A week after Bill Hammond’s death, we got up early and walked to Boulder Bay in his honour. Boulder Bay was the subject of a series of Bill’s paintings from 2001, in which birds in vaguely human form wait on the stony shore, while above them creatures in the process of transforming into or from birds drift across the sky, disappearing out of the frame. It’s a special, remote place on Banks Peninsula, only accessible by foot or by boat, though I imagine you’d have to be a proficient sailor to land on that wild beach.
I live in Sydney now, but I was back home in Ōtautahi visiting my family, and only recently out of two weeks’ hotel quarantine in a facility out by the airport. Like many odd situations I’ve been in over the years, being shut in a room with the army guarding the door was novel to start with and dispiriting by the end. Only the thought that this experience would probably seem quite funny later kept me going. And playing music. I thought more than once of Bill’s rock-music-inflected paintings of suburban neurosis from the 1980s, like Passover (1989), with the mermaid-woman lying on the couch and the man with the gun behind the curtain, or Animal Vegetable Acrylic from a year earlier, with its awkwardly placed coffee table and view of mountains out the window.
I’ll miss Bill. His images have backgrounded my daily life for the past 30 years, like a soundtrack that you draw on to accompany the strangeness of living in the modern world. I’ve seen paintings by him that have hit me with a thump in the chest, where I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes at a time, just looking, overwhelmed. I had the privilege of working with him on several occasions since the early 1990s, and always loved seeing him. Bill was a great role model for my generation of artists: he did what he liked, was beholden to no one, lived large and loved this place. Through his work, he gave New Zealanders a distinctive way to see themselves. But he didn’t tell them how to do it. He let the works do the talking. He taught me a lot, as a young curator, about how to work with artists. He was also one of the driest and funniest people I’ve ever met.
At his memorial service at Christchurch Art Gallery, there was an open mic and a packed room. I looked around and thought: this could go in any number of directions, and of course it did—Bill contained multitudes. It was perfect. Friends and family members got up and, choked with emotion, told stories variously moving and wry and funny. I had a few of my own, although I didn’t speak. I’ll tell you one now, though. Probably my single favourite moment with Bill was visiting him at his then new studio, the old Masonic Lodge in Lyttelton, when we were climbing the stairs to the top room and he turned round and said thoughtfully to me, craggy face, the usual deadpan expression: “Not many sheilas have been up these stairs, you know, Lara.”
On our walk, we parked the car at Taylors Mistake and skirted the old baches, taking the coastal track up through the browned-off tussock towards Godley Head. We were walking on the outer edge of the ancient volcano that’s now Lyttelton Harbour, where Bill lived and which featured as a smoking cone in so many of his works. It was a long hot trek round the headlands, past cliffs that had collapsed in the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and caves that must have originally been gas bubbles in a lava flow. Sea birds perched in the wilding pines near the water’s edge. Vast swathes of red cotyledon flowers were clinging to the steep hillside, underneath achingly blue skies. At Boulder Bay, we opened the gate and walked down the steep track through macrocarpas to the narrow shoreline; I hadn’t been there for 30 years. The waves were crashing on the rocks and a man sitting alone in his tiny bach raised a hand to us in silent greeting. Above us a kōtare, or sacred kingfisher, perched on the power lines, looking out to sea. Then it took flight and disappeared off out into the blue.
Bill Hammond was a marvellous, imaginatively daring and scrupulously self-honest artist, and a gentle and lovely person, and I can’t start to write about him and his work without saying first up that, like a great many other people, I mourn his passing while thanking him for the work he made and with it his immense and unique contribution to our culture.
I wrote a review of one of Bill Hammond’s first exhibitions at Peter McLeavey’s gallery in Wellington in March 1987—rereading it now, the pleasure and admiration I felt still come across. What I also get is the sense of relief I felt then, a sense that, “The ways in which [Bill Hammond] switches signals in his paintings have more to do with a world view than with a narrow view of the art scene and its conventions.” If there’s a trace of reviewer art-world weariness in that comment, it’s counterbalanced by the review’s celebration of the work’s unique qualities, its smearing and distorting of perspectives, subversions of material propriety and incorporations of popular culture, especially music (T. Rex, Bob Dylan, country and western).
A vital part of the pleasure I felt back in 1987 was the work’s sardonic but not self-congratulatory I-know-better humour, displayed in part by its grotesque distortions of scale and perspective, but also by the underlying sense of a morally satirical intelligence. That 1987 exhibition had an epigraph taken from Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai: “An empty amusement park makes a great hideout.” What was hiding out in Bill’s amusement parks was a tone rather than just a representation or ‘message’ of social scrutiny.
Commentaries on Bill’s development as, or into, an artist have often referenced his earlier work as a toy-maker. Toys are fun playthings for children; they can also be sinister (think Chucky-the-killer-doll movie franchise); and they are often, let’s face it, stuffed animals whose cuteness a disenchanted view might see counterbalanced by taxidermied trophies. There’s an earlier painting of Bill’s, Well I Never Felt Better in my Life (1983), in which a grotesque, sinisterly grinning, bulgy, potato-headed, Santa-capped toy is urging us to applaud while in the distance, on what looks like a disproportionately large back-draped stage, a tiny human figure seems to be performing (Bill drumming?) at a table. If “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, as the melancholy and disenchanted Jaques has it in As You Like It, then Bill’s take on this, or the human situation, is at once mordant and compassionate.
Connections have been suggested between Bill’s work and that of the post-World War II Chicago Monster Roster or Chicago Monster School. But to me Bill’s bent worldviews are more about perception than representation, despite the graphic content of works like Get it On, Bang a Gong, Get it On, T. Rex (1986), in which the classic Fender Telecaster comes monstrously to life. The Roster’s work as a ‘moment’ has been read as a reaction against the influence of post-war New York School abstract expressionists. Be that as it may, and though Bill was certainly aware of both the New York and the Chicago ‘moments’, his own brand of figurative monsters seems mostly indifferent to these art historical contexts, let alone influences or contra-influences.
The toy-maker’s loveable animal doubling as a stuffed trophy made a significant appearance in Bill’s work after 1989, following time spent with a small group of other artists and photographers in the subantarctic Auckland Islands. It’s been suggested that this moving experience of a primordial environment populated by unthreatened birds was a kind of road-to-Damascus moment for Bill, when he woke up to the need for an urgent message about the devastating effects of human occupation on natural environments and creatures. In 2020 he was quoted in Christchurch Art Gallery’s Te Wheke: Pathways Across Oceania exhibition publication: “It’s bird land. You feel like a time-traveller, as if you have just stumbled upon it … It’s a beautiful place, but it’s also full of ghosts, shipwrecks, death …”
While paintings such as the now iconic Watching for Buller. 2 (1993) have understandably been read as evidence of this awakening, I see them more as extensions of the pre-1989 works’ satirical sensibility, only now conveyed by more unambiguous representation—of birds, especially. In Watching for Buller. 2 the confluence of moral satire (Bill referred to the ornithologist and specimen collector Walter Lawry Buller as ‘Buller the bird-stuffer’) and the representations of bird-figures—part bird, part human, both watchful and apprehensive—is marked by Bill’s by-now-familiar, even trademark, sardonic humour. The not-quite ‘untouched’ landscape has already been cleared of forests, of which some fallen tree trunks survive; there are already a few scattered tower blocks. In Waiting for Buller. Bar (1993), the bird-people are playing pool in a pub. Are they about to be stuffed? Passing the waiting time as best they can, hanging out with friends, enjoying a drink? The painting is at once affectionately rueful and, as we’ve come to expect, critically mordant.
But then, also we’re not. Who knows what schemes the birds are hatching? Give them the benefit of the doubt. For all the pessimism and dismay in these last paintings by Bill Hammond, what I’ve called their maker’s morally satirical intelligence may be the tonic we need. I thank him for that, and the special pleasure that comes with it.
The last time I saw Bill Hammond was at Peter McLeavey’s wake, at Wellington’s Thistle Inn, back in 2015. Even then Hammond was looking frail, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that he had died in January, aged 73. I have a bunch of saved-up questions that I will never get to ask him, not that he would have given answers—he never did.
Hammond was an artist of my generation. I was a follower. I witnessed shifts in his work as they occurred, not knowing where he was ultimately headed. I was already a fan of the ‘gritty’, ‘repulsive’ work, before he turned a corner in 1993 and started making the bird-people paintings that everyone loves and that established him as a market darling. I love them too.
However, my favourite Hammond work will always be Animal Vegetable Acrylic from 1988. I think it’s a key to his whole oeuvre. Painted just after the stock-market crash, this widescreen canvas shows a couple—yuppie collector types—at home in their modernist interior, with their coffee tables and designer chairs. They wear hip clothes with padded shoulders and sport wacky new- romantic haircuts that mask and blind them. Through what seems to be a big picture window, we see a vast, grey mountain range. It’s viewed from an incongruously high angle, apparently at night—the sky is black. This textbook vista recalls those illustrations from Professor Cotton’s Geomorphology of New Zealand, the book that so excited McCahon. A painting of a similar scene also hangs on a wall.
Animal Vegetable Acrylic addresses our alienation, from nature and from each another. For this urbane couple, living in their designer shoebox, nature has become remote and landscape a sign: a view through a window, a painting on a wall. Desperate to reconnect, the man reaches out to run his monstrously enlarged fingers through the spiky leaves of a pot plant—a mother-in-law’s tongue—on a coffee table. A picturesque bonsai—diminished, domesticated nature—rests on another table. Hammond’s title riffs on the 20-questions game Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? but replaces a natural category with an artificial one. Of course, the painting is itself an acrylic.
Animal Vegetable Acrylic is a hot mess, a compendium of visual gimmicks and devilish details. There’s too much to decipher. On the edge of the scene, a vampy, smaller-scale woman holds up a sheet or a towel bearing a shark graphic, like Veronica with her veil. But why? Hammond suggests analogies between things through how they are painted. The veins in the woman’s neck and the man’s hands, and veiny patterns printed on their clothes, echo those in the landscape beyond, as if they might be expressions of the same awesome forces. Or is this a red herring?
This painting is not easy on the eye. Its jarring spaces recall Ames rooms and the isometric perspectives of Japanese prints. The man and the woman inhabit different planes, as if to highlight their emotional disconnection. Their jagged 3D speech bubbles contain no clear messages for one another or for us, just brushstrokes and scribble. Despite this, Hammond wants us to identify with their anxiety and confusion, to connect with them in their inability to connect. They are us.
When we curated Headlands—the big post-war New Zealand art show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, back in 1992—we included Animal Vegetable Acrylic as an historical bookend. It was a sign that New Zealanders could no longer fantasise about having a direct romantic relationship with landscape. People got it: a detail from the painting was singled out on the cover of the issue of Art New Zealand that reviewed the show.
Back then, Animal Vegetable Acrylic was owned by venerable blue-chip New Zealand landscape painter Sir Toss Woollaston. That always seemed strange to me, because—besides being roughly the same size and proportions as Woollaston’s big late landscapes—it was the antithesis of Woollaston’s art, stylistically and thematically. Hammond rejected his elder’s earthy colours, love of nature and bucolic expressivity. He trumped Woollaston. I always wondered why the older artist acquired the painting and what he saw in it. A nail in his art’s coffin, perhaps.
But the painting wasn’t quite the last word that we, the Headlands curators, imagined it was. A year after our show, Hammond started producing the bird-people paintings that would make him world famous in New Zealand and occupied him until the end. These new works emerged from a eureka moment back in 1989. While witnessing the bird life on a trip to the subantarctic Auckland Islands, Hammond imagined he had been transported to a primordial New Zealand, before people, when birds were at the top of the food chain and ruled the roost. It was as if Hammond had made contact with the nature he had previously placed in quote marks.
Joining a tradition of ornithological illustration and bird painting, Hammond’s new works had an undeniable charm. They tapped into our romanticism and nationalism, even as they messed with it. His bird-people were floating signifiers. They could be whoever we wanted: us or them. They might stand in for the birds that preceded people, or for Māori, or for Pākehā (in some paintings, they play pool, drink and smoke). If the bird-people paintings were largely an escapist fantasy conjuring up a mythic past, it was one haunted by future trappings. Its inhabitants were always-already ‘waiting for Buller’.
Hammond flip-flopped, from being an artist centred on modern alienation to one centred on nostalgia and romance. I can’t help but think of him as the opposite of Neo in The Matrix. He started out revelling in a real-world, rat-race, rock’n’roll hell, but took the blue pill and ended up in birdland, communing with Bosch and Bruegel.
I will always read the bird-people paintings through Animal Vegetable Acrylic, as if they picture what’s happening in the head of that modern, alienated art collector as he rubs his hand on the leaves of that pot plant in search of a nature fix and is psychically transported to elsewhere and elsewhen, even as his body remains in that hygienic apartment in the here and now. Away with the birds.
More from Issue °190, Autumn 2021
Cora-Allan in conversation with Lana Lopesi.
Better Biculturalism will run 18 May to 13 June 2021.
In the twelfth of his ‘longer looks’ at individual artworks, Justin Paton finds unexpected glory in a portrait of a personal disaster by Richard Lewer.
Erin Harrington considers the visceral humour and subversive expression of Marianna Simnett’s video stories.
Kate Newby’s YES TOMORROW is infused with context and rich in collaboration, finds Lachlan Taylor.
Laurence Simmons considers the artist’s transformative use of the insect.