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Inside the Artist’s Studio: Harmony Hammond

Inside the Artist’s Studio is an-ongoing series exploring issues  on contemporary art through direct encounters with the artists themselves.  

The Monochrome Reconsidered –

Harmony Hammond and I had just turned onto the interstate leading out of Santa Fe to Galisteo where she maintains her home and studio when traffic assumed the sluggish pace caused by rubbernecking motorists. As if from a slow moving escalator, we then had our chance to gaze at the limp body of a smallish black dog in the center of the left lane, its curvy plush form like a thick brushstroke dolloped on a gleaming linen canvas. A larger mongrel dog frantically circled its companion’s corpse, its terrified eyes searching to comprehend the sudden surrounding walls of steel Hummers and SUV’s like tanks on a battlefield. A woman was trying to coax the frightened dog somewhere. Speeding off to a destination could not compete with the riveting life and death scenario playing out across the lanes. Fear of suffering and mortality always connects us to one another and for a sublime moment that little black dead dog owned an entire modern superhighway.

Recovering our speed and speech we were soon cruising through the sweeping juniper studded New Mexico landscape. One began to comprehend the obsession of early Modernist painters and photographers in this region with cloud theatrics, its multi-colored mountains, and the myriad shades of grey green sage punctuated by the bold geometric shapes of adobe architecture. Like strapping tape pulled across a corrugated package, the long roads hugged the brown earth recently dampened by snow only to disappear over sudden edges. Although Hammond was acclaimed as a pioneer feminist, lesbian artist for her groundbreaking, radical, assimilations of women’s handicrafts into fine art, it was difficult to imagine that the experience of this dramatic landscape wouldn’t profoundly influence her perception; it was also just as difficult to see how a landscape tradition that had by now become clichéd in the way it represented the American West would have anything to do with feminist politics and the kind of “monochromatic” painting she currently produces.

Please click on all images to enlarge and for artwork details.

After a quick dusk tour of the hamlet of Galisteo, we settled into Hammond’s converted and expanded 19thcentury adobe sheep barn, now beautifully appointed in southwest artifacts, contemporary art, rows of bookshelves, and a large kitchen. By the time we got into the studio it was already dark but a bright full New Mexico winter moon shining intermittingly through the clouds facilitated our way out. The studio was large, gallery-like, and well lit with about ten recent paintings of various dimensions presenting an exhibition unto itself. Without a close encounter, the paintings appeared to be monochromatic slabs or sections of marble, earth, and burnt expanses of plywood neatly arranged as in a display of archeological specimens. On the floor in the center of room, surrounded by piles of hardware store tarps and painting supplies were several paintings in progress. Swaths of loose  burnt orange  brushwork were being partially buried and interwoven with methodically applied new layers, like geological processes that slowly entomb, then eventually crack and shift to unconcealed substrata. A painting process so involved with its own record of patiently building surface while inviting so many rich references was an inquiry unto itself into the history and nature of monochromality.

The purging of pictorial imagery and painterliness  that had begun with Kazimir Malevich’s stark black and white-on-white squares of 1913-18 to be followed by Ad Reinhardt’s reductive, all black, nearly imperceptible geometries of the late 50’s began to free art “from the burden of the object” in favor of “pure feeling.”  That non-objectivism resonated with younger artists like Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland whose “hard-edged” paintings further questioned communicating subjective content abstractly. Eschewing “The Abstract Sublime” of the vast often single hued canvases of Barnett Newman described by Robert Rosenblum as a “perilous” surrendering to spatial infinity, and full of primeval Creation-like mystery, the emphasis in the new “post painterly” painting was instead on “opticality”. Countering  tactility stressed the sculptural and endangered painting’s truth to itself. Eliminating any extravisual literary or symbolic meaning drove painting toward a pure, irreducible essence. The all white paintings of Robert Ryman, often consisting of near identical thick strokes of pigment arranged in orderly rows on square canvases were self-referential, renouncing any meaning beyond the paint and materials themselves.

As the era dictated for any art form, painting in the early 70’s was almost exclusively the domain of men. “Serious “ painting was epic-scaled, often near monochromatic, and resolutely declared by Clement Greenberg to be free of the expressive gesture, overt narrative, and personal emotion that had characterized post-war American abstraction. In the late 60’s feminism invigorated personal narrative and post-minimalist attitudes reinserted handmade process into painting and sculpture. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns countered strict Greenbergian orthodoxies or the “theatrical” prohibitions of prominent critic Michael Fried by making paintings that were both sculptural objects and pictures rife with metaphor, narrative, and symbolism. At that time, Hammond was exploring cultural representations of the gendered body and breaking down hierarchies between art and craft through objects like the braided Floorpieces that mimicked lowly domestic braided rag rugs, and whose centralized circular forms were synchronous with the vaginal imagery that defined much early feminist art like Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. Desiring to reclaim abstraction as female, she revisited and identified with domestic crafts such as weaving, basketry, and pottery as ancient sources of abstraction. The Floorpieces in their melding of rag rugs and modernist abstraction had also broken down hierarchies in artmaking, waging a dialogue and creating parity with arch-minimalists like Carl Andre whose gridded metal floor works seemed to embody a hyper-masculinist, industrial aesthetic. The braid, moreover, became an invocation of radical queer identity with the three strands—gender, sexuality, and art—interwoven among other strands such as history and identity. Paintings on old blankets from this era incorporated strips of found fabric and referenced “primitive” art while other early abstract paintings –precursors of the more recent monochromes–resembled close-ups of the surfaces of woven baskets or dark herringbone patterns.

Given her history of transgressing the proper boundaries of painting and sculpture, of her indebtedness to denigrated craft as well as an embrace of queer politics, the paintings presently hanging in the studio– although they share a superficial affinity with the monochromes of Reinhardt, Newman, Stella, and Ryman — couldn’t be more dramatically different. The minute slits or fissures that reveal the thinner often brighter underpainting  resulting  from  the spaces between laboriously laid down, countless layers of thick impastoed paint  mimic cuts in the skin, slashes in the earth, or the ripply crevasses of tree bark that lead deep into stories of the tree’s surroundings. In a predominantly black piece like Dark is Taken, the bright crimson underpainting  recalls subcutaneous blood, surging molten lava beneath a dark clotting flow, or smoldering embers under charred remains. Scarring, imperfections, pores, sagging and aging flesh are also suggested by the lumpy, crusty, but highly patina-ed paint. The paint seeps and flows imperfectly over the edges like a stretched membrane.  In this series she has also embedded criss-crossing strips of canvas tarp borders studded with grommets in the clotted pigment, imparting a sense of binding, bandaging, wrapping, swathing and corseting. Whether the predominant coloration is creamy white or black, the association is of paint as skin, the barrier between inside and out. Whereas male Abstract Expressionists like Newman and Mark Rothko were concerned with extending their metaphorical reach into infinitude or to the brink of a terrifying abyss where the human subject dissolves—Hammond intimately refocuses us on our bodies and via these gashes analogizes the exposure of deeply felt emotional and physical pain. Newman’s light- filled “zips” in the painting surface that signified mystical transcendence have been defiantly transformed to open wounds; the bands of color that stood erect in the centers of his large expanses of bold primary color, in Hammond have transmogrified into a web of interwoven scraps with multiple holes. In Newman and Rothko the canvas opened wide and was nearly emptied out, reputedly representing a transfiguration from  the physical body to the metaphysical, albeit accompanied by an undefinable anxiety over the great void or perhaps fear of apocalyptic annihilation. Hammond refills the vacant space with matter that matters. Muffle, a large iridescent, tarry black canvas appears as a wet, moldy dungeon door, its ancient nailed metal straps almost merging with the surface from being repeatedly overpainted. It denies entry into the enormity of pure space and grounds us—imprisons us– in the physical present where we confront the immensity, as Bachelard put it, “residing within ourselves”.

Even as in Sienna, terra-cotta colored like the New Mexico earth, where the strips also evoke aerial views of the roads paving the landscape, the painting becomes a metaphor of the earth as the skin of our collective body. As in many of the other works, it exists as a site of pain and attempted healing connoted by the tying, suturing, and joining. The droopy paint encrusted ties objectify the trope of the paint drip, further underscoring Hammond’s insistence on concrete experience in tandem with pictorial illusion and existential musing. Sienna subverts Western landscape myths predicated on the maintenance of certain boundless spatial illusions that promoted  endless wide open spaces ripe for rape, plunder, exploitation, mutilation. Hers is a sublime of difference, an alternative vision in which such narratives are challenged and we now encounter the” other”. As queer, and as a female artist, she has experienced adversity on the great masculine Modernist highway. Her interpretation, practice and reclamation of monochromatic painting is one of interrogating and conversing with that history, down to resisting the clean precise edges, cool geometry, and the bleak, unreal perfections with their putative universality. Instead she has us wallow in the muck, dig in and explore, peer through at ourselves to contemplate and bear witness to the bleeding, wounded body of the earth and individual.

Harmony Hammond’s next exhibition will be at Dwight Hackett Projects in Santa Fe this fall.

Comments

  1. Potent insights to a great contemporary artist.

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