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David Hammons - Art Power

Words:

Edd Norval
May 16, 2018

African American artist David Hammons utilised simple, yet powerful, visual imagery as a means of making provocative statements about life as a black man living in America. He explores the expectations, goals and inequalities of life as he experienced it.

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“I can’t stand art actually. I’ve never, ever liked art, ever." A strange thing for an artist to say it might seem - but not if you get to know him.


With that though, we can start to get the impression of someone's place in the art landscape and how they see themselves. Even from such a short sentence it's clearly established that David Hammons does what he does because he has to, not because he wants to or particularly enjoys it. Given the striking power of his work, it's clear that his MO is about making a point - not about making 'art'.


Of course, he is still making art. The strength of his work lies in two main places - his clear thought-process that aids his artwork in being accessible and thus, ever more powerful. And secondly, the intelligent interplay between historically powerful symbolism evident in both the piece and their title, further contributing to the way that we process his work. You can leave an exhbition without wondering what you just looked at, but instead scramble to try and remember everything - every lesson, every feeling and every statement.

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To Hammons, art is less a way of life or a lifestyle as it is his sharpest tool to wield in his lifelong efforts in the American civil rights movement. The very perception of the black man has been the subject of a great deal of his work. In his 1973 work, Spade with Chains he creates a sculpture resembling an African mask, utilising an upturned spade with chains hanging from each side of it. Beyond the garden tool, spade is also a derogatory term used against black people - his work was an instantly recognisably symbol.


It's in the lack of subtlety - the forcefulness of the image, that gives it a power that transcends beyond the art-world. His ability to utilise common tropes have given him a life beyond being a creator and into one as a commentator. A year later he created another work in the same series, this time titled simply Spade. The image showed his face imprinted onto the spade from a deck of cards. In doing so he emphasized the typical black features and juxtaposing them with the title.


Aggressively thrusting his features onto the audience in a work that comes coupled with a contextually offensive symbol is his take it or leave it. It raises questions about the traditionally conservative art world's willingness to embrace a black artist that makes such statements. Maybe profit is the great equalizer.

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Beyond his work examining perception, he also explores the expectations that we are chained to when growing up in impoverished and seemingly hopeless conditions. As a means of addressing inner-city youth's aspirations, he created an installation piece in 1986, once again with a playful title - Higher Goals.


The three-storey basketball net was literally a high goal, yet it had another simple message for the audience. As people gathered around it and looked skywards - they saw that it was an unattainable option. Sporting success is often portrayed as an escape route for black people in America to emancipate themselves from poverty. Of course, it's not an easy thing to achieve, especially if there are no facilities or support structures to give them a foot up.


Hammons has a rare ability - that is to make something so affecting because he puts it into practice - he forces us to confront it. It's not a painting of an oppressive scene - it's a metal spade hanging from a wall. If you stand in front of it, the face stares back - one that everyone in America has had contact with at one point - it's misunderstanding, ignorance, the 'other' manifest.


To whatever degree it affects you, the bottom line is that it has the potential to make change. Relating to other people, or groups of peoples, condition can be difficult - you can only really know reality as you experience it. Hammons has taken it upon himself to show instead of tell and has left a great many people better-off for it. It's a hard lesson told in a way that seems so simple.

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