Drawing on Beauty and Disaster: Hollis Hammonds
Hollis Hammonds is Chair of Visual Studies at St. Edwards University. Conversation is between artist, Ty Bishop, and Justin Archer. Interview originally published in Summer 2017.
T: I want to start off by reading a quote from you. The quote is, “take a careful look at your surroundings and you will see that drawings are all around us.”How does this relate to your drawing process?
H: I totally identify as a drawing person. Everything I do, even the sculptural work I’m making, I think about in the context of drawing. For me, drawing isn’t as much about art making as it is thinking. Any work that I’m making, or even with how I’m engaging in the world, I feel like is in this weird, linear way. I’m always looking at line and thinking about movement. I think about all aspects of my life in the context of drawing. It’s been what my main research has been about.
T: That reminds me of what Matisse said of his work. I was fascinated that he said something like “all of life is painting.” For you, I think it’s the same idea, but with drawing.
J: A lot of your work is charcoal based. Why do you use charcoal? Is it because it is a thinking process?
H: It’s funny because I mostly worked in charcoal when I was younger and came back to it in recent years. I did so more because of the identity of charcoal as a sort of burnt, black, charred thing that then can be manipulated. Because I work in all media, I’m not attached to a particular one. For particular works, charcoal is the thing that it has to be because of the nature of it. I’m really interested in it when I’m thinking about materials I’m using. It’s the blackness and dirtiness of it. It’s malleable, right? You can move it around and get volume. It’s main characteristic for me is this burnt, blackness.
T: Which lends itself to your work.
H: I try to link it conceptually to what I’m doing instead of just the joy of working with it. Honestly, when I’m in the studio, I hate it so much. It’s so messy. It’s everywhere and ruining my studio. It gets everywhere and on everything, but you still have to do it.
T: I’m really interested in your drawing practice. In my experience, drawing is one of those things that you did as an undergraduate, and the “real stuff” is when you get into your sculpture or painting classes. Why did you stick to drawing as a basis for your work?
H: There was a time when I abandoned it–graduate school will do that to you. There’s a lot of reasons why I choose drawing. I try to be considerate about when I use it–and I mean traditional drawing, like medium on paper. Part of me is just indulgent.
I love drawing because it’s immediate. I used to be a dancer, and I think there’s something about it and how I think and make drawings that relate to the body. I’m not making figurative work, although I think I’m moving back in that direction, and that’s really scary. Painting is so labored. I love painting, but I don’t make them anymore. I don’t have the time and energy.
T: Something else I’m curious to hear more about is your content. There seems to be this imaginative, dreamlike quality to them. How do you come up with your imagery?
H: It ranges from project to project. I have this idea of the collective conscience, of appropriating imagery from the internet. Gleaning and stealing from everyday people is really interesting, and related well to the subject matter that I’m doing. Right now I’m doing these police brutality things, but before that I’ve been doing work about natural disasters. In a way, it’s voyeuristic because you’re using images that people have posted online of their tragedies. It sounds so corrupt. But I’m taking those, and recontexualizing them based on my own memories. I’m using the idea of collecting images that don't belong to me, but constructing images that feel real to me.
J: There’s a series you did where you specifically talk about your house burning down when you were 15 and how that affected the content you’re using. When did this start manifesting itself in your work? Was it a
H: I started working with themes related to disasters in 2011, but I didn’t consciously decide to make work about my personal experiences, at least not at first. In fact, I really thought I was doing something interesting, something more universal. My sister sent me these photographs I took when I was 15 of our burnt house and my stuff in piles. I realized then that I was making these images that look exactly like this thing that happened to me as a teenager. I was drawing imagery from this but wasn’t even thinking about it. It was kind of ridiculous. I have these themes that I’ve been interested in that are obviously related to childhood memories. I thought, “oh, I’m making all this work about the aftermath of storms and natural disasters” which has expanded into all these other things, but essentially I was just making work about my childhood.
T: Do you feel like when you had that “ah-ha” moment, that was your unconscious playing itself out on paper?
H: Yeah, I think all of us are making autobiographical work, even conceptual artists, or those trying to get as minimal as possible, I still feel like what we are doing is portraiture. There’s no way that you can separate yourself - your intentions, experience, ideas - from your work. It’s problematic and I feel like anything can go at this point. I do think of all my work as self-portraiture.
T: I want to talk more about your idea of disaster. You’ve been working in a series related to disaster for awhile. What has kept the momentum going for dealing with disaster?
H: I think that source material is endless. I really do have an apocalyptic view of the world-politics, the environment. It’s non-stop fodder to fuel my obsession with disaster. It’s everywhere. In a way, I would like to break out of it, but I’m surrounded by it all day. Maybe I’m pessimistic, but I think that I’m actually kinda of a pleasant person. I’m kinda happy. It’s just that it reflects the world that I think we live in, which is kind of sad.
J: You’re capturing these moments before or after a disaster. While there is tension and chaos, the images are still beautiful and constrained. Even the border you choose on your works are very crisp–I don’t know how you keep your paper clean when you’re using charcoal. Could you talk about how those themes of chaos and beauty tie into your work?
H: I think that it is the trickery of my work. I don’t mean that I’m trying to trick the viewer, but I’m authentically trying to make beautiful things out of these dark topics. I feel that in some ways beauty is subversive. Sentimentality is subversive. It’s so bad and something you don’t do in the art world. I’m interested in those things and try to use them to my benefit to pull the viewer in. I think that my work is very reflective of my life.
It is chaos, but completely structured and formed. It is like the little chaos globes that are neatly packed together.
J: As an artist and professor, how do you manage your time?
H: It’s really been hard for me. My career was really focused on getting a real job and getting tenure. I’ve been doing all these professional things. I’ve had an agenda, and I’ve got a great job. I love it. I’m chair of my department and have all these crazy responsibilities. It really makes it difficult to make work because there’s no time. When I’m working in the studio, it’s really limited. It’s like maybe one or two evenings a week, mostly on the weekend. Sometimes I don’t even go to the studio besides once a month. It’s really brutal. I’ll do most of my work during spring break or Christmas holiday. I do really have to time manage because I do have a rigorous exhibition schedule that I have to stay on top of. I’m really tired. I think I’m organized, but my husband would say that I’m crazy disorganized. It’s all perspective, but you have to have some level of organization to keep the schedule going.
T: I think when you decide to be an artist you immediately make your life chaotic and you have to find some structure to keep the pieces together. On another note, I see your works as being individual, but working well together as an installation. Would you agree with that or do you see your exhibitions as one piece together?
H: I think that I’m creating bodies of work and not so much individual pieces. It’s difficult for me to consider the picture plane. I often don’t think about my drawings as single pieces. They’re really these moments connected to this other work and the installations are like that as well. Often, the installations are in context with drawings or other works. I don’t know how I feel about it. I think that the installations are not even as strong as the drawings - I don’t know even if they could live on their own. It’s a weird thing.
J: I find your installations are often whimsical while your drawings have this tone of being serious.
Is that intentional?
H: I really do like the playfulness of the sculptures. Again, I think of them as drawings, but in the physical space. For me, they are theatrical. It’s one of my faux pas in the art world. I’m doing all of them. It’s a way to physically engage with the viewer on a difficult level and it’s very appealing for those who see it. I love them because they’re physical things that I can work through. They’re whimsical and have an element of fantasy.
T: From 2011 with Beautiful Monsters to your most recent installation titled, Domestic Brutality at grayDUCK, there is a fantastical element to your work.
H: Yeah, I’m interested in the fallibility of memory which then leads to this idea that truth is constructed and facts are arbitrary. All of our knowledge and language is subjective and there’s no real truth in anything. It’s interesting to find the truth in something, and some fantasy can be more truthful than reality which is interesting to me.
J: What artists have - both contemporary and non-living - have inspired your work?
H: I have a huge list of artists that I love. I know that I’m influenced by all of them, but I don’t consciously think about that when I’m making work. I don’t look at their work in the context that I want to make work like that or even understand how they made it. My major top loves are Anselm Kiefer and Eric Fischl who was doing some amazing bad painting and now he’s doing some amazing great painting. Kiefer is so visceral and tactile. There’s physicality in the work and embedded darkness. I love Kara Walker, and again, it’s this theatricality and social content. I’m trying to think of some dead artists, but it’s kind of hard. Honestly, the Van Gogh drawings of the fields. It’s almost like they’ve been rediscovered over the past 50 years because they’re all over the
internet. They’re the most amazing drawings I’ve ever seen. I’m obsessed with mark making, and I think about it like I do line. It has as much significance.
J: A lot of your old work deals with environmental disaster, but your two newest works are navigating towards human disasters, which are experiences in culture. Could you tell us more about that?
H: I’m really excited and terrified of my new work because as artists, we are often skirting around the topic. We make work that insinuates things, but not any specifics. We create feelings, but not doing political work directly. I’ve been doing that for a long time. Often I’ll start with something that is very specific, but then I will quickly make it general and I’ll regurgitate it until it gets out of my system. I don’t feel that it’s the most appropriate technique for this new work that I’m making. I’m a very political person, but I haven’t made very political work. I think my politics have been subtle in the work, but I think there’s potential for the work to be much more politically driven and take a stand on something. A lot of artists stop before we get there because we want to pose questions without being accountable for our critique. It’s mostly a critique of myself, and I’m also very careful about the content since I’m a white, middle class professor, and a liberal. I was raised a poor country girl, but I’m trying to talk about issues that aren’t affecting me directly, but that are important to me like police brutality.
I can’t not make work about it.