David Hammons @ L&M Arts, by Jeff Grunthaner

The impression I had when leaving L&M Arts—the gallery where David Hammons’s most recent show was exhibited—was that of an individual signature, the stylized hand of a single artist at work. It wasn’t so much something continuous with the urban expanse of NYC’s Upper East Side, as something deriving from protracted combat with the institutions of [so-called] “civilized society.” This was my best guess, at least. For me, the show at L&M was the first time I’d ever seen a Hammons exhibit in person.  Hitherto, I’d only seen variations of still-frames via Google images, haloed more by a reputation borne of word-of-mouth than the authority of art history textbooks. Practically everything worked out in person, however. I found my introduction to Hammons largely in accord with the various expectations fostered by the digitized reproductions of his work. At the same time, my introduction to Hammons was nonetheless perplexing, & did leave certain lacunae in my mind regarding the import of his artistic practice Hilarity mingles with mystery. For starters: the space at L&M Arts would not seem—prima facie—appropriate for the exhibition of works such as David Hammons attempts. I visited the gallery twice: each time I was shadowed by a security guard—a dough-faced man who was almost cunning in the way he stalked me. I stayed on in the gallery long enough to propose various alternatives in my mind. He was following me either out of:

A. Professional disinterest.

B. Because he thought to make himself serviceable to me in the manner of a Q-&-A dialogue.

C. Because he thought I would somehow harm the works on the wall—perhaps tearing some of the materials from the canvasses.

Instinctively, I felt C: He was following so as to prevent any harm coming to one of Hammons’s pieces. Realizing myself under surveillance, I asked him if he knew the title of a certain piece, so as to make our relationship more humane. He responded: No. He knew nothing. My suspicions were then confirmed. The guard was acting under the belief that I might demoralize the art.

Demoralize how? Demoralize in the sense deconstruct, denigrate, destroy. The joke of this attitude lies in the fact that David Hammons’s latest exhibit was displayed in a high-profile gallery on the Upper East Side, while, as far as I could tell, a great deal of the materials Hammons used to make the art could be found by rummaging through trash-bins scattered throughout the more industrial areas of the city. This is perhaps an exaggeration. In reality, it’s probably more correct to say that the works didn’t cost have as much to produce as what they sold for. Well enough. But what actually goes into the production of such works? How can one demoralize a species of art that is so much more about process than the actual materials displayed? I realized I was at the epicenter of an elaborate hoax, & that my very environment was somehow a part of the joke—that the materials surrounding me were, in a way, meant to astonish with their self-pronounced unfitness for such a space, rather than become the vehicles for more obvious forms of stupidity, such as the police mentality of the security guard.

Did people get this joke? I still don’t know who it’s being played on: this was & remains a riddle. My second visit to L&M solidified this confusion. This time around, I was shadowed less, & could hear more. The two floors where Hammons’s works were exhibited were comparatively crowded (10, 15 persons or so). A group of people whispered loudly enough that I had to see the art through the lens of what they were saying:

“He’s lost it.”

“He’s anti-bourgeois.”

“He’s selling out!”

In retrospect, I don’t think any of these comments get the point, when taken singly; although they become accurate when interpreted aright. Fundamentally, the most recent Hammons show could be considered a kind of dig at art world pretenses. I don’t think Hammons was vying with Abstract Expressionism merely, because the L&M show was not a painting show. Really, one could call it Conceptual Installation Art (CIA). It was a show about painting—the painting or pictorial elements being submerged in something more. What, though? The fact that every work was untitled was a significant clue. The utter pretension of such a maneuver was too obvious to be taken at face value. In truth, Hammons’s show at L&M was a playful variation on cant, a concrete expression of the self-righteous phrase: “Give the people what they want!” It was a piece of Dadaist insolence, incorporated into the genteel atmosphere of NYC’s Upper East Side.

David Hammons’s exhibit was suspended somewhere between the upper echelon of the art world, & the police mentality that seeks only to repress, intimidate & destroy. Art works such as Hammons exhibited really can’t exist apart from the space they inhabit. They are at once conceptual, pictorial, & performatory; they demand to be noticed; & their seemingly demure quality (made possible by the absence of titles) only serves to draw all the more attention to them. Most of the materials Hammons utilized had a sort of memento quality: like the items of debris one might discover in a basement or attic. But this cast-away character, suggestive of post-eviction ghostliness, was in deliberate conflict with the space where they were exhibited. For all of this, many of the pieces did have an intrinsic beauty; & the large canvasses that featured garbage bags or tarpaulin were especially impressive. Never before had I actually looked at the sheer surface of such textures; & the gallery lights lent them a garish quality. Other materials were composed into cloth, wood, tarpaulin, cement—but always in a way that used their environment as a sort of counterpoint. The main danger in such work, however, is that a single piece can become too composed, reminding you of other artists, & not in the manner of an allusion. This is exactly what happened with the canvass that used a material reminiscent of the bedding originally made famous by Robert Rauschenberg. This piece was so evidently like Rauschenberg that it lost its place in the Hammons show, creating its own separate energy. This didn’t mar the “experience” of the show; but the piece was neither original, nor a vehicle for the realization of new pictorial possibilities. Then again: perhaps this is what David Hammons wanted to communicate.