last night i had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a panel discussion regarding the work of painter frederick hammersley; and one of the great things about being on a panel, is that you end up saying things out loud, and you learn a bit about yourself or the thing you are talking about, as it suddenly leaves your head and enters your ears.
i first discovered hammersley's work in the mid-1980s, at, i believe, la louver
(which was where the panel was, and which is where a fantastic hammersley exhibition is up until may 12). when i discovered hammersley's organics they felt not only like the perfect antidote to the bombastic gargantuan works of painters like anselm kiefer and julian schnabel, but they also felt like an ally. by the end of undergrad school circa-1986, i was making small paintings influenced albert p. ryder and arthur dove, and i felt little connection to what was going on in the artworld at that time. while everyone was making paintings that were continually shouting, hammersley's organics felt intimate, humble, quiet, and slowed down. i think since 1982 or 3, when i discovered rilke's letters to a young poet, i have been obsessed with rilke's ideas regarding "inconsiderable things" (and i tend to go back to that phrase as an anchor point in almost everything i've written about my own work, including the recent book on my photo collection) - but these small organics, in hand carved frames, seemed a deep evocation of such things.
looking at hammersley's work from the 40's to the 80's there is a very strong sense of idiosyncratic and deeply personal decision making in relation to color. in the 60's work it is muddy and pale and almost sickly; in the geometrics from the 70's they seem graphic and almost pop, but the color is always slightly off kilter - accentuated in seeing three lavender and black paintings at louver on one wall, and realizing that the shades of lavender are different in each painting. the organics, of course, are the strangest in relation to color, and they include color combinations that are wholly hammersley's own. i've been asked many times about my own sense of color and am never truly able to articulate where that comes from; but in hammersley's organics it is clear that each color decision comes out a rigor - a rigorous seeing and a rigorous feeling of wrongness and rightness.
we also talked a lot about intuition, for while frederick was an amazing (or perhaps fanatical) note taker, it was clear that a lot of decisions in the work revolved around intuition, and i believe that because of this, the work is open in terms of readings and/or experience. an intuitive process - as opposed to a "plan" or a "propaganda"; offers the viewer a potential intuited response - creating meaning through experience, as opposed to creating meaning through knowing... this is what makes the work so generous.
what was also interesting, that i'd never thought much about until i was standing in the midst of all this work, was that in nearly all of the paintings there is no spatial depth - everything is flat and surface and there is no constructed artifice of dimensionality. certainly the geometrics play at times with graphic perspective, but never in a way that space becomes spatial (if that makes any sense); and this denial of articulated space continues pretty much through all facets of his work.
another thing that is very exciting is the dynamic shifts when he moves from geometric - hard edge nearly op work - to organic - biomorphic hyper-color; and how, in seeing four distinct bodies of work in one exhibition, that one is able to focus more on the consistencies than the differences - and unlike this shift in guston's work, where there is a rejection - hammerley seems to be expanding rather than rejecting, continually conversing with cores rather than surfaces, mining his own histories in order to expand the various ways in which his core interests can be visualized. it is as if the process of seeing and learning is one of aggregation.
like a student working towards enlightenment, every aspect of making, seeing and thinking is part of a process - and thus, if each step is important in relation to both past and future steps, one must continually reconcile - and pay deep attention to - everything they do. it is telling that hammersley felt the need to revisit his works from the 40's in the 80's, when he began to create hand carved frames for each of his early tiny prints (and it is clear when you see the images and the frames that each relationship of image to frame is very very specific. it wasn't that the prints were lacking, or couldn't speak on their own; but by crowning them with frames similar to the organics, hammersley brings his earliest works back into the conversation of his most recent works.
i generally have nothing but disdain for the kind of consistency that the art world seems to embrace - when an artist always makes work that looks like it was made by that artist - but hammersley's consistency is not in the veneer, it's in the workings - the mind workings, the hand workings and the artist workings - its the stuff beneath the surface that offers these beautiful surfaces more - for the actions and thinkings imbue the objects not only with a depth of great visual presence, but offer a potential depth of thought as well.