Jillian Steinhauer on Jane Hammond

Jane Hammond, Scrapbook, 2003, pigmented inkjet and hand inked woodblock prints on mixed media, 33 x 48 5/8 inches (83.3 x 123.5 cm). © Jane Hammond / Photo: Ellen McDermott
Jane Hammond, Scrapbook, 2003, pigmented inkjet and hand inked woodblock prints on mixed media, 33 x 48 5/8 inches (83.3 x 123.5 cm). © Jane Hammond / Photo: Ellen McDermott

Audio Transcript
I’m going to talk a little bit about Scrapbook from 2003, and point out a few things. There are lots of objects in here, and many of them are scanned digitally. A few are woodblock prints, rubber stamps, and some other things like that. You see a lot of insects, and then you see this odd-looking insect on the left-hand page with blue wings. That is a fictional insect. I made that by scanning parts of a phasmid, parts of some butterflies, and putting them together. It’s kind of an imaginary insect; you could call it a collage, and you could also say it’s a hypothetical piece of genetic engineering. Another thing I might point out is the frog; that’s on the right-hand page, down low. I took a frog skeleton and brought it into the darkroom, and then projected light on it and developed it. And then, on the right-hand page, a funny thing happened. I went to an ephemera fair and I bought a print, and I really just chose it because it had very deep perspectival space. So it’s the print you see mid-page, towards the [top] side, and it has a butterfly and a feather on it. When I got it home, believe it or not, the building actually says Hammond Typewriters. So I bought a print with a sign inside of it with my own name on it. You’ll see in this scrapbook print, there are lots of pairs of things: there’s two rings (the kind of ring you would wear on your finger); there’s two or three different kinds of frogs: a rayogram, an origami frog, and a woodblock. You’ll see there’s two postage stamps: and you’ll see on the left-hand side, it’s a digital reproduction of an actual postage stamp of a person in Greek costume; and you’ll see on the right-hand side, I’ve taken that same stamp, taken out the costumed person, and put my own face in there.

Suppose you are at a flea market—not the highbrow kind you find in some trendy neighborhoods, but a real sprawling, dirty mess of a flea market in a big city. Suppose you are wandering through the makeshift stalls and marveling at the detritus of humankind, when you happen upon an old bookseller. He has wrinkly skin and an unkempt beard, and he draws you in with a slight nod. You begin to sift through crates, admiring the stately jackets and gold pressed lettering on the spines of aging volumes.

In one bin you find an album. Lifting its marbleized cover, you discover pages of cutout images pasted neatly against a white background: it is a scrapbook, a cast-off relic of someone’s existence. You leaf through and see familiar images—birds, postcards, dice, butterflies—but their meaning isn’t immediately clear. The objects look the way they always do, but in this unknown context, their significance has changed. The story the book was meant to tell seems indecipherable. You buy the album anyway. You take it home and pore over its pages. Even though you can’t understand it the way its creator intended, trying to make sense of it excites you, as if you were solving a crossword or putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

This is how it feels to look at Jane Hammond’s art. Stylistically, Hammond makes many different kinds of work—paintings, unique works on paper, prints, artist’s books, photographs—and in that sense her practice varies widely. What unites all of her output, however, is a principle of aesthetic intellectualism: a preoccupation with images as symbols and an insistence that art can (and perhaps should) be read as well as viewed. Hammond’s work grips the viewer with its vibrant colors and captivating imagery, but this initial enchantment often leads to mystification, frustration even. How are the fortune-cookie fortunes connected to the white glove, and the glove to the frog skeleton? What does it all mean? Only once the viewer accepts this bafflement as a form of engagement can he or she move beyond it and enter Hammond’s world.

What one finds there depends, of course, upon the work. Nature often abounds, in the form of insects, butterflies, birds, and feathers, but so, too, does artifice, as Hammond deals in reproductions. Those are not real feathers, though they may look it. And that brilliant black-and-blue butterfly that seems to alight for a moment atop a print of Vladimir Nabokov’s words? Paper, finely cut.

Jane Hammond, Four Ways to Blue, 2006, printed, cut and collaged papers, 10 ½ x 12 inches (26.7 x 30.5 cm). Published by Two Palms, New York. © Jane Hammond / Photo: Laura Mitchell
Jane Hammond, Four Ways to Blue, 2006, printed, cut and collaged papers, 10 ½ x 12 inches (26.7 x 30.5 cm). Published by Two Palms, New York. © Jane Hammond / Photo: Laura Mitchell

Audio Transcript

You might look at this work, called Four Ways to Blue, and think, what are the four ways to blue? So let me walk you through that. First you have, behind the letters in the text, a piece of paper with various shades of blue on it. It’s a piece of hand printed Japanese paper, with a very beautiful pattern, but you only see glimpses of the pattern through the letters of the words. Then, of course the most obvious thing, you have that big, beautiful blue butterfly, whose name is papilio Ulysses. If you look closely at papilio Ulysses, you see that I have taken [Sally Kramarsky’s] blue eyes a pair of blue eyes and photographed them very close up, and then in Photoshop I have inserted her blue eyes into the wings of the butterfly. Then the next and fourth thing is the most subtle and difficult to figure out. The text here is by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s the answer to a question he was asked in an interview. The question was, “Can you describe the pleasures of collecting?” And in his answer, he gives you four ways in which collecting is a thrill for him. But by inference, he’s talking about not just collecting butterflies, but also, in particular, collecting a group of butterflies that he was dedicated to for several decades, and that group of butterflies is called The Blues. I made this piece for Wynn Kramarsky’s eightieth birthday, and I wanted to make a piece that referenced collecting, because I met him because he is a passionate collector. And yet, at the same time, I didn’t want the piece to be directly about him, and I didn’t want the piece to have a flattering nature, because I knew he wouldn’t want that either. So it was kind of an intellectual conundrum, but I was saved by the fact that I was reading a book called Nabokov’s Blues, and so I got the idea to make the piece directly about another collector, Vladimir Nabokov, and inferentially about Wynn. I made this piece in several stages. First, the text, was made in a laser process, where it was laser cut out of that white piece of paper. You actually see the text in its absence. And I assembled behind that a printed piece of Japanese paper. And then I made the butterfly by acquiring an actual butterfly specimen of papilio Ulysses, first steaming him open; it comes flattened—and scanning the butterfly, front and back, on a digital scanner, and then cutting it out with scissors and mounting it in that fairly lifelike way.

This is where the buzzword of Hammond’s generation comes into play, where her system of art making overlaps with that fixation of her peers: appropriation. Hammond hungrily acquires images that spark her interest and creativity. Yet her practice seems less an act of simple reuse or interpretation than one of transliteration. She reconfigures images to fit her own syntax, plucking them from their mainstream existence and depositing them in the wildly associative waters of her own brain.

When we confront her work, Hammond expects us to do the same. Her art, she says, is “brain food, but I’m not going to tell you.”1 In that sense the viewer does not really enter Hammond’s world; instead, he or she enters into collaboration with the artist. The viewer accepts Hammond’s terms—the ones he or she can grasp, anyway—and builds on them, adding personal meanings and associations.

This may sound like a lot work—and it is, for those who have been trained in the habit of passively appreciating line, color, and form or straightforward content. But Hammond’s faith in viewers, her refusal to preach, is refreshing. So is her marriage of two ideas that have been too long estranged in contemporary art: aesthetics and conceptualism. Using objective images as her alphabet, she has written a testament to subjectivity. Hammond’s art is filled with stories, but it’s up to us to tell them.

1. Jane Hammond, in conversation with the author, 16 June 2011.

Jane Hammond Biography

Jane Hammond (b. 1950, Bridgeport, CT) received her BA from Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts (1972). She earned her MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1977). A traveling exhibition of Hammond’s paper works was organized by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts (2006). Her large-scale installation Fallen, part of the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, has traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2008); the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California (2009); and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, Virginia (2010). Solo exhibitions recently have been held at A+D Gallery, Columbia College, Chicago (2009); the Brevard Art Museum, Melbourne, Florida (2009); the Visual Arts Gallery, University of Alabama, Birmingham (2009); Galeria Senda, Barcelona (2009); the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (2008-2009); Galerie Lelong, Paris (2010); FLAG Art Foundation, New York (2011); Galerie Lelong, New York (2008, 2011); Pace Prints, New York (2010, 2013); Nina Freudenheim Gallery, New York (2014); and Sims Reed Gallery, London (2014). Her most recent group exhibitions took place at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2009); the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (2009); The Jewish Museum, New York (2010); the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York (2011); the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC (2011, 2012); the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio (2012); The Art Institute of Chicago (2012); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2013); and the de Young Museum, San Francisco (2014). Her work may be found in the public collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Whitney Museum of Art, New York; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Hammond lives and works in New York City. More information about her work can be found at www.janehammondartist.com.

Jillian Steinhauer Biography
Jillian Steinhauer (b. 1984, White Plains, NY) is Senior Editor of the art blogazine Hyperallergic as well as a freelance writer. She received her MA in Journalism with a concentration in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from New York University (2011). She has written for The Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. She received her BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and can be found onTwitter. Steinhauer lives in Brooklyn.