“Harmony Hammond: material witness, five decades of art”
Exhibition until November 15, Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; sarasotaartmuseum.org.
The art game has many rules. Great artists like to break them. But in order to do that, you need to know what they are. It is not so easy. Some of the unspoken rules are so deeply ingrained that artists and critics forget they exist.
Until an artist like Harmony Hammond comes along. âHarmony Hammond: Material floWitnessâ advocates for its impact at the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, which reopened after seven months. This retrospective premiered at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and was curated by Amy Smith-Stewart.
So who is Harmony Hammond? Until I saw this exhibition, the greatest artist I had never heard of. Now I know better.
Here is the short version …
This pioneering artist made her way in the 1970s. A chapter in the history of art that encouraged outlaws and transgressors, within certain unspoken taboos. Different artistic movements flowed together like mighty rivers: minimalism, process art and feminist art, to name a few. With the obvious exception of cardholder feminists, male artists dominated most of these schools. (A very important unspoken rule.) This was especially true in the field of abstract sculpture.
In the 1970s, the assumptions were clear. Unspoken rules have been carved into the minds of artists and art critics. Why say them out loud? It was unnecessary – and just plain rude. Everyone knew.
The abstract sculpture should be as elegant as an Ikea coffee table. The predominant aesthetic was harsh, industrial, inorganic, mechanical, geometric, clean and sterile. Materials like steel, stone and glass. Abstract shapes that Plato would love. (That’s what abstract sculpture means, isn’t it?) The shapes and masses of a mental realm, not the dirty and messy earth. Shapes as pure as a mechanical drawing on a graphic. No stories, nothing personal or sensitive. (That’s what albums are for.) Nothing in this world.
This art was eternal and indestructible, out of the bonds of time and space. The master builders who created this mighty sculpture were mostly men, it goes without saying. Tough guys, with high standards. Macho men, gays included. Uncompromising, relentless and without sentimentality. If Howard Roark was a sculptor, he would be one of them.
These were the unspoken rules. Harmony Hammond shattered them all with her provocative abstract sculpture.
Hammond is a woman. On top of that, she’s a lesbian, proudly out of the closet. In the 1970s, he was generally a career killer. But Hammond went further. She was not just a “lesbian artist”. She has proclaimed herself a creator of lesbian art. An abstract sculptor, in particular. But not confined to a purely mental domain.
Hammond worked with messy and messy materials like beads, fabric, fibers, burlap, recycled tatami mats, rags, straw and chopped formica. Earthy materials, usually sequestered in the female ghetto of quilts and homemade clothes. (Girl stuff, okay?) Hammond’s art also told stories – long before it was all the rage. Stories of Women – Trailblazers, Abused and Rebel. Earth stories, specific to time and space. Hammond told these stories with discarded real world objects. His unique palette included rags and feathers from old clothes and rubbish from crumbling family farms.
As for Platonic purity, forget it. Hammond smeared an assemblage of calligraphy drawn in his own menstrual blood. It wasn’t fashionable either. Most provocative of all, his art was clearly not eternal. Rust never sleeps. Hammond didn’t try to hide it.
“Presences” recreates Hammond’s installation from 1973. At first glance, it looks like a freeze frame from “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Six effigies hang from the ceiling. Vaguously feminine forms, spiraled from recycled fabric strips, dyed and painted with a bloody appearance. Each hangs on a hanger, not a noose. But signs of loss and execution remain. Hammond’s âPresencesâ refer to absences. These women are no longer there.
“Sieve” (1999) is a square of irregular metal dotted with holes. It is a grid, but not Cartesian. More like a road sign after a shotgun explosion. (I’m told it’s a common sight in New Mexico, Hammond’s home state.) It’s all about entropy. Nothing lasts forever, art included.
Hammond’s (1974) âFloorpiecesâ occupy a gallery like an army of psychedelic flying saucers. Five circular rugs, woven in fabric and painted with garish acrylic colors. Across the room, the rugs look like elegant Pop Art mandalas. Up close, they are rough and sturdy. They’re made from recycled fabric, a polite way of saying Hammond dumped garbage cans in Soho. These âfloor piecesâ refer to an indigenous art form, as well as a coarse and insulting slang term for âlesbianâ.
This rude implication is a perfect digest of his style. Hammond’s anger colors his work. The male power structure is its main target. But she also has a bad sense of humor.
Hammond’s âWrapped Sculpturesâ are aimed at a devious joke to the art crowd. Geometric shapes like âDogonâ (1978) echo the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and other tough guys. No tribute. More like minimalist mockery. The pieces are cartoonish, inflated and inflated. Hammond wrapped the shapes in glittery fabric, gesso, paint, latex rubber, and faux pearls. Why? The artist makes it clear. “Feminize and play with ‘serious minimal’ (masculine) sculptural forms. ” That’s why.
âInappropriate Longingsâ (1992) is a triptych of three abstract collages assembled from fragments of old linoleum floors from abandoned farmhouses. It hangs on the wall. Directly opposite, there is a galvanized steel horse-drawn drinking trough filled with fallen leaves instead of water. It is a tale of loss and nostalgia. You imagine the tough women who lived on these farms. The heroines of the photos of Dorothea Lange and the songs of Neil Young. All the stories they could tell, before the agribusiness erased their world.
These are just a few highlights. This retrospective is full of artifacts and images from Hammond’s groundbreaking career over five decades. You can also see a carefully curated display of his publications and memorabilia, and a long, lucid timeline of his history – sprawled out to allow for social distancing.
This retrospective is a great introduction to Harmony Hammond. If you already know his life and work, it will surprise you anyway.
I highly recommend it. And viewing online isn’t your only option now that the museum has opened to the public for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed in March. Attendance is limited for social distancing. While Hammond’s work was available online, you can now see him in person. This is the only way to see it.
While you’re here, check out “Color. Theory. & (b / b) “and” The Memory Project “. If you’re hungry, stop by the new Bistro. There’s great food and a cool mural by Jose Alvarez (DOPA). The tribute to chair no. 14 by Michael Thonet (1859) includes photographs, a timeline and real chairs to sit on.