swimming Pool Painting" to "Red Sea" Sore Models I has a more realistic palette of flesh pink while Sore Models II is dramatically rendered in blue and orange. The images on the surface set up a chain of compositional and iconographical balances. For example, the blue hand breaking through the painted surface of the orange foot parallels the orange hand making a shadow puppet on the blue foot. And just as the red flower anchors the blue foot, a similar blue orb anchors the orange foot. On the lower third of the blue foot, two hands hold an orange stripe and a blue stripe above a glass of liquid, creating a simple battery. Not only does the pair of hands echo the larger pair of feet and the stripes they hold mirror their colors, but the implication of a created circuitry, a dynamic force which inhabits and unifies distinct beings, may really be what the painting is all about.

Hammond's drawings are much more free-associative and less planned than her paintings. They include not only images from her fixed lexicon, but collaged items she collects periodically. And physically, they are comprised of a broad spectrum of materials and technique: solvent transfers, frottage, linoleum block prints, xerography, crayon, graphite, rubber stamps, a multitude of papers as well as direct painting in gouache and acrylic. Not to mention the fact that the hand torn and pieced-together rice paper background is an integral part of the finished product. As she sees it, the canvas is not a significant part of the painting—merely the vehicle on which she applies paint.

Until 1994, Hammond's painting and drawing were largely separate activities; recently, however, there has begun to be more cross pollination. For example, Pumpkin Soup is a visual segue between the drawings and paintings. Rather than beginning the canvas with a surface of underpainting, papers and transfers were collaged and layered onto the canvas, re-creating the rich, textured surface of the drawings. This mesh between painting and drawing is particularly apparent in a comparison between Pumpkin Soup and the drawing White Clown, 1993.

The problem of what to paint has been a conundrum for contemporary artists since the elimination of subject matter by Abstract Expressionists. Jane Hammond seems to have sidestepped the pitfalls of style by creating a systemized world that allows her to engage in a variety of subjects and keep the engagement moving. Coming out of the reductive era of Minimalism, Hammond's cyphers, symbols and signs now speak to the spirit of maximal ism. It is this complexity—that neither artist nor audience will ever fully decipher—that both intrigues and challenges the viewer.

 

-Sue Scott

Curator of Contemporary American Art

 

1. All quotes in this essay came from an interview between the artist and author on July 6, 1994

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