Catalogue text for Alex Hamilton Works 2009
Heaving, churning, rolling, frothing, chopping: epithets commonly used to describe the motion of the sea are full of physical anxiety, nearing the pathological in their identification of the restless water with a tormented body. Such imagery, however, is misplaced. The sea that we see is in reality no more than a screen, a semi-reflective membrane between transparent liquid and transparent air that obscures the landscape beneath. Despite manifesting itself as a pattern of endlessly shifting colours and forms, the sea is also traditionally held as an embodiment of emptiness. In Lewis Carroll’s 1875 poem The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in Eight Fits), the intrepid hunters cross the sea guided by a map that is, in fact, simply a blank sheet of paper. (‘And the crew were much pleased, when they found it to be / A map they could all understand.’)
This poem is frequently returned to by the artist Alex Hamilton, who is fascinated by Carroll’s proto-Modernist understanding of the power of blankness, and by his ability to deploy nonsensical language with such clarity of purpose. Carroll’s control of his text is two handed: in one hand, he steers the narrative, scansion and rhyme in a logical and convincing arc; from the other, he scatters an array of unexpected, outlandish and disorientating non-sequiturs into his own path in order, I suppose, to make the journey worth making. When Hamilton pictures the sea in his ongoing series of ‘Wave Drawings’, he takes an approach not dissimilar to Carroll’s. In a typical work, he makes a large-scale photocopy of a photograph of the sea (the surface of the North Sea, he says, is preferable for its very particular kind of movement) and then inscribes over the top a frenzy of carefully penned but idiosyncratic wave-forms. Hamilton’s drawing, like Carroll’s vocabulary, is both convincing and implausible; each of his waves is entirely unique, an invention that takes no heed of its neighbour but pitches and crests in whatever shape or direction that it pleases, heedless of physics or gravitational possibility.
Hamilton’s waves are, in a sense, articulations of the physical or psychological torment that we attribute to the sea. They are a meta-text overlaid on a pre-existing image, a further interpretation that offsets and undermines the photographic source – and all of the objectivity with which we associate that medium. Areas of water also crop up, unbidden, in Hamilton’s cityscapes, slopping up against the edges of pavements or rolling over walls and ledges. Through series such as ‘Fourth Plinth’ or ‘Crossroads’, he continues the approach taken with the ‘Wave Drawings’, but arguably with more challenging, even disturbing, results.
Each series is based on a single black and white photograph, enlarged with a photocopier and printed on heavy watercolour paper. He normally chooses photographs that, at first, seem to capture inconsequential views of urban landscape: a petrol station, for instance, or a corner of London’s Trafalgar Square. He then sets to work, responding to, modifying or obscuring the forms that the photograph describes. With a wide range of media that includes pen, pencil, pastel, charcoal, gouache and airbrush (although he avoids regular brushes, he says, because ‘there is not enough dysfunction in them’), he augments and amends the photocopied ground.
His drawings describe an active process of perception, of interpretation, and imagination. He explores the space described in a photograph by imagining himself in it – building on top of existing structures, extending or demolishing walls, constructing entirely new screens etc. He has spoken of how he sees space as an arena of ‘vectors’ – unimpeded lines of past movement or future direction – and ‘obstacles’, that is, the objects that get in the way. To understand this distinction as qualitative however is misleading; one is not good and the other bad. Rather, it illustrates Hamilton’s unique understanding of the way we read space, and, crucially, of the ways in which such a directional mode of reading might be upset. For, at the same time that he is finding his way around the illusory depth of the picture space, he is also exploring the shapes, textures and boundaries of the flat image – the ‘screen’ on which they sit. This makes for some rather disorienting effects. One minute, our eye is travelling over the smooth edge of a kerb that Hamilton has traced, then we find it accelerating away from the ground, over and behind objects that our mind tells us it should be under or in front of. Elsewhere, a car might find its chassis impossibly stretching towards a vanishing point beyond the edge of the photograph. The correspondence between the two-dimensional image and the space that it encodes veers in and out of sync, like an audio track that plays at a different speed to the moving image of a film.
These points of dislocation are, for me, the tender spaces in which Hamilton’s images do their most devastating work. Their spatial non-sequiturs and paradoxes can induce a sense of mild panic, as one finds one’s reading of his images casually derailed. Unlike most pictures (and certainly most photographs), these are not contiguous passages of meaning; they contain ruptures, glitches and wormholes. The decisions he takes are more often informed by the urge to contradict or interrupt what came before than to bind the elements together. One event follows another, with no sense of combined purpose or shared history.
The process of repetition that he employs – reworking the same photograph time after time throughout a series – not only tests his own resources of reinvention (he starts each work by deliberately sending it in a different direction to its predecessor) but also forces the viewer to reorientate themselves afresh in front of each work. One finds oneself reaching out for a familiar anchor point (perhaps the eponymous plinth in the ‘Fourth Plinth’ series) like a dizzy child spun round on the spot with eyes closed. The sense of being in a space which is perpetually new, but always the same, is alone enough to make one’s head reel. It is not hard to detect a flinty streak of political critique running through Hamilton’s work. His is a vision of a Postmodern and alienated city in love with banality, an environment filled to bursting with difference but intended not so much to offer choice but to disorientate and confuse, returning us each time to a state of dissatisfied appetite not knowing in which direction to turn.
Sometimes, the information needed for us to keep a grasp on an image simply isn’t there. While Hamilton’s economical and instructive drawing style is developed through his attention to clarity, there are areas in his pictures – usually featureless patches of monotone – that seem to abandon us back in the world of two dimensions when previously we had been moving through illusory space. Often this is as a result of the media he chooses; a rectangle of grey gouache, or a mist of airbrushed white, are both so at odds with the grainy quality of the photocopied photograph that they seem to drop us into a completely different world. I realise how much we rely on texture (rather than just lines and planes) in order to make sense of the world around us.
All of which returns us again and again to the process of reading. For Hamilton, reading words, reading images, and reading space are not distinct activities – they are inextricably (and revealingly) intertwined. The ability to quickly scan through printed text is down to the mind’s capacity to process these complex hieroglyphs in selective shorthand; we skip through words and letters because we can fill in the blanks without having to read them. The same is true of images and space: we can quickly apprehend a scene because the key elements are enough to imply the rest. If however these basic anchor points are unrecognisable to us, or are not placed in predictable relation to those around them, then the process is made impossible. We have to learn each element anew, reading the words or forms as if for the first time. As we test them out, rolling them around in our mouths or mind’s eye, we become conscious of the processes of reading itself, and strangely, we lose sense of the whole, that which we were trying to grasp in the first place.
Hamilton has likened this sensation to the way we can become entirely oblivious to what someone is saying if we concentrate too hard on their voice, or unable to absorb words if we solely focus on the font in which they are written, or their spelling. This observation is articulated again and again in his work: in drawings based on pages of newspapers, in which each line of text is replaced by a miniature horizon of abstract forms, or in a book based on the Tintin story ‘The Calculus Affair’, in which each cell of the comic has been filled by a drawing of licking flames. I am reminded of his interest in the surface of the sea: ever changing, always the same. It strikes me that in Hamilton’s work, whether it be a chaotic cityscape, an unfathomable block of text or an endlessly repeating comic strip, we are always at sea, in one way or another.
Jonathan Griffin is an art critic and assistant editor for Freeze Magazine
Financial Times "how to spend it" December 2007