Tombstone Blues

by Julian McKinnon first published in Auction N˚1 catalogue, 25th Nov 2015

Mama’s in the fact’ry
She ain’t got no shoes
Daddy’s in the alley
He’s lookin’ for food
I’m in the kitchen
With the tombstone blues.
Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues”

Perhaps Bill Hammond’s And I’m in the Kitchen with the Tombstone Blues is a macabre wisecrack. The work appears to be a view of the kitchen mentioned in the title, which nods, as many of Hammond’s titles do, to Bob Dylan. Painted in 1983, it depicts a table, a refrigerator, and a telephone in a domestic interior with a central pink morphological figure. This form could be the offspring of one of the agonised biomorphic creatures in Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Hammond’s intertwining of the horrific and the comical a notable feature of his paintings from this period, which Robert Leonard once described as “Wired, paranoid, hyped-up… junky, punky, and dystopian—juiced up with sadistic speed-freak cartoon violence.” The image looks like the aftermath of some domestic voodoo ritual, with blood on the floor and a totemic figure in the window. Or perhaps it’s an existential scream turned surrealist punch line.

This painting is constructed with a draftsman’s diligence in the use of grids and perspective, yet retains a loose quality in areas of the paintwork. The iconographic sensibilities, dreamlike quality, and virtuoso technique—so evident in his later works—are present, though in an earlier stage of evolution. Hammond’s famous ‘bird-people’ paintings have a spectral lightness and an otherworldly feel, yet his pre-1990s work is darker and more visceral. Decades earlier, on the other side of the globe, Francis Bacon created works which reflected the psychological scars of post-WW2 Britain, pockmarked with Nazi nerve gas and rocket attacks, and product of a culture of repression. Hammond seems to draw on that same subconscious space, but leavened by a generation’s remove and inflected with the emerging commercial giddiness of the eighties.

In her essay “Sympathetic Magic,Tessa Laird writes: “Hammond articulates our primal unease that we may become that which we destroy, a pan-global fear that murder opens up vacancies for possession by the roaming dead spirits.” In an age of planet-devouring consumerism and mass extinction, one could imagine an army of displaced spectres brimming at the edges of the noosphere, waiting to seep into the delirious visions of the disconnected humanity that disposed of them. Hammond’s bird paintings beautifully articulate that extra-dimensional purgatory in the form of a lengthy discourse. The works produced before his anthropomorphic epiphany in the Auckland Islands could be his first words spoken in the language of that realm. And I’m in the Kitchen with the Tombstone Blues not only offers an intriguing insight into the technical development of one of New Zealand’s finest painters, it also plots a point in the graph of the psycho-spiritual terrain he traverses.

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