Saturday 31 August 2013

Mr. Gobrick : Bill Hammond

Dear Mr. Gobrick,

When I was a teenager I rarely visited museums or art galleries.  I remember my teachers were obliged to haul us out to exhibitions every few years: hay-stuffed history in fur-trading forts, talking computers at science fairs, and big-screen movies about whales where you had to wear the cheap red-and-blue paper shades.  But painting, sculpture, installation art, even music?  Not that I recall.  Until I entered university, fine art – including drama, music, dance and all that other fairy stuff – was never an option of study.  And until then, the prospect of going into a building to look at paint on canvas was about as exciting as sitting still at a ballet.  Of course, I didn’t do either of these things – but ignorance is no excuse to a 15-year old.

I became an undergraduate with no break but the summer following my school exams, and was just as surprised as everyone else to learn that my programme fell under the power of that esoteric tower of talent, the Faculty of Fine Arts.  I wouldn’t have to sing or dance, would I?  They can’t mark me on how well I draw, can they?  No, I learned, but I would have to take at least one course within the Faculty, but outside of my department (Drama).  Everything with a practical bent scared me out of my wits, and just the titles of the theoretical courses (Art History, Dance Theory, Music Appreciation) bored me to tears.  So, coward that I continue to be, I went the easiest way I could find: an introductory course to all the Fine Arts, surveying (and thus not really getting dirty with) all art, all method, all eons.  I figured we wouldn’t have time to pick up a flute or dance the tarantella, and I was right.

Despite what I now consider to be a reprehensible lack of dialogue and cooperation between the Fine Arts disciplines, four years in any arts department is not without its prods and nods to explore the larger meaning of creativity.  In my first couple years I was encouraged by professors to check out the new downtown exhibit, was exposed in performance art classes to crossdisciplinary practice and theory, and discovered in my assigned readings the ancient relationship between the theatre and every other conceivable form of human expression.  I wanted to learn more, and to bring it back to the task at hand.  By the time I finished university my self-indoctrination was complete: I was aimed full-throttle towards the avant-garde, experimentation, and annihilating barriers between the crafts.  If a four-hour anti-dance escapade performed by naked feminists drenched in paint on an office-paper canvas under the nothing but the moonlight came to my town – you bet I’d be there.  In fact, count me in today.  But some painter who knows how to shadow a chair?  No thanks.

Now keep in mind, I wasn’t afraid of or at heart opposed to that older kind of art.  It was at this time that I was falling in love with classical music.  I was watching older movies and independent films which comment on the art of cinema and, by extension, the art of visual expression altogether.  I was meeting other artists from other disciplines who had a lot of fascinating things to say about the history of their craft, and about the old masters whose shadows still daunt the newcomer.  My mother was just starting to collect and hang prints and paintings which were admittedly beautiful, though still over my head.  If I ever said something along the lines of, say, landscape painting is so bourgeois, or, modern art was a confused backstep towards more democratic expression (I don’t think I ever actually said these idiot things, but you get this gist), it wasn’t just because I was a philistine, but because I needed some defense against not “getting it”.

And I did try.  I took it upon myself to be or to get “cultured”, and so attended new exhibitions and openings, regardless of era and style.  I visited galleries at home and wherever else I found myself, only to champion the screeching, immediate “new” while rushing past the icy, sanctimonious “old”.  It was the same thing every time: there’s a man sitting for his portrait, without a smile, his cheeks unbelievable, shirt-collar puffy, one hand holding an orange and the other on his knee.  Okay, there’s some symbolism and I should read a book about it, but where’s the genius?  There’s an open field with a bunch of horses running around, and some clouds, and some grass, and in the corner there’s a lake, and…  I’m asleep.  There’s a big battle scene, or an exploding volcano over the fields of hell, or an eviscerating seaborne sunset – wow!  Beautiful or sublime, some striking stuff.  But still, a masterpiece?  I’ve seen better photographs, and they’re more informative to boot.

Any half-witted enthusiast of art could have told me I was a shallow and lazy fool.  They would have suggested I read a good book, or visited a great New York or European museum with a guide who’s good with yawning children, or just taken that Art History class.  I could have crossed the Rubicon of art appreciation in a multitude of ways, but I’m rather proud and fond of the bridge I ended up crossing.  His name is Bill Hammond.

My four months in New Zealand was the first time I’d ever really traveled.  I bought plane tickets there and back, extended just long enough to spectate the Wellington International Arts Festival, threw on a backpack and left behind my camera (because I wanted to remember things, I announced).  I worked for two weeks on an organic farm, and another two in an organic café; I hitchhiked from one end of the country to the other, tramped solo and in a group all across the South and Stewart Islands; I read a book, left it behind, bought or found or borrowed another, and repeated the cycle ad infinitum; I saw fjords, waterfalls, mountains, beaches, and glaciers, and met some of the most wonderful people.  My gameplan in every town or city was to get up in the morning, stroll out in the sun or the rain, and walk, and walk, and walk.  If there was anything I did in New Zealand, it was walking.  I didn’t have a guidebook until I found one near the end of the trip, so I sometimes learned about things to do or see by word of mouth.  Usually, however, I just stumbled on it.

In Christchurch, I stumbled on an art gallery.  To me it proposed itself like any other: sleek, professional, and empty.  I looked at the programme posted outside the main door, and it meant nothing to me.  A bunch of talk about mindscapes, using fat words like defragmentary, eclipse and phenomenological.  I was hesitant.  I was hungry too, which is never a good sign.  It may have been my first chance at a proper “institution” since Wellington’s Te Papa Museum, which I had very much enjoyed, but that museum was huge: if I was bored with the wooden artifacts encased in glass, I could just go next door, to the room which explains the Big Bang.  The Christchurch Art Gallery, on the other hand, was small and intimate, and frightening.  Once I paid for the ticket, I couldn’t just pop in, have a look, and leave.  I’d have to stay, and be still, and suffer, and get my money’s worth.  For some reason or another, after wrestling with these prospects, I paid up and went inside.  The first exhibit featured the paintings of Bill Hammond.

It didn’t take long, maybe a couple seconds.  There may have been a set of stairs to ascend or an elevator to open or a corner to turn, but suddenly I was faced with a great big green canvas, and I was captivated.  Its paint dripped down to the floor as if still wet, its lines were like violin strings, thrumming, its shapes were vibrant and living yet of almost the same colour as the background, its frame seemed crooked yet it was symmetrical.  For perhaps the first time in all of my endless walking around that young island nation, I couldn’t help now but be still.  I stared, and stared, and stared.  The shapes formed dozens of man-like figures topped with these glorious, imperial heads of birds, which pointed always, fiercely, resolutely, dangerously, to the side.  They were in the foreground and in the back, uniform but separate, nervous but wise.  They held spears and seemed to sing.  They were all at war, yet too graceful to ever strike.  Below and behind these figures, the colours on the canvas separated to form the sky and the earth, mountains and trees, and some measure of doom in the smoke.  The ground was all gnarled, and death awaited everything.  Fear was rank, but order was ranker.  These bird-headed men, these anthropomorphs, I got the sense they were desperate, they were trying right now, to live forever.  I was shocked and immersed at once, and absurdly afraid.  To use Roland Barthes’ term, these figures and their world were a punctum: they sliced me open.

People were passing by behind me, and I wondered, as if from the world of the painting, how they could stop for so short a time, why they weren’t as entangled as I was.  Some had hands in their pockets and didn’t even slow their step.  Eventually I realised that there would be more than one painting in the Gallery.  I must have stood in front of that first painting for 20 minutes before I pulled out of the trance and decided to move on.

I was no less entranced by the other paintings, and took no less time.  Some were of the same grand design which enveloped an entire white room, while others were concentrated, screaming portraits of life relegated to irregular boxes.  If I were a critic I’d go on, and probably mention the collapse of foreground and background, the threatening lack of realistic light which still plays with shadow, and to show off my understanding of technique, I’d have to say something about the brushstrokes.  Instead, being an eternal charlatan, I’ll try to explain how I connected with Hammond’s paintings.  I slowly developed a method of seeing – or, because they seemed so active, of watching – whereby I’d just stand and wait a while.  I’d let the whole picture become clear, and then I’d seek out the details: the strips of musical notation, maybe, or the globe-like object one of the figures held as if either a bun from the oven or the precious source of youth itself.  Once I’d investigated every inch – and still failed to notice all the details and quirks – I’d pick the most striking space within the frame and be taken from there.  Sagas appeared to me.  Great tales of heroism and tragedy stretched out from the image and blurted themselves into my ear, unhindered, unconcealing, unstoppable.  The figures would begin as angels and end up as devils, or be a split-second away from flying off before I realised they were clipped and couldn’t fly.

When all the stories were as loud as I could handle, I’d step back again, and see it all.  And almost every time, at this point, I felt a catharsis: a total, singular image, less a message than an emotion.  Each painting rewarded my journey in and out of its universe with a rush of understanding.  A self-centred, warmongering general, burning all in his path for glory and power and the music of money, blind to his own betrayal of himself.  Creatures of paradise crying up to the clouds for redemption.  A lonely couple, fitting together like an apple and its bitten-off piece, holding out against the end of the world.   These images were snaps of understanding, about-faces to the void.  They were the same class of feeling you get when someone tells you a story, usually about themselves in truth or in allegory, and suddenly you see why that person does everything they do, why they hurt everywhere they hurt, and why they laugh every time the laugh.  It was the same feeling I got, and still get, in a Beethoven symphony at that critical, gaping moment just seconds away from the climax, after listening to the whole work.  And it’s a feeling I never get when I hear only that one part.

Bill Hammond’s paintings, of course, never tell stories, but only suggest them; being still, they are cut-outs of a single moment in time, containing hundreds of strands but never the outcomes or precursors of those strands.  It is up to the observer, the participant, to follow the artist’s compass and fill in the rest.  Thus, Bill Hammond does not merely have one Jingle Jangle Morning, but as many as there are viewers who stop and look.  I wager that all great art of any form – drama, music, painting, sculpture, film, pottery, poetry, you name it – hinges on this same principle.  But for some reason, when it came to painting, I hadn’t gone there before.  I hadn’t followed the path.  I saw where it led, into a dark forest or up onto a bald hill, probably even decided that it looked like a nice path, but decided it wasn’t worth my effort.  I was lucky back in Christchurch to pass a trail by which every part of me wanted to tumble down, and then to stay lost until closing time.  It turned out, by chance or by design, to lead to other paths, which eventually returned me to the bustling highway of – well, for lack of a better term – Art Appreciation.

I’m not going to go on about it, but since I encountered Bill Hammond’s work, I’ve been empowered to soak up quite a bit of art I wouldn’t otherwise have soaked up.  I do have to give at least partial credit to residing for nearly five years after New Zealand in Europe, where whole warehouses of some of the most inspired human expression are saved  on canvas, paper, bronze, stone, tapestry, church wall and hard drive, and nurtured, and visited, and respected.  But I could easily have lived there for twice as long, shunning Caravaggio while pretending to “get it” by blasting Shostakovich into my skull from oversized headphones.  I may still need to freshen up on my Dutch symbolism in order to understand the true intentioned meaning of the orange clasped in the hand of that bored and boring man who sits for his portrait.  But it might just be enough – and, if the work is of the stuff it truly aspires to be, it will be enough – to stare, and wait, and notice the details, and find every little piece there is to find, and listen, and pull back, and see it all over again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still don’t really get it, but I’m deeper than I ever thought I would be.  And I can’t help but feel like one of Hammond’s bird-men: the strange, tall, flesh-toned one who sits before a school-chalkboard-coloured backdrop, happy and nearly smiling as he plays the cello, while everyone else stares incredulously.  Maybe they shake their fists, maybe they thrust their crotches, or maybe they’re indifferent.  But I have no choice, I’ve seen the painting and its shadow, I’ve entered and cannot return by the same path, and I’ve got music written all over my skin: I have to play on.

Play on, Bill Hammond. 



PS: I visited the Christchurch Gallery in 2008, and returned a month later for another viewing.  On my second visit I bought a catalogue, but don’t have that with me.  What I’ve written is from a poor memory, which all but guarantees inaccuracy.  My apologies – but if you really want to know what it’s like, you deserve to see it for yourself.  Here are a few links to get started: