Zoomorphic Detail

by Priscilla Pitts

Zoomorphic Detail is one of a handful of works with this title, painted by Bill Hammond in the late 1990s. In one, a solitary, winged bird-human seated on a tree stump seems lost in thought; in another particularly macabre image a gnarly-taloned bird-human and two skull-headed creatures seem inextricably melded together in a deathly embrace.

Like Hammond’s other ‘birdland’ works of this period, Zoomorphic Detail lies somewhere between the throbbingly discordant images of the 1980s and early 1990s and his later, more intricately elegant, paintings. This work is dominated by two unnaturally elongated seated humanoid figures with birds’ heads. They are alike but different. The ramrod posture of the figure on the left is familiar from many of Hammond’s ‘birdland’ works, while the sinuous curves of the right-hand figure echo those of the posturing creatures in All Along the Heaphy Highway (1998) and Brick Waltz, from the same year. There’s a kind of familial tenderness—a rare commodity in Hammond’s imagery—in the close snuggle of the two figures on the left and the way one small figure piggy backs on the plump shoulders of the right-hand bird-human. Though they face away from one another, the bird-humans’ shoulders touch, and the figures seem somehow akin, a group. An air of eerie calm prevails.

For all this, the image is disquieting. The verdigris background, familiar from many of Hammond’s paintings of this period, seeps and drips, a swampy life-generating ooze. The figures are a murky, unhealthy grey. There is something creepy about the way the bird-humans’ legs dwindle flabbily away to vestigial claws or melt into thin air. Unnerving too is the way the left-hand bird-human’s back is encircled by the monkey’s tail, which curls like a seeking tentacle, and an attenuated, snaking sinew with a tiny animal’s head. And what of the ectoplasmic humanoid facial features on the knee of one bird-human, or on the bicep of the other? Are they tattoos? Masks? Faces made in flesh, wrongly located, coming into being as part of a change from one form to another?

Hybridity and metamorphosis have featured largely in Hammond’s work from the outset, and make a crucial contribution to the uneasy feel of so many of his images. In the mythology of shapeshifters, the transformation of beast to beast (human to wolf, seal, cat…) is seen as at best disturbing, at worst terrifying, or, as with the Egyptian bird- and wolf-headed deities, as awe-inspiring and transcendent. These transformations always signal an unhinging of the natural order of things. In Hammond’s idiosyncratic bestiary, it’s never clear whether the greater danger lies with the human or the animal form—or something in between.

Hammond’s works almost always carry a sense of narrative, however elusive or inexplicable they may be. So what’s the story here? Is the tale Hammond spins a form of creation myth, in which these creatures exist in a pre-lapsarian condition, when all are innocent and guileless? Does he propose a glimpse of an as-yet-unforeseen form of evolution, perhaps some hideous, post-nuclear state, seething with unsettling mutations? Or are we witnesses to a nascent divinity? The fascination and the beauty of Hammond’s world is that we will never really know.