How Not to Vanish: Barbara Hammer’s Resilient Gaze
The veteran multi-media artist, Barbara Hammer, and her interviewer, painter and regular artcritical contributor Rebecca Allan, were both residents recently at an artists’ retreat on the Côte d’Azur. Allan’s profile of the artist coincides with her exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman, on view through January 28.
Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies at the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art,
October 7, 2017 to January 28, 2018
Curated by Staci Bu Shea and Carmel Curtis26 Wooster Street, between Canal and Grand streets
New York City, leslielohman.org
Barbara Hammer jumps out of the rental car and sprints up Boulevard Jean Moulin, yelling Vous partez?! at the man who is unlocking his car. We are tangled in a spontaneous street protest in Marseille, as she attempts to flag down that parking spot we need. Typically, Hammer would wield a camera, but this time we’re on the lookout for the art supply store to buy drawing tools to take back to the artists’ retreat where we’re both working in an idyllic Mediterranean fishing village. On the winding drive back to Cassis, we talk about Resisting Paradise (2003), Hammer’s film about the French Resistance Movement here, and the artist’s role in times of conflict. She describes her initial research, especially a meeting with Lisa Fittko, who helped Jews and anti-Hitler resisters to escape Nazi-occupied France for Spain, where they took passage to safe havens. Fittko smuggled Walter Benjamin through this corridor. I have a boulder in my stomach recognizing that the body of water we look out over from the refuge of our retreat has been the death site of 5079 migrants fleeing Syria and Africa in 2016. Barbara Hammer’s desire to bear witness to the hidden and the endangered—her curiosity about the historical and political reality of a particular landscape—has been on my mind since that summer.
A flash of light pierces the hallway as Barbara opens the door, welcoming me to her studio at Westbeth in New York City. It is November 2017. We sit at a small table in front of windows overlooking a glistening Hudson River and the pilings, relics of submerged logs that once supported the piers along the Manhattan’s West Side. They draw they eye outward to the water, resembling film sprockets. Furnished simply with a desk and well-organized bookshelves, the studio contains an artwork suspended from the ceiling: a black steel and sheet-lead sculpture in the form of a girdle and bra by California-based artist Jann Nunn. Hammer and her partner Florrie Burke bought the work from the artist. As it dangles above Hammer’s head, I cannot figure out whether the material is leathery or hard, heavy or light. At Westbeth, the cooperative artists’ residence that was the once Bell Laboratories (1868-1966), Hammer had been on the waiting list for seven years and previously lived in two other spaces there. She says that this studio is the loveliest; it feels like living in a ship. The space is essentially empty of her own work because it is on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Barbara Hammer: Evidentiary Bodies is a multifaceted exhibition-project that includes a retrospective of work from the 1960s to the present, a series of performances and film screenings throughout New York, a companion show of her early photographs, and two new publications. Curated by Staci Bu Shea and Carmel Curtis, the exhibition is a cornucopia of archival material, previously unseen films, videos, paintings, drawings, collages, and installations that provide fresh insights into the life’s work of this pioneer of queer and experimental cinema, and the first living lesbian to have a retrospective at the museum. Hammer’s life-embracing, take-no-prisoners approach is a model of invention, endurance, and passion that would inspire anyone who seeks to live with undaunted courage and authenticity.
Born in 1939 in Hollywood, California, Barbara Hammer has, over the course of 40 years, created more than 80 works in film and video that have defied categorization and addressed subjects that had been invisible throughout history: lesbian sexuality and culture in particular, the nature of the artist and the space she works within, environmental and political injustice, and the process of living with cancer.
At Leslie-Lohman, an opening wall displays archival photographs of the performances—some hilarious and others profound—that Hammer has presented over the years. In one work, audience members roam around an inflated weather balloon, which is the projection surface for the film Bent Time (1983). Shot in high-energy locations such as Chaco Canyon and the Brooklyn Bridge, the film was influenced by the scientific theory that light rays curve at the outer edges of the universe, and by extension, that time also bends. “I used an extreme wide-angle lens of 9mm and one frame of film per foot of physical space to simulate the concept of time bending,” Hammer writes. The milky membrane of the balloon is a giant floating eye, staring back at us. Through silence or percussive sound, and in their unconventional modes of presentation, Hammer’s films demand an active viewer. Be prepared to feel awkward, to guffaw, to hear your neighbor’s breathing and your own digestive noise, to reconsider where film images belong, and at times to be eager for the stimulation to end.
In the short film Double Strength, (1978) the naked aerial dancer Terry Sendgraff swings and flies, performing strenuous acrobatic movements in suspension as Hammer films her from the ground, and from her own trapeze. Combining internal diegetic sound with found music, it is a lyrical essay in how the body interacts with gravity, as well as a meditation on the stages of a relationship from sexual awakening, through struggle, break-up, and enduring friendship. Considered alongside her film A Horse is not a Metaphor (2008), I see correspondences with the American artist Charles Demuth’s intimately scaled, homoerotic watercolors of circus performers, as well as the female equestriennes who worked within a vanished infrastructure of riding academies and horse shows in New York City after the Civil War.
Barbara Hammer’s drawings, paintings, collages and sculpture are intriguing elisions that reveal how the artist savors the metaphorical capacity of abstraction as well as the perceptual specificity of representation. Cancer Bones (1994) is a sculptural arrangement of thirty calf bones arranged on a low platform. Experimenting with the handcrafted potential of photography and sculpture, Hammer made Kodaliths of newspaper headlines which she projected onto the bones, then fixed them with photographic chemicals. Their desiccated shapes call to mind ancient pottery shards that scatter the landscape at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. And remember all those bones that Georgia O’Keeffe painted in New Mexico? Hammer is pleased that her archives are now living near O’Keeffe’s letters, having recently been acquired by The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
During a cancer scare while travelling in Scotland in 2014, Hammer secretly staged a photo series at a former veterinary hospital (with visual artist Ingrid Christie). She combined the photographs taken amidst the abandoned medical equipment with x-ray images of her own body to construct a series of collages titled What You Are Not Supposed to Look At (2014). With imagery that evokes the isolation and medicalization of illness, Hammer’s sophisticated utilization of translucent color along with layered and doubled images of her body evoke Robert Rauschenberg’s ghostlike Hoarfrost collages as well as John Coplans’ photographs of his own aging flesh. Confessing that she never liked primary colors, Hammer is a nonetheless a learned and subtle colorist, whose earliest experiments with painting occurred when she was studying with William Moorhouse at San Francisco State in the early 1970s. There, painting directly onto 16mm film leader, she used a paint made for aquariums, a moment that catalyzed her sustained practice of breaking the barriers between painting, film, and photography. More recently, Blue Paint Film Scroll (2015) an 18-foot long digital print, originated from a 10-inch-long strip of 16mm film that Hammer treated with hydrochloric acid, salt crystals and paint. Burning and dodging her film in this new way, Hammer creates fizzy bubbles and pools of aquamarine blue, violet, and saffron yellow. Are these the insides of the lungs or pools of crude oil floating on the surface the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster?
I first understood the obliterating power of water as a child, tiptoeing along the boulders of the breakwall in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, on Lake Erie. At 78, Barbara Hammer, stands on the treacherous side of the Marseilles seawall, proving that the risk of disappearing is worth the quest to find what more can be revealed when you tear down your defenses.