KARA HAMMOND: ITINERANT ARTS

Gallery and blog for the art of Kara Hammond

Essays

A Delphic Tale Told in Nouns

Kara Hammond describes the imagery in her paintings and drawings as “scenes of everyday human existence.” That’s as good a summary as you’re likely to find of this straightforward but strangely varied collection of suburban homes, airport buildings, storage sheds, space vehicles, office complexes, freeway ramps, trash receptacles, outdoor toilets, and other artifacts of the consumer-inflected landscape.

The work is “post-” quite a few things, to use a bit of art historical jargon. They are post-commodity art in the sense that they are not preaching about humankind’s intrusions into the natural environment but merely recording them as factually as possible. They are post-appropriation in that the recording more or less takes for granted art’s manipulation of signs, and the curious relationships that arise when painterly subjectivity meets the photographic record.

But the term post- usually implies a residue of what came before, and one still sees a skeptical, theoretical bent at work in these placid, some might say traditional-looking subjects. Images as reductive and open-ended as haikus on the individual level reveal their critical drift when seen cumulatively.

In language terms Hammond’s images aspire to a condition of pure noun-hood. Typically she centers a single subject within a bland or neutral background, avoiding arty expressionist points of view. Her rendering takes pains not to call too much attention to itself, employing no more brushing or penciling than necessary to convey a subject.

In the painting Tyvek Beach House, 2005, for example, a boxy vacation dwelling sits calmly against a stark background of sea, sand, and sky. Clearly still under construction, the house sports an outer coating of insulation panels–the “Tyvek” of the title, a synthetic material often used by the building industry. Raised on stilts, the house has no apparent means of entrance or exit; what might be the building materials for a stairway lie in the foreground.

Houses like these can be seen on beaches all along the American coastline. Cheaply constructed, many disappear after their first hurricane. The painting gives us no clues for how long the building has sat like this: for all we know the developer is in receivership and the half-completed property is rapidly decreasing in value. While its destiny may very well be to become driftwood, the time element is supplied by a viewer; the image itself is frozen and as enigmatic as an oracular blurb from ancient Delphi.

Hammond’s graphite drawings are even more noun-like in being placed against plain white backgrounds, that is, in having no surroundings with which to interact. The individual images floating in the white space of the paper are as laconic as their titles: portapotty, garbage bags, ottoman, septic tank, jetpack, airport roundabout. One thinks of Ezra Pound’s Imagist poems of the early 20th Century, which sought to reduce the frilly, convention-laden verse of an earlier era to a singular pungent picture.

Collectively, however, the nouns modify each other, as the above list suggests. The viewer inevitably starts grouping them into themes and from there imagines oppositions, such as the “high” of human technological aspirations vs. the “low” of recycled bodily waste. There are complicating factors in these dichotomies, however. For example, where does the ottoman fit in? Is it truly low or just modest? Is a ship’s toilet high tech or low tech?

The work’s wry humor, subtle and hard to convey in words, keeps interpretations from being too pompous. The understated subject matter, willfully provisional style, and a whiff of mid 20th Century “populuxe” kitsch all work in concert. When it comes down to it, putting a jetpack–a personal “rocket belt” built but never mass produced in the ’60s–in the same show with a Johnny-on-the-Spot, still the state of the art in portable evacuation, is just funny.

Someone once attempted to define a story as follows: when you say “the king died, then the queen died” you don’t have a story but when you say “the king died because the queen died” suddenly you do. Visual art doesn’t need this kind of obvious narrative hook, its pleasure comes from the union of subject and drawing, what perceptual psychologists call the instantly-perceived “gestalt” of the work, followed by a process of puzzling through what’s right in front of you.

Hammond’s subjects don’t tell an action-packed tale such as “human artifacts are gradually replacing or destroying nature.” Instead, they state plainly and coolly that this is what’s in our environment and what we live with. The noun-hood reflects the awkward state of passivity we feel when confronted with systems too large to control.

You could argue that by keeping her focus relentlessly on the artificial, she is telling not just a story but a one-sided one, but in our over-developed, ecologically skewed, genie-out-of-the-bottle world, that’s a bit like the conservatives’ argument that we must “balance” evolution and creation science. It’s a false choice to sooth those blind to their changing surroundings.

Tom Moody, New York, 2005

The Choices We Had After 9/11

Published September 11, 2021, in the Winston-Salem Journal

On September 11 of 2001, on the way to my studio workspace on the 92nd floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center, I witnessed a defining national tragedy. Since that day 20 years ago, I have thought a lot about those events, and the subsequent fallout from our national reaction.

There was a tidal wave of sadness that engulfed New York City in the days and weeks after the towers fell, as the colossal hole in the ground smoldered on the southern tip of Manhattan. Memorials sprung up in parks and along fences all across the city, with people posting or wearing pictures of their dead and missing loved ones. Every firehouse was shrouded in black, memorials to lost members posted at each door. There were so many funerals that the NYFD asked the public to attend so their widows wouldn’t be alone. The artists in our group gathered to absorb and commiserate as we were coming to understand what happened. The body of one of our colleagues, Michael Richards, had been found, identified by the wallet in his pocket. We were dumbstruck by all that might imply.

Yet in the midst of all the chaos and trauma, people came together to grieve and to help. Volunteers of all sorts assembled to assist in the herculean task of cleaning up Ground Zero.

Something I noticed then was the divergent ways people reacted to the catastrophe, mostly coalescing into two camps: those who asked “Why would anyone hate us so much that they would resort to such madness?”, and “They hate our freedom. Bomb them all back to the Stone Age.” The official responses boiled down to “let’s get to the bottom of this, find out who is behind it, and bring them to justice”, or “This was an act of war which cannot go unanswered in kind.” There was a brief window when our collective response might have been reasonably tempered, to treat the terrorist attacks as a criminal act, work with international allies, and prosecute the perpetrators accordingly, as we did when Islamic radicals carried out the first attack on the WTC in 1993. With the most obvious perpetrators on Sept. 11th committing suicide in the process, that outcome was distinctly unsatisfying. Even a limited war in Afghanistan, with clear objectives and a definitive end-date, seemed reasonable. We were not to act with reason.

The profound grief over what was lost – all those who leapt to their deaths or died at their desks, brave civil servants who gave everything to save others, the loss of innocence that we could live in a country untouched and unchanged by terrorist violence – became a fissure cleaved into cultural discord. While patriotism proliferated, divisions grew. The Bush Administration, sensing the difficulties of winning in the “graveyard of nations”, opted to focus fighting where they thought they could win. Anti-war sentiment against entering Iraq was quickly subsumed by forces intent on capitalizing on our collective grief.

We once talked about “not letting the terrorists win”, by behaving as a free people. Our open society, the ease with which we entered buildings, boarded planes, welcomed strangers, communicated privately, was suddenly up for grabs. An administration that had won legitimacy by a single vote on the Supreme Court, was so eager to show it was in control after being caught flat-footed by the brazen attack, that it entered not one, but two wars. The costs were put on America’s credit card left unpaid, passed to our grandchildren in a woeful lack of critical infrastructure and essential services. The heartfelt patriotism that had joined us, has since hardened into a dangerous nationalism for some, leading to the Jan. 6th attack on our Capitol. We are reaping now what was sown then.

9/11 became a benchmark for what might move us to action against existential threats. America has since seen more large-scale tragedies; lives lost to gun violence now top 39,000/ year, the pandemic has cost us over 640,000 lives, not to mention the weather-related destruction due to the climate crisis. Still, little has caught our attention as 9/11 did.

If Osama Bin Laden’s goal was to divide America against itself, has his mission been accomplished? After 20 years, have the terrorists won after all?

It remains to be seen whether we have lost the lessons of this tragedy – that we’re better together than apart, that our government can work for all of us. The better angels of our natures are waiting to be tasked.

Kara Hammond, Winston-Salem, NC. 2021