Jane Hammond and Raphael Rubinstein, Be Zany, Poised Harpists / Be Blue, Little Sparrows, 2002, artist’s book: letterpress, digital prints, photocopies, vintage postcards, vintage postage stamps, hand-coloring, rubber-stamping, and collage on a variety of archival materials, 12 3/4 x 10 1/2 x 1 3/4 inches (32.4 x 26.7 x 4.4 cm), closed. Published by Dieu Donné Papermill, Inc., in cooperation with Dieu Donné Press, New York, and Silicon Gallery Fine Art Prints, Philadelphia. © Jane Hammond & Raphael Rubinstein / Photos: Laura Mitchell
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I wanted to say something about Be Zany, Poised Harpists / Be Blue, Little Sparrows. And by the way, that’s a title that Raphael [Rubinstein] and I made up together, and we made it up using a two-letter word, followed by a four-letter word, followed by a six-letter word, followed by an eight-letter word, because that relates to the poems inside of the book. The four of them follow a kind of architectural pattern. When I made the artwork for the poem that has six stanzas of six lines of six words of six letters, I went first to an ephemera fair, and I bought postcards from all the towns Raphael mentions in his poem: London, Dieppe, Moscow, Crimea, Madrid. And then I made racy collages on the backs of those postcards, because Raphael’s poem is a racy poem. And then I hand colored the collages with colored pencils, so if you were to see two copies of this book, you would notice that the collages on the backs of the postcards are not exactly the same. And then I put on the postcards, on that back side, real stamps; so some postcard collages have stamps from Monaco, and some have stamps from Russia, and some have stamps from Poland, all different kinds of places. And then I had made up cancellation stamps; I got rubber stamps made and kind of forged the cancellation marks of different countries. So if you look closely sometimes, you’ll see that there’s a postcard from one place, and it has a stamp from another place. I did that because I know, myself, when I would travel and send postcards, I would oftentimes send my postcards a week later, in the next city. The first of Raphael’s poems is extremely spare and haiku-like, and I wanted to make an artwork that paralleled that. The first thought that came to my mind was, I wanted to make something that was sort of a nothing. So I made big soap bubbles, and I blew them by making my own wand, and making a mixture of soap and Karo Syrup. And then I had them professionally photographed, and we printed them on clear acetate and put them inside of these glassine envelopes. You can actually open the envelopes and take out the print, but then you see right through it and it feels, I think, very iffy, in the same way that Raphael’s poem does.
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.
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.
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.
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.