Granted, she stands at a distance – and, granted, her clothes are virtually obscured by the dense thicket of flashlights and reflectors that hang improbably from her form, making her look like a decrepit cyborg. Admittedly, too, her expression is irreducibly enigmatic. But still: if you look quite closely, Ann Hamilton’s face in reciprocal fascinations, one of four photographs that comprise her body object series (1984-1991), communicates a range of emotions. The slight lift of the lips conveys (in combination with her affirmative stance) a degree of intentional provocation, even as a hint of a squint evinces a sense of inquisitiveness and the carriage of the head summons a modest feeling of accomplishment. At the same time, the relaxed open look outwards feels somehow warm, or even generous. In short, one can thus already perceive, in this photo made when Hamilton was still a graduate student, much of the tonal content of her later work – of the work, that is, that has made her a cherished figure in American art.
Hamilton’s work, to be sure, is not new to Baltimore. Over the years, several of her pieces have been included in shows at the BMA, the Contemporary, and MICA – where she received an honorary doctorate in 2004. And those pieces have been diverse: although Hamilton is commonly viewed as an installation artist (for many of her works involve complex combinations of media and directly involve the surrounding space and viewers), she has long produced relatively conventional works on paper, too. And now near-away, a quietly rewarding show at Goya Contemporary that was organized by Amy Raehse, happily offers us a chance to consider some of these more modest works in a specific light. The roughly two dozen photographs, videos, and small assemblages (all of which are made of paper or reused books) are all serial pieces: that is, they form parts of various larger projects. At the same time, though, they do all cohere thematically. Brought together in this show, the works seem to iterate an abiding interest in the distortion, or the subversion, of communication. Hamilton’s best-known works are frequently unsettling, as they offset a meticulous attention to materials and a basic grace by rendering familiar tropes or motifs deeply strange. The pieces in near-away largely extend these basic tendencies. But as the show’s title implies (and as the nuanced expression on Hamilton’s face suggests), curt summaries simply won’t do: even as we try to understand, we are kept at arm’s length. Understanding, this show insists, is mediated.
Take, for instance, the piece that gives the show its title. near-away (2013) consists of two objects: a roughly formed paper glove, and a wedge of slivers of paperback books that now share a common binding. Hand and text: author, we think, and written work. But in fact the equation is not so tidy, for the two objects are simultaneously characterized by a latent violence. The bound pages, after all, are the product of dismemberment; texts have been torn and destroyed in order to bring it into being. And the glove is coarse and bandage-like; its loose awkwardness, moreover, would in fact inhibit any hand more than it might protect it. Could such a crude appendage ever produce, in fact, a text of any value? Then, too, there is the fact that both objects hang limply from pegs on the wall; they feel almost like specimens, or ex-votos, or relics. And in a sense they are – like virtually all of the works in this show, they are indices, or residues, of invisible actions. The glove records the volume of a now-absent hand; the books bear the imprints of a printer’s distant plates. Even as we step near, then, for a better look at these delicate objects we are gently repelled; the body is wrapped and masked, and mass-market paperbacks are made other.
This process of alienation is furthered in follow, a beguiling 2011 piece in which two video screens show us sheathed hands using styluses to draw loose circles. On the left screen, a left hand moves in a clockwise direction; to its right, the right hand plots an opposite course. Nothing, we think, could be simpler; the gestures are native to any three-year-old. But in Hamilton’s world, even a simple task soon becomes complicated. Here, the camera lenses rise and fall in an almost marine manner, producing a wobbly depth of field and confusing our attempts to follow the hands. The rote, repetitive aspect of the work is also notable. On one level, it recalls the self-assigned tasks of Bruce Nauman, or Tom Friedman: this is conceptual work as much as it is carefree mark-making. But there is also, arguably, a brooding or even sinister aspect apparent; the sheer relentlessness of the work being done implies an almost irrational intensity. In any event, the hands draw on, and the sounds of the styluses scratching the paper play on, and on – and soon we find our understanding of a basic chore transformed. The rapid gyres of the pens begin to evoke clay, on a wheel, in the hands of a potter; the dense webs of drawn circles begin to resemble vortices that recede into space. The accompanying sound recalls a cicada-like drone. And so, once more, the familiar is destabilized, and a seemingly mundane conceit – gloved hand, drawing circles – becomes surprisingly engrossing.
Inevitably, though, any ominous note in Hamilton’s work is offset by a heartening sense of attentiveness; she is an artist who thinks deeply about her materials. In Joan Simon’s strong book on Hamilton, the artist stresses at one point the importance of her training in the earth sciences: “From geology comes the discipline of looking,” she claimed, “while holding back from naming for a very long time. When using a material, I ask what the material is rather than what it means.” Such astute openness – a receptivity that attempts to transcend categories – allows her to perceive even common objects in novel ways. Two beautiful three-dimensional collages in the show illustrate this tendency; made of thin strips cut from paperback texts, they are tight, bright blocks that evoke inlaid wood, or fine marquetry. And that analogy, of course, is provocative – for even if the lines of text born by the strips are now rendered nonsensical (ay’s woman, we read on one visible sliver; this afternoon, howev, on another), the very origin of the pages, in wood processed into pulp, is suddenly recuperated through the soft visual parallel. The books that comprise the piece are rendered useless, as texts, but their earliest material origins are charitably restored. And in the process of looking at them we learn, too, to see in new ways: Hamilton deliberately chose, in composing these collages, books from the era in which mass-market paperback pages were often edged in yellows, in a faint emulation of higher-end gilding, or marbling. In turn, the slight variations in the tones of the stains used produce a variable but cohesive grid: a warm celebration of a printing technique that has largely been abandoned.
Less moving, perhaps, are the seven large prints in the show’s final room. Each features a blurry rendering of an overdetermined word – time; be – in a larger column of text that was shot with a handheld surveillance camera. Certainly, the series relates to the general theme of the show: the sprawling, unfocused letters frustrate the very purpose of surveillance even as they also undermine the nominal transparency of text as a bearer of meaning. Our attention, that is, is drawn to the very vehicles through which meaning is conveyed, instead of being directed to the meaning itself. (What, after all, does be mean? Bereft of context, it means both everything and nothing). But such a point is quickly understood, and three prints would suffice; seven feels, in a show this concise, like a surfeit. Furthermore, the installation of these seven prints seems oddly undisciplined. Unframed, the prints are simply pinned to the wall; they thus hang variously and even curl slightly. One of them is placed, awkwardly, over a paper storage cabinet, and all seven feature visible puncture holes in their corners – holes that apparently date from an earlier hanging. I suppose that such an arrangement facilitates, all over again, our sense of the contingency of written words, and in a way the small piercings recall the empty paper glove in near-away in recording the contours of a vanished past. But such a reading feels almost forced: a generous interpretation of a rare slack moment in an otherwise engaging show.
And of course it’s not as though Hamilton’s work needs, or solicits, generosity on the part of the viewer. This is strong work that stands on its own. Better still, it is work that is confident enough to whittle away at its own core. The familiar is estranged here; the part reconceived; the meaningful perverted. The near is suddenly foreign. In a 2001 interview, Hamilton stated that “if something can be contained within the discursive structure of words, …we trust it will have more legitimacy than other kinds of information or ways of knowing. I think that I’m just trying to take this access and tilt it, so that the felt-quality of the words is equal to, but not dominant over, other kinds of sensory perceptions.” Such a nuanced, articulate position feels typical of this artist, so attentive to details. And it might be taken, too, as emblematic of most of the work in near-away. Our access, through the efforts of Hamilton and Goya Contemporary, has been successfully and notably tilted – and we can be grateful for that.
Ann Hamilton: near-away will be on view at Goya Contemporary through through October 31.
*Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.