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Artist Jane Hammond talks memory, reinvention throughout career

Jane Hammond provides overview of her career trajectory, inspirations for literary arts concentrators

Artist Jane Hammond, whose work has been featured everywhere from the National Gallery of Art to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, spoke with students and faculty members at the List Art Center Thursday, wrapping up the Department of Visual Art’s visiting artist talks for the semester.

Hammond’s work spans from large, colorful paintings and prints to — in recent years — carefully constructed black-and-white photographic images. She explained the diversity of her work at the beginning of her talk:

“I didn’t want to be the woman who has to get up in the morning and make the Jane Hammonds,” she said, drawing laughter from a crowd of largely visual arts concentrators. One such concentrator, Dylan Everett ’16, said he had a critique with Hammond earlier in the day and attended the lecture to gain a better understanding of her work.

Hammond first shared a condensed outline of her long, diverse career, beginning with her arrival in New York City in late 1979 as a recent MFA graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She said she believed her duty as a young artist was to delve into the unknown and to embrace and be inspired by all the information surrounding her.

This belief led Hammond to spend three nights a week at a public library near Baltimore, Maryland, which she commuted to from New York. There, she researched everything from insects and flowers to medieval architecture; this research would eventually form the basis of what Hammond refers to as her “lexicon of images.” Her lexicon contained 276 found images, which she based her paintings off of from 1980 to 1993.

Though she was inspired by found images, Hammond said much of her work during this time was autobiographical, infused with memories, experiences and dreams. She displayed what she refers to as her “breakthrough painting,” an oil-on-canvas piece of assorted images including the Chinese letters for “women” and “paintbrush.” It was with this work, in 1992, that Hammond finally felt like she could proudly own the title of artist, she said.

Hammond next expanded her work to deal with not only found images, but also “found titles.” She reached out to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery, asking him to cull together various phrases and lines to inspire her new series of paintings. Though she was skeptical upon receiving Ashbery’s list of 44 titles — including “Sore Models,” “The Soapstone Factory” and “Irregular Plural” — she soon fell wholeheartedly into the process, dedicating nearly nine years to paintings based off of Ashbery’s titles.

One day, Hammond felt instinctually that this period of her work was complete, she said. Though the process of seeking out a new source of inspiration scared her, she felt the change was necessary.

Hammond returned to the notion of “found objects” with her discovery of old photographs. She described long afternoons spent on EBay, bidding for black-and-white images of a wide variety of subjects, from polar bears and monkeys to long-gone family portraits and lake scenes. After studying her collected images intensely, Hammond found that she had the peculiar tendency to misremember them — imagining a single, composite image that actually pieced together components of several other photos.

For almost 11 years now, Hammond has worked with photo retouchers to piece together scores of vernacular photographs, often with the artist’s own mysterious backstories, into single compositions. This process involves scouring through hundreds of pictures for the right angle, overlaying numerous backgrounds and sometimes even staging and taking original photographs.

The series has exposed Hammond to an underground world of hectic flea markets, eccentric collectors and skilled photo manipulators. Hammond joked that in each piece she collaborates with 20 photographers whose works have accumulated over the centuries; they just don’t know they’re collaborating with her.

Through her work, Hammond has also been forced to consider conceptions of time. She described her discovery of the “world behind the world” — the secondary, long-lost people of old, vernacular images who, through her work, are coming to life once more. The ability to transcend time with compilation in art, along with the constant drive to reinvent existing works, define Hammond’s career.                           

“She really has a versatility in trying to work with so many different kinds of material as much as she can, and doing things in ways that are not necessarily conventional,” said Leadz Dorcé ’16.

“It’s interesting how there are stages” in Hammond’s work, Dorcé added. “It seems like she’s slowly exploring everything.”   

Hammond closed by sharing artist Robert Smithson’s philosophy of entropy, that things have a tendency toward disorder. She said she has no idea what the next stage of her work will hold, and this uncertainty brings with it an undeniable excitement.


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