I am in interested in works which sit somewhere in the overlap between paintings and sculpture, so when I noticed that the White Cube was showing works by the American artist David Hammons, which appeared to be just that, I was keen to see them in the Mason’s Yard gallery. David Hammons is known for his work exploring race, nationality and identity: his commentary on the Civil Rights movement in the US. Much of his work involves humour in some way from his African-American flag, the red white and blue being replaced by red, green and black, to the urinals he placed Duchamp style on trees in a wood. I like his 1983 street piece Blizzard Balls Sale, particularly the fact that they are each so beautifully made.
He has a reputation for eccentricity which some commentators have indicated is a euphemism for being generally difficult. He seldom speaks to the press. It clearly amuses him to play with the art world and collectors love him for it. Writing about him in 2009, Steven Stern commented in the Frieze Magazine, “Hammons’ notion of an artist includes a constant flirtation with notions of the illicit and the fraudulent – the ever-present suggestion that the whole business might be a scam.“
Being on the receiving end of something that might, or might not, be a scam has the potential to disappoint. If I had done a bit more research on what I might find in the Mason Yard gallery, I would have known that Hammons had shown similar works in New York. So what was there?
On the Ground Floor there were some drawings which I finally concluded I rather liked. Hung at an odd angle, they resembled dark rain clouds against a grey sky but closer inspection revealed intricate patterns. They were labelled Basket Ball Drawings and were formed by bouncing a basket ball on paper so the pattern must have been the texture you find on a ball, . The list of materials used provided the answer as to why they were sloping out from the wall as if they were on an easel. Harlem Earth on Paper with brown leather suitcase, the notice said. But there is no sign of a suitcase until you look behind the drawing and see that it is stuck to the wall near the bottom of the frame and is the reason why it hangs so oddly. I didn’t think the suitcase added much but it didn’t detract either.
I also liked the visual joke in the lobby – an African style mask, coloured orange and placed on a pile of canvases, it looked out of place and awkward, something of an anachronism. It was entitled The New Black. To get it, you need to have read the fashion pages; there has been a lot in the fashion press this year about orange being the new black.
I was far less impressed by Dirt Drawing. I could not see it at all at first, but one of the attendants pointed out that, in what looked like an empty space, there was a faint mark on the wall, outlining a canvas that had been there. It resembled the kind of marks that you leave behind when you take the pictures down on moving house. You hadn’t realised that was art had you? In this case, the dirt was not accumulated over the years but, so I was told, came from St James Park. A bit of a fraud that, I felt.
But I had come to see the reliefs. One was shown on the White Cube website on a quick-moving loop which moved on to other people’s artworks before you could look at it properly. In the fleeting glimpses obtained on the website, it looked interesting, but, it turned out, stationary and with time enough to study it, it seemed less so: merely a canvas, covered with a tarpaulin. There were five of them in all, each covered in different bits of stuff. That is not to say that there was not a certain aesthetic about the works. Indeed I rather liked the way that the tarpaulin was distressed; the blue colour shown here is pleasing; I like the way the yellow ropes dangle down and the way that in one of the works there were bits of plaster lying where it had apparently fallen off the wall.
So although I was expecting something more constructed, I might still have been impressed.The problem to my mind was what the tarpaulin covered. In the photograph you can see that it is covering something but you get no clear impression of what it is. So there is a sense of mystery.
That can work. One of my favourite works in the Pompidou is the Archives of Christian Boultanksi. It is an installation created in 1990 comprising 646 rusty biscuit tins containing, it is said, 1200 photographs and 800 documents from his studio. You do not know for certain whether the photographs or documents are really there or what they would be like. Part of the pleasure of this work is where it leads the imagination, but creating artworks in the observer’s mind carries risk.
In the Hammons exhibition you indeed speculate on what might be hidden by the tarpaulins. The problem is that judging from what one can see, I, at least, concluded nothing very exceptional. The gaps in the coverings revealed fragments of abstract paintings that seemed crudely executed in rather unsubtle colours. Did covering them with a tarpaulin raise their artistic merit? I thought not. Instead of imagining something good I was now imagining something poor. It was disappointing: the loop on the White Cube website had led me to visualise something so very much better.