Artist, curator, author and activist, Hammond was born in 1944 in Chicago but has lived and worked in New Mexico since 1984. A pivotal figure in the feminist art movement in New York during the 1970s, her early work combined gender politics with both a minimal and post-minimal understanding of materials and process, a focus that continues to this day. Frequently occupying a unique space between painting and sculpture, Hammond’s abstract, monochrome oil on canvas paintings incorporate additional materials such as fabrics, push pins, metal grommets and rope into their compositions, creating active, textural surfaces that appear to refute inherent notions of monochromatic purity. She says: ‘I’ve always been interested in bringing sociopolitical content into the world of abstraction. Incorporating materials and objects, with their geographies, histories, and associations, is one way of doing this.’
While Hammond’s recent ‘near monochrome’ large-scale works emerge from the trajectory of modernist abstraction, at the same time they question and disrupt it, evincing how paint in itself can be a carrier of meaning and how the canvas can be a site of ‘indexical intent’. Hammond’s earliest work in the exhibition, entitled Bag VI (1971), takes the form of a handbag made from painted and layered strips of cloth, which the artist refers to as three-dimensional brush strokes. Made from materials recycled from women friends while Hammond was living in New York in the 1970s – a time of heightened political consciousness – the works reference the gendered body, women’s traditional textile arts and creative practices of non-Western cultures.
The notion of recycling materials into new structural or metaphorical capacities continues in recent work: warm-white monochrome canvases are composed with grids of grommeted burlap, rope, push pins or straps, all overlaid with thick layers of paint. Showing ruptures and seams, the agglomerated material elements appear to emerge from and disappear into the canvas, creating a sense of three-dimensional relief, casting a shadow on the off-white coverlet below. Punctuated with protrusions, holes, seams and fraying edges, they foreground notions of suture and concealment – of hidden layers, spaces or narratives that lie beneath the surface. In the work Chenille #7 (2018), for example, a composition created from burlap coffee sacks cut open and collaged to the stretched canvas, a frayed flap of the burlap hangs slightly away from the painting surface, revealing what might be a raw wound underneath. The flap is flanked on either side by pieced and patched panels of grommeted canvas with trails of paint-encrusted rope hanging down. Similar concerns are explored in Bandaged Quilt #1 (2018-19), a dynamic, geometric composition created from overlapping strips of burlap and canvas, applied from the edge of the work towards its centre, in a basic pieced quilt pattern. Repeatedly overlaid, the material, suggestive of bandages, does not quite cover the entire surface, leaving an exposed blood-red slit or wound at the painting’s centre. With paint accumulating around the edge of each strip, the effect is of a rippling and receding cuboid space that in turn creates a poised and palpable tension between the irregularity of its soft material and overall geometric arrangement.
For Hammond, the canvas can be considered a metaphorical body, a place where surface and skin meet. ‘Monochrome refuses disembodiment,’ she has said. ‘It allows one to escape figuration but presence the body. All painting is about the skin of paint. The skin of paint calls up the body, and therefore the painting body. At their best, the paintings transmute the painting field into the body.’
Image caption: Harmony Hammond, Chenille #7, 2018, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 58 1/2 x 118 1/2 x 6 in. (148.6 x 301 x 15.2 cm) © Harmony Hammond. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York