Harmony Hammond: Big Paintings 2002 - 2005
Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, NM
Even at first glance, Harmony Hammond’s big abstract paintings, divided across or down the center, have an imposing presence, as well as a magnetic attraction unusual in near-monochrome art. Symmetry intensifies their frontal stance. (I’m personifying these canvases; it’s inevitable.) They confront you head on, refusing superficial engagement. In their grandeur of scale and robust sensuousness, they convey confidence. But beneath that initial impression is a more elusive, more vulnerable layer in their darkness. Hints of captive color peek through the lumps and wads and peaks and plains of heavy paint, often threads of brilliant red that are readable as streaks of blood, almost subsumed by the black, brown and crimson panels through which they struggle to be seen.
These paintings are formal maps of emotional terrain. In much of Hammond’s work over thirty-some years, a dominant metaphor has been the wound, the thick paint standing in for scar tissue. Some wounds have healed. Others remain open. Their bodies, or places, have become stronger and more mature. Sometimes the titles offer clues to underlying content, as in two of the earlier works in this show, Suture, and Rupture (2002). Each is centered on a vertical found metal form that separates/joins the two halves. Suture’s divider is a rusted, ruffled metal strip intended to cap (and protect) the ridge of a corrugated roof. Rupture’s is a gutter, also associated with shelter. Here, and in previous works the gutter has been stained by red paint, or invisible tears, now dried up and lifeless. The abrupt break implied by the word rupture is not literally reflected in the painting. The gutter that keeps the colors away from each other can be seen as a conduit as well as a barrier.
For many years Hammond played her painterly surfaces against found materials (battered corrugated tin, aged linoleum, straw, burnt wood) and objects (enamel buckets, a stock tank, a workhorse’s collar, a horse’s skull) of architectural or domestic scale. These were first used somewhat in context (the Farm Ghosts series of the early 1990s), then integrated into large abstractions, still carrying a similar meaning – a vibrant association with life, with work, and with the pain that tends to accompany both. The inclusion of such materials in “pure” abstraction subverts the conventional history of oil painting. Now Hammond has abandoned these abandoned objects. Paint alone stands in for all of their more recognizable pathos, complicating her task.
She was led in the current direction by a series of extraordinary five-by-ten-foot monotypes (the Monster Prints shown at SITE Santa Fe in 2002) that are far more like paintings than prints, given their scale and simplicity. Even with the surface “once removed” from the actual application of recycled inks, the “Monsters” convey a layered immediacy, with the addition of an unfamiliarly soft, velvety texture. When translated to oil, as in Boundary (2002), the tension zone -- the line or edge where the two colors meet and are simultaneously separated from each other -- becomes clear. In 1976, Hammond wrote, “A line is not flat. Think of edge not only as a line on a place dividing two spaces but also as a line moving through space, connecting, not dividing,” leading toward a “metaphysical equilibrium.” Boundary is an earthbound vertical, with ample proportions. The crimson rectangle is matte and dry but lumpy, like bumps or bruises under the skin. The black of the lower rectangle below is shinier, oily, almost wet. A 1999 statement might have referred to the newest work: “It really is about edge and surface as edge…. The meeting of equals. What happens there. Blood is shed sometimes.”
Hammond has always been interested in contrasts, balance, and juxtapositions, especially “uneasy” ones, taking the principle of collage onto subtle, more formal ground. In her many years of practicing Aikido, she learned to balance between action and contemplation, “commitment to the moment.” Her art, though more considered than gestural, has been called “Action Painting” in the (Harold) Rosenbergian sense – “a record of a psychologically profound encounter with the empty canvas,” as critic Carter Ratcliff has put it. He is right, but the real profundity emerges when the canvas is no longer empty, but filled with an almost chaotic palimpsest. There Hammond balances on the edge of what we call “creativity” because we don’t know what else to call this dynamic encounter between material and meaning where everything happens.
She works a very long time on any one canvas, and the serious viewer who stands before the final product is invited into that long difficult process, which she sees as “a place” where she can deal with or reflect on her relationship to the world. The “labor” of mark-making is both joyous and agonizing. “I use paint as a healing agent, as a poultice,” she has said. Each brushstroke, each clot of pigment, each crack revealing the tender undercoat, each choice made at each touch, reveals that unique moment as experienced by the almost sentient body of the painting. (Unfinished canvases in the studio reveal a layer consisting of a loose underlying grid of broad brushstrokes, suggesting a freer version of her tightly “woven” surfaces of the l970s.) Like many feminist artists making “gendered abstraction,” Hammond has long seen paint as skin. At one point she painted with a latex film, making this metaphor almost unbearably real. (The right-hand side of Suture is the most telling example in this show; its painted color resembles the latex.) In these recent works, direct body references are obscured. Yet they are informed by a certain rawness, a physicality that calls up the fierce battles Hammond has fought to get it just right. Passivity is anathema to her, but she has learned patience.
The grand abstraction of the four horizontal Elegies of 2003-04 takes on the “big boys” like Rothko, Newman, and Still, who were not embarrassed to invoke the Sublime. When the Elegies were shown at Dwight Hackett projects last fall, they transformed a large room with their sheer insistence on being seen and understood. Each horizontal is divided into two squares, variations on crimson, brown and black, all with the ubiquitous pits and swellings, almost like the surface of the sea on a choppy day. Now and then a kind of iridescence emerges. Only in Elegy, I do a few slowly draining lines of bright red paint emerge from the surface to the extent of legibility. In the next three Elegies this cry, or lament, is sensed, but not seen. But Hammond’s browns and blacks, their capillaries of red, always evoke (to me) fertility -- charred wood, or dull rich soil charged with hope, the possibility of rebirth. The obsessive overpainting, often cool over warm, seems to protect the life that smolders beneath.
“Sombra” means shadow in Spanish. But the two monumental near black paintings of 2005 are far from ephemeral, bearing little resemblance to art history’s most famously silent black paintings, from Malevich to Reinhardt. Hammond is, in fact, trying to give form and substance to the transitory quality of shadows, contradicting the conventional meaning and emphasizing a new materiality, an actual occupation of space. Sombra I and II derive their power from the language of consciousness embedded in their quite different surfaces. The lateral edges of Sombra I are thick crusts that thrust past the stretcher as though rejecting confinement. Its deep, underlying blues draw the viewer in. As the light picks up its drier peaks, and the more rounded hills of paint in Sombra II, changing as the viewer moves, we are forced to explore the topographical variations in terms of emotional impact. The Sombras are both body and place -- the body as place as painting as energized space.
Hammond’s work has always been characterized by a generosity of spirit, a reciprocity that was once a byword of feminist and activist art. At the same time, there’s nothing she likes better than a challenge. If some of her earlier work was about anger, or sadness, and the Elegies are about mourning, the two Sombras might be elevated to the level of tragedy, or tragic loss. But their subcutaneous narratives are about overcoming adversity.
Lucy R. Lippard is the author of 20 books on issues in contemporary art and place; for years she has been working on the vortex of land and lives in the Galisteo Basin.
All rights reserved ©Lucy R Lippard, 2005