Let's talk titles. Or, if the title's a bad one, let's not.
Contemporary art contains plenty of perfectly tolerable paintings that have been ruined or at the very least hobbled by dodgy or straining titles.
The artist Marcel Duchamp called the titles of paintings their 'invisible colours' and that's a beautiful way to think about them. A great title can flood a work with just the shade of meaning it needs. The worst titles talk over the paintings they accompany, like anxious parents prompting their children. You see (or hear) a lot of this when 'research' starts driving art, as it does in today's PBRF-crazed tertiary art departments.
Over-explanation of this kind is what drives abstract painters toward the tight-lipped 'Untitled', which as much as says: shut up and look. As New Zealand painter John Reynolds has said, a title can also be used to 'unhinge' a painting – send it into poetic overdrive. His own Acacacacademy of anthropopopometry shows how that's done.
Best title in the Christchurch Art Gallery collection? For me the honours go straight to Bill Hammond for The look of love plus the sound of music, the flayed-looking landscape seen at the top of this post. Best title ever in New Zealand art? I'd hand the prize here to Allen Maddox for Finer and finer and more gutless – the perfectly pissy title he gave to this brilliantly sarcastic variation on the abstract grid, from Auckland Art Gallery's collection.
Related reading: Bill Hammond
All of us at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū were very saddened to hear of the death of Bill Hammond over the weekend. Bill’s contribution to the art of Aotearoa New Zealand was original and unforgettable and he occupied a special, beloved place within the arts communities of Christchurch and Lyttelton.
The Christchurch Art Gallery Foundation is honoured to assist the Gallery in acquiring Bill Hammond's Bone Yard Open Home for its permanent collection. But, we need your help!
The Edge of the Sea
A vision of New Zealand’s past from 1995:
Europeans first imagined New Zealand as “a garden and a pasture in which the best elements of British society might grow into an ideal nation”... When the smoke of the colonists’ fires cleared at the end of the 19th century, New Zealand had become a different country. Māori had lost their most precious life-support system. Only in the hilliest places did the forest still come down to the sea. Huge slices of the ancient ecosystem were missing, evicted and extinguished. Our histories, however, have had neither the sense of place nor ecological consciousness to explain what has happened.
Doctor Jazz Stomp and the Webb Lane Sound
“Bill Hammond is long, lithe and tired, and was born several years ago. Is currently pursuing a Fine Arts course and trying hard to catch up. He is deeply interested in the aesthetic implications of sleep, sports the Rat-Chewed Look in coiffures for ’68, and dreams about blind mice in bikinis. He has never been known to sing outside the confines of his bedroom. Shows a marked but languid preference for the subtle textural nuances and dynamic shadings of washboard, cowbell, woodblocks, claves, cymbal, spoons, thimbles, tambourine, and the palms of the hands in percussive contact.”
An exhibition of recent work by Tony de Lautour, Jason Greig and Bill Hammond opens at our NG space on Madras street tomorrow. These artists have had limited opportunities to show their work since the quakes so this exhibition is well worth a visit if you have the time.
Here's a taster of some of their work.
An exciting opportunity to see new work by leading Canterbury artists Tony de Lautour, Jason Greig and Bill Hammond
A miscellany of observable illustrations
Romantic notions of gothic leanings, the legacy of Tony Fomison, devotion to rock sub-genres and an eye to the past are familiar and sound reasons to group Tony de Lautour, Jason Greig and Bill Hammond together in one exhibition, but De Lautour / Greig / Hammond is to feature new and recent work. Could all this change? What nuances will be developed or abandoned? Will rich veins be further mined? We can only speculate and accept that even the artists concerned can't answer these questions. For the artist, every work is a new endeavour, a new beginning. What may appear to the public, the critic or the art historian as a smooth, seamless flow of images is for them an unpredictable process where the only boundaries are those that they choose to invent.
There’s no big break. It’s just a slow game. —Bill Hammond, 2002
Bill Hammond: Playing the Drums (3 August 2019 – 19 January 2020)
The long-awaited exhibition is a spectacular survey of more than two decades of work by one of New Zealand's leading contemporary painters.
Fourteen artists with connections to the Mainland are represented in an exhibition that explores the dark underbelly of the region's genteel appearance.
A major exhibition celebrating the breadth and diversity of Canterbury painting between 1990 and 2000.
Rock drummers and guitarists, classical musicians, DJs and flamboyant lead singers have made regular appearances in Bill’s work over the years. They are often accompanied by song titles and lyrics – The Tattooed Bride, The Look of Love, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Radio On, All Shook Up, Not Fade Away, Lose This Skin and You Make My Heart Sing. One of Bill’s early exhibitions at the Brooke Gifford Gallery in central Christchurch was titled Lines from Songs, in which he showed paintings that specifically referenced his favourite songs alongside set designs for The South Island (A Rock Opera) in four acts. The title for this painting, Radio On, is a lyric taken from one of the most iconic, upbeat rockin’ anthems of the 1970s by Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers. The chorus, simply “radio on”, is one that all can sing along to – and indeed in the painting the freakish characters doing a duet, with their volcano mouths and noses, are in full voice and raising the roof: And I say roadrunner once / Roadrunner twice / I’m in love with rock & roll and I’ll be out all night … I’m in love with the radio on. Bill Hammond: Playing the Drums (3 August 2019 – 19 January 2020)
For the exhibition Wunderbox (28 November 2008 - 15 February 2009), this work was displayed with the following label.
Bill Hammond led one of the most influential tendencies in New Zealand painting of the late 1990s – Post-colonial Gothic. Shag Pile is one of his many paintings inspired by nineteenth-century campaigns to catalogue New Zealand’s dwindling native species, in particular the efforts of Walter Lowry Buller. The contradictions of Buller’s character – a recorder and chronicler of birds who killed and stuffed many – have made him a figure of fascination not only for Hammond but also for sculptor Warren Viscoe and playwright Nick Drake. In Shag Pile, Buller’s campaign plays out like a bad dream projected on the patterned walls of a claustrophobic Victorian parlour, where New Zealand spotted shags are heaped, laid out for processing, and sealed under bell jars.
Turning a traditional depiction of the New Zealand landscape upside down, this vertical triptych presents a zigzagging arrangement of curtains that fall from the sky and splice the terrain, of mountainous divides that appear upon tables and strange creatures that morph and writhe.
Early works by Bill Hammond are awash with visual sampling, splicing and mixing – from popular culture and art history. Comic book narration, the oblique angles and frames of 1950s film noir and, notably, the multiple vanishing points found in the proto-surrealist paintings of Giorgio De Chirico (1888–1978), give structure to Hammond’s alternative cityscapes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hammond was born in Christchurch and studied at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. For a period after leaving art school he designed and manufactured wooden toys. He held his first solo exhibition in 1976 and since then has exhibited regularly. His work is represented in private and public collections throughout New Zealand. Bill Hammond: Jingle Jangle Morning (20 July – 22 October 2007) is the most recent survey of Hammond’s work to date, organised by Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
Relief etching relating to the now extinct New Zealand eagle which has been a central theme in Hammond's work in recent years. Profile view of a human body with eagle head.
“It’s bird land. You feel like a time-traveller, as if you have just stumbled upon it – primeval forests, rātās like Walt Disney would make. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s also full of ghosts, shipwrecks, death…” —Bill Hammond Bill Hammond sailed to the remote Auckland Islands, south of Aotearoa New Zealand towards Antarctica, in 1989. Its landscape made a profound impression on him. Lined up on cliffs, staring out at the ocean, the birds of the Auckland Islands were unafraid of people, and Hammond imagined that Aotearoa looked very similar before human habitation. Different stories and timeframes and images collide in his canvasses as if in a dream, or as if fragments of consciousness were projected on to a screen. “I don’t have a tight brief”, he says. “I fumble around history, picking up bits and pieces.”
(Te Wheke, 2020)
Gertrude Demain Hammond was a prolific book illustrator whose formal art training began in 1879 at the Lambeth School of Art, alongside her sister Christiana, and continued at the Royal Academy Schools from 1885. She first exhibited in the academy’s prestigious annual summer show in 1886. In 1891 she sold a painting from the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours to the Empress Frederick of Germany – Queen Victoria’s eldest child, Princess Victoria – and in 1896 was elected to the institute. Gertrude and Christiana were recognised in the 1890s as Britain’s leading women illustrators. After Gertrude’s marriage in 1898, the sisters lived and worked from the same address at St Paul’s Studios, Hammersmith – a grand suite of Arts and Crafts studio apartments established as an urban artists’ colony.
A Reading from Plato was shown at the Royal Academy in 1903 before being sent to Christchurch for the 1906–07 New Zealand International Exhibition, where it was purchased by local art collector James Jamieson who, with his brother William, ran one of the country’s largest construction companies.
(The Moon and the Manor House, 12 November 2021 – 1 May 2022)
This work was displayed with this label to mark the artist's death in 2021:
All of us at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū were very saddened to hear of the death of Bill Hammond in late January, and our thoughts are with Bill’s family and friends. Bill’s contribution to the art of Aotearoa New Zealand was original and unforgettable, and he occupied a special, beloved place within the arts communities of Ōtautahi Christchurch and Whakaraupō Lyttelton.
Bill was raised in Christchurch and attended the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in the late 1960s. In 1989, he joined a number of other New Zealand artists on an expedition to the sub-Antarctic and the Auckland Islands. This trip had a profound effect on the artist; it was from this point that his highly regarded bird paintings emerged in his practice.
Bill’s paintings are favourites for many of our visitors – works they return to over and over again. His wry sense of humour and generosity of spirit (once you got past that famous reserve) will be missed by many here at the Gallery. Recently, we had been working closely with Bill on a new publication focussed on his paintings from the past 15 years, which includes numerous tributes by artists to Bill and his work. Bill had that rare quality in an artist – someone who is highly regarded by his peers, and whose works appeal to people from all walks of life. We were honoured to have the opportunity to work with him this one last time.
Bill will be missed. We mark his passing with the deepest of respect.
This print appears as 'Edward Hammond Hargraves. The discoverer of gold in Australia.' on page 740 of the 'Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.'