Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington gallerist Robert Heald has just staged one of the smartest shows of the year. The Vagaries of Lingo (4–27 August 2022) juxtaposed the work of outsider artist Susan Te Kahurangi King (whom he represents) with work by the late Bill Hammond (whom he doesn’t). They were contemporaries—he was born in 1947, she in 1951. The show takes its title from a work by Hammond.
Now in her seventies, King has been making drawings since childhood, but only came to attention in 2009, when she had her first show. Her work has now been acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
When King was a child, there was little understanding of autism. By age four, her ability to speak was in decline, and she soon stopped entirely. Her focus moved into drawing, which became a compulsion. King’s drawings assimilate all manner of images and impressions. They are at once diaristic and visionary, innocent and perverse. Donald Duck and other cartoon characters get distorted, deconstructed, and discombobulated. Figures and forms are fragmented, multiplied, and packed together rhythmically, like sardines in a tin. King stopped drawing in the early 1990s, only to pick up again in 2008, exactly where she had left off. Many of her later drawings are cellular, all-over abstractions, evenly filling the sheet. Candy coloured and decorative, they recall stained glass or mosaic.
King’s works often remind critics and commentators of other artists. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz compared her to Willem de Kooning, Jim Nutt, Roy Lichtenstein, and Carroll Dunham. But Heald pairing her with early Hammond is inspired. Hammond’s earlier style has been called ‘pencil-case art’, an expression that also fits much of King’s work. It recalls the way young people decorate their school pencil cases, exercise books, and bags, accumulating noxious motifs without an overarching plan or coherent perspective. Both artists jam pack the picture space, jumbling perspectives and clashing codes.
Heald’s two hander serves King: Hammond’s works are from the late 1980s and early 1990s, but hers are from the 1960s. It also serves Hammond, reminding us that his now-blue-chip work was once rooted in outsider-like edginess.