Painting the Island of the Day Before: W. D. Hammond
Max Podstolski

 

"If until that day he had never heard birds really sing, neither could Roberto say he had ever seen birds, at least not in such guises, so many that he asked himself if they were in their natural state or if an artist's hand had painted them and decorated them for some pantomime, or to feign an army on parade, each foot soldier and horseman cloaked in his own standard." [1]

New Zealand painter W.D. (Bill) Hammond experienced a kind of epiphany during his 1989 visit to the Auckland Islands, as a participant in the "Art in the Subantarctic" project. These islands, 320 kilometres south of New Zealand's netherlandish Stewart Island, are best known for their shipwrecks, pre-eminently the General Grant that ran aground in 1866. For Hammond the islands evoked 'paradise lost', an archetypal 'birdland', the way it used to be before the European colonisers or even the indigenous Maori got here. "You feel like a time-traveller, as if you have just stumbled upon it ­ primeval forests, ratas like Walt Disney would make. It's a beautiful place, but it's also full of ghosts, shipwrecks, death " [2]

Close to a century after Gauguin's romanticist immortalisation of the South Seas, Hammond had discovered a visionary paradise uniquely his own: a no-man's-land lying somewhere between these far flung islands and his strange, fertile imagination. A zoomorphic transformation began to manifest itself in his already remarkable paintings; by the early to mid-90's it was clear to Hammond-watchers that a significant shift had occurred. New Zealand's native birds, too many sadly extinct, semi-extinct, or endangered, were making a dramatic comeback, chez Hammond, as anthropomorphous hybrids, resurrected and transmogrified from the portrayals of stuffed specimens painted by Sir Walter Lawry Buller (1838-1906), the local version of the famous American ornithologist John James Audobon.

Buller's birds contemporized by Hammond emerged as ornitho-humans with attitude, arrayed in a bewildering variety of quasi-theatrical guises, costumes, and postures ­ from low-life denizens of public bars and pool-halls, replete with cigarettes and billiard cues; to gigantic figures suggestive of New Zealand's 18th century circumnavigator, Captain James Cook, towering over a denuded landscape of tree stumps and sprouting factories; to victims of calculated extermination spread out or piled up on Buller's tablecloth, awaiting posthumous restoration at the hands of the taxidermist-cum-painter; to lush island dwellers gazing out to sea as distance looks mutely back, prescient of migrants whose life mission was to create an antipodean Mother England through determinedly eradicating the autochthonous. Buller viewed native birds the way Charles Frederick Goldie (1870-1947) was to depict the Maori 'noble savage': being on the verge of extinction was à la mode as a romantic, nostalgic theme in the late 19th century, good for business. "Buller saw no irony in encouraging the large scale destruction of the birds on which his own success was based. It was in fact their imminent disappearance ­ the romance of a dying race ­ that gave them and Buller's book, their particular attraction." [3]

With his bird paintings Hammond has stepped into the spotlight in New Zealand art, tapping into the national psyche's obsession with native birds (there are no large native animals), colonial history, and Kiwiana. Buller was not the only precedent. The regional modernist Don Binney achieved prominence and popularity in the 60's and 70's depicting birds soaring over landscapes, symbolising triumphal national identity as much as individual spiritual transcendence. The kiwi itself, a flightless, nocturnal, clumsy, unattractive, and increasingly-endangered bird, is a decidedly-peculiar choice of national icon, and Hammond's stiff, upright, Egyptian-looking humanoid birds, always in profile, theoretically capable of flight but never flying, allude to that indirectly. He might be saying that island people are as vulnerable to invasion, to the intrusive and ubiquitous global economy, as island fauna, if such richly-evocative and multi-suggestive images could be interpreted so specifically.

But where Binney's sense of good taste, regional appeal and safe predictability ultimately led to his fall from critical grace, Hammond is a maverick outsider and 'bad' artist who plays no-one's game but his own, refusing to remain pinned down for long, if at all. An artist genuinely deserving of international stature, his work stands head and shoulders above so much over-inflated mediocrity that gets high exposure in the art world capitals and big-time art mags. "His work is truly 'international' because he claims the space left in contemporary art for the visionary outsider. That he managed to pursue his disturbing and meticulously painterly vision in the midst of critical dialogues that have hardly anything to do with it, is extraordinary." [4] Internationalist influences on Hammond have been documented extensively: 60's counterculture cartoons and graphics; Japanese 'manga' comics; chinoiserie; video arcade and computer action games; advertisements for hi-fi equipment, digital clocks, and other modern objects; tattoo-parlour style; Sue Coe and the East Village scene; Jim Nutt; Hieronymus Bosch; 15th century Siennese religious painting; medieval art and cartography; medievalist children's book illustrations; Egyptian art and hieroglyphics; and the literary techniques of William Burroughs and his visual collaborator Brion Gysin.

A medieval encyclopedist magpie at heart, Hammond has never tried to accommodate his art to prevailing cultural orthodoxies. Born in 1947 in Christchurch, earning his living for a decade as a toymaker, it was not until 1982 that he first began exhibiting. Citing rock music as a major influence, painting with the volume turned way up and playing drums as a sideline, he likened his 80's work to 'visual music laid out flat'. Many paintings caricaturing ridiculously over-the-top singers had titles borrowed from rock or pop lyrics. There is a manic yet fastidious sense of order to these works, the visual equivalent of Frank Zappa's eccentric orchestrations of the Mothers of Invention, with Escher-like metamorphic graphic elements (eclectically-appropriated visual information which is frequently 'in formation') inscribed on all manner of aged and worn materials (wallpaper, metal, wooden slabs, loose canvas, etc.), surfaces stained with 'the patina of time', and spontaneously daubed backgrounds overrun with trails of dribbling paint. Ultimately Hammond's work succeeds on visual as much as symbolic terms, balancing the painterly and sensuous against his obsessive reprocessing of graphic information, reaching out to enlist the viewer on his voyage of mythical discovery and open-ended imaginative transformation.

"To live in the Antipodes, then, means reconstructing instinct, knowing how to make a marvel nature and nature a marvel, to learn how unstable the world is, which in one half follows certain laws, and in the other half the opposite of those laws." [5]

 

References

[1] Umberto Eco, The Island of the day before, translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Minerva, London, 1996, p. 41.

[2] Bill Hammond, quoted in Gregory O'Brien's Lands & deeds: profiles of contemporary New Zealand painters, Godwit, Auckland, 1996, p. 58.

[3] Ross Galbreath, Walter Buller: the reluctant conservationist, Government Printing Office, Wellington, 1989, p. 108. [As quoted in Allan Smith's "Bill Hammond paints New Zealand: stuck here in paradise, with the Buller's Blues again", Art Asia Pacific, issue 23, 1999, p. 52.]

[4] Chris Krause, "Big picture", in Bill Hammond: 23 big pictures, exhibition catalogue, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, 1999, p. 7. The exhibition ran at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery from 11 September ­14 November 1999. Throughout 2000 it will tour Palmerston North, Wellington, and Auckland.

[5] Umberto Eco, ibid, p. 102.


This article originally appeared in *spark-online issue 4.0, Jan. 2000, at:
http://www.spark-online.com/january00/esociety/articles/podstolski.html

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