Automatic Impulse

by Andrew Paul Wood first published in Auction N˚6 catalogue, 9th Aug 2017

If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight?
–Horace, Ars Poetica

But does laughter preclude taking something deadly seriously? Lyttelton-based artist Bill Hammond needs very little introduction, given his unassailable position among New Zealand’s blue-chip investment artists. While he is popularly known for his lush, atmospheric canvases populated by melancholic human-bird hybrids, awaiting taxidermic colonisation in their Edenic landscape, this has only been the dominant theme in his work since the 1990s, inspired by a 1989 visit to the to the bird-encrusted Auckland Islands as part of the Art in the Sub-Antarctic project, and an Arts Council funded visit to Japan in 1990 where he was exposed to traditional Japanese art.

Prior to these experiences, Hammond’s art was a realm of far more chaotic, Nietzschean landscapes. Hammond’s 80s works drink up the caffeinated energy of punk, rock ‘n’ roll, surrealism, graffiti, cartoons and other unexpected sources, all gleefully short-circuiting each other, rife with conspiratorial, antic paranoia and rebellion against suburban conservatism—reflecting the two sides of Christchurch’s coin in the 1970s and 80s. Writing about this period in Hammond’s career tends to lead to Proustian run-on sentences, in imitation of the rolling maul of his compositions.

These drawings originate in that period. For all the talk of the Garden City’s much-touted “Englishness,” this label contains within it gothic, punk and grunge sensibilities (music plays an important role in Hammond’s life and work), as well as a tolerance for eccentricity. Where the bird-men are contemplative and solemn, pre-1990 Hammond-Land seethed and fizzed with anarchy, paradox and protean mutability, striking sparks of startling originality off the alluvial gravel of Canterbury’s braided riverbeds.

Hammond’s hybrid creatures seem to be secret symbols, hinting that even when viewing the most everyday things, an attempt must be made to familiarise ourselves with other perspectives. He presents us with an entire iconography, the syntax of which seems just out of reach. Perhaps Hammond forces us to wrestle with these problems as a reflection of the struggle with identity that took place during the ’80s, as identity politics and economic uncertainty flourished in New Zealand, later than elsewhere.

There must have been something in the water, because around 1988 a clowder of young artists graduated from Canterbury University’s School of Fine Arts with a similar interest in ukiyo-e flatness, gravity-free pop-cultural bricolages and a crisis of identity and influence. This loose grouping included Tony de Lautour, Séraphine Pick, Peter Robinson, Grant Takle, Chris Heaphy, Shane Cotton, and, a bit later, Saskia Leek. Sometimes they are called the “Pencil Case Painters,” because of how their early work resembles the way tweens decorate their school supplies with a scrappy graffiti of drawn pop-cultural references.

Admittedly, this is usually an externally applied category, in the sense of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory (or game) of “family resemblances,” in which you can tell a group of people are related because some will share the ears and the eyes, or the eyes and nose, or the nose and ears, but no one possesses all the characteristics on one face.

To this rhizomatic collection in the Christchurch goldfish bowl, where everyone knows everyone else, we can add Hammond as a sort of older doyen figure, though he attended Canterbury University from 1966 to 1969 (born in Christchurch in 1947), and started painting in 1981. It was the most interesting thing that had happened in New Zealand art in years. There’s a bit of Christchurch art history in the mix, too: the anarchic flamboyance of Philip Clairmont and the frightening gothic-grotesque interiority of Tony Fomison. By the time the young postmodernists had emerged on the scene in the 1990s, Hammond had already well and truly broken the ground for them. The “Pencil Case Painters” were the first “school” of artists to emerge from Canterbury since the Rudolf Gopas-taught generation of neoexpressionists that included Clairmont, Fomison, Alan Maddox, Philip Trusttum, and Philippa Blair.

Before he took up painting professionally, Hammond was also a designer and maker of wooden toys, which seems to manifest quite strongly in Dog (1980). The eponymous creature resembles a sort of mutant Philip Guston-esque album cover caricature of a toy from the 1950s (with two extra tails and a synthetic cubist twist). Also echoing Hammond’s toymaking background is the surreal motif of the table-top landscape in another untitled drawing. Is it supposed to be a scale miniature, like that a toy train might run through, or is it a normal-sized landscape on a gigantic table, an impossible enigma à la Thomas Cole’s 1833 painting The Titan’s Goblet?

There is in the table landscape a metaphor for making art. Drawing specifically comes to mind because, as Walter Benjamin noted, it is made while looking down onto a flat surface, rather than facing an easel, as is painting. Mountains feature heavily in Hammond’s drawing, recalling the great South Island ranges of the Southern Alps, the Kaikouras, and particularly the volcanic cones and corrugations of the Banks Peninsula, that form Lyttelton’s spectacular backdrop. The landscape is a stage to enact symbolic psychodramas on, intimating splendid South Island isolation while firmly anchoring art and artist in a specific geographical context.

Hammond’s drawings are fascinating for what they reveal about his painting. In their flatness and their concentration on outline rather than modelling, even the large and highly finished paintings are perhaps more accurately described as drawings with paint. The drawings are not subordinate to the paintings, it is merely that the medium has changed and the vivid colours been subtracted, though there is an immediacy and spontaneity to the graphite or pencil mark that gives them their own validity, authenticity and appeal.

Sometimes Hammond draws on found materials, such as old wallpaper, further adding to the feeling of spontaneity, and the lack of concern with formality, that pervade his work. And yet, Hammond’s drawings are by no means unsophisticated. A drawing like Waiting for the Pain to Piss Off (1982) is chocka with signs and allusions crashed together, almost as if it were drawn by several completely different people in some kind of cadavre exquis—the parlour game much beloved by the surrealists where a piece of paper is folded up, passed around, and everyone contributes to the drawing while only being able to see the tiniest part of the rest of it to work from. The extraordinary thing is that it all comes out of one mind, admittedly a densely multi-faceted one, working intuitively to weave together a collection of frolicking fragments of pop culture and hallucinogenic figments of the Id.

In Waiting for the Pain to Piss Off (1980-82) (the title gives the impression of an ex voto image—an offering to toothache, according to the inscription—as much as a way of passing the time), the little man (presumably a surrogate for the artist) lies on what appears to be a flying carpet, supported like Baba Yaga’s house on a single human (rather than chicken) leg, and could have been lifted straight from one of Edward Lear’s illustrations of his limericks. About halfway down, the little man’s legs angle abruptly up and transform into a hybrid form combining elements of tropical flower, pennant, and the stylised suggestion of a carved Māori koruru mask. He floats in a sheet-like numinous nimbus. The bones poking out either side are both references to the artist’s bodily suffering and a kind of private joke, in Flintstones-style, about popular critical references to Hammond as an artistic “primitive.” A self-deprecating humour is very much a unifying theme in Hammond’s art, and becomes all the more poignant as the value of his work climbs.

Hammond figures always seem caught in the act of transforming from one thing to another. The writer Alfred Jarry uses the concept of the “pataphor” to describe a metaphor that uses another metaphor for its context, rather than the non-figurative world; Jarry compares these “pataphors” to a lizard’s tail that grows so long that it breaks off and grows into another, different lizard. Something similar may be happening with Hammond’s imagery: with a nod to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an arm may transform into a fern frond and a human into a bird, a chimney into a tree, and a line can become just about anything, but all in a single, continuous frame of reference. There are no rules, and all bets are off. This is one of the most precious qualities of Hammond’s drawings from this period: the sheer versatility and fluidity of imagination, unencumbered by the expectations of received taste, but always following their own visual logic. Regardless of how bizarre the creatures and settings are, they always make sense, as if they belong to some inverted shadow twin to our own universe that follows very different physical laws, defined only by the charcoal or pencil in the artist’s hand.

Hammond’s drawing has been compared to doodling. There are certainly elements of automatic drawing to it, a core principle of surrealist art (and a few spiritualist mediums) in which the hand is permitted to move randomly across the paper as a way of tapping into the subconscious (André Masson being a particularly noteworthy practitioner). These automatic impulses provide a flexible and plastic framework on which Hammond hangs his familiar motifs: the coiled fronds, the grimaces, the sinister biomechanical forms, the bones, the oddly angled limbs almost parodying ancient Egyptian wall paintings, the mountains, fists, Hokusai waves, hot rod tailpipes, and ropes. Hammond moves effortlessly from one sign to the next without being in any sense awkward or disjointed; the drawing is less a mediation between hand and eye, than between hand and fecund imagination.

The physicality of the drawn mark and the materiality of its substance, combined with drawing’s gradual assimilation into digital technologies, gives these works further levels of poignancy. When we also consider that Hammond is frequently touted as “New Zealand’s most important living artist”—a mantle pushed on to Ralph Hotere, Gordon Walters and Colin McCahon at various points, too heavy and ornate to be born comfortably—the drawings take on a “future old-master” quality.

As objects, the drawings run the risk of becoming picayune relics of celebrity and a name rather than the frisky pieces of casual genius they really are. They are significant artefacts for connoisseurship, pleasure and imagination. As the ability to draw is becoming less and less an important part of contemporary art practice, or is otherwise conceptualised away, these fascinating works remind us of drawing’s immediacy, power, fluency, versatility and command.

Read more about Bill Hammond