There is no protection: it is wet! Dripping wet! Drenched and dissolving before our eyes. It is an End of sorts that started as a Revelation. As is well-known Bill Hammond’s road to Damascus moment came in 1991 on the bleak, windswept, salt-spray drenched islands that dot the oceans to the south of New Zealand, spaced like stepping stones from Westland to Antarctica. Hammond described one of the impressions the visit made on him: ‘I saw a New Zealand before there were men, women, dogs and possums. When you see it without the people, you know that the soulful, beautiful thing about New Zealand is the land.’
That trip and his associated interest in Buller’s birds created the lines of flight by which he would repatriate New Zealand’s extinct souls and install them in the forms of flightless birds, griffins and angels on the attenuated branches of the wet primordial forests of Westland and the turquoise-skied, bouldered bays of Banks Peninsular. They stand as reminders of our Paradise Lost.
“Primeval Screen” completely embodies these sources and ideas. In addition, because he is using acrylic on wood, and I think also because there is a nod in the direction of the mannerisms of Chinoiserie in the decorative arts, Hammond has executed his theme with a lightness and charm that is often only seen in his works on paper. The acrylic medium is at least partly implicated in the watery layers of paint and the apparent speed with which the artist worked up his image. Nothing seems to have been given time to dry before another semi-transparent wash of green or grey or gold has been applied and allowed to drip and dribble down the surface of the wooden boards. The result is lush with colours that morph, slide and trickle across each other and range from British Racing Green to succulent sun-infused hues.
Surrounded by dissolution the flightless avian-humans are silent witnesses to the rising rot and the lowering disintegration. Even the trees slip and slide between the vegetative (branches covered in epiphytes) and the human (grey arms are covered in tattoos). This detail hearkens back to the hallucinogenic motifs of Hammond’s comic strip paintings of the mid-1980s. Those works, with their visceral sharp edges and pointy bits were raw and frenetic howls against the tide of the ordinary and mercenary. By the mid-1990s his lush dripping works were no less passionate about the recurring knack for human-kind to lose the plot, and along with it, birds, fish, plants and kindness. But now, in the green ooze we are presented with both future and past. Instead of jagged arms and furniture pointing accusing fingers, now the silent flightless birds, decorative and prophetic, stare into the distance as if watching the inevitable disappearance of Paradise and the relentless approach of Damnation.
Bill Hammond, Primeval Screen 1996-1997, acrylic on folding screen, six panels, 1715 x 2250mm
Previously published in Important Paintings & Contemporary Art, 25 March 2010, Art+Object 21st Century Auction House, Auckland, pp44-45