The New European
A CUT ABOVE
THE WOODCUTS THAT TAKE A SURREAL JOURNEY TO THE MOON
A surreal artistic journey to the moon
Art’s most painstaking process is glorified in a new exhibition by Tom Hammick. ADRIAN BURNHAM is left starry-eyed
Woodcut wanderlust! In the first of a series of 17 breathtaking prints we see a figure gazing through a telescope at the starry night sky. He’s wearing a tailcoat and trousers with stripes down the side. Maybe he’s just left some agonisingly boring bourgeois event and wants to reconnect with Gaia’s place in the solar system. Or was it a military do? Where ceremonial trouser stripes might point to a rank. Maybe the gent gazing heavenwards is a major? And what’s the name of the artist responsible for this hypnotic series of prints?
Adam Nicolson, a writer who revels in capturing the weft and warp of journeying through landscapes to see them afresh, was an apt interlocutor between this glorious set of woodcuts and the artist Tom Hammick who produced them.
In conversation at Flowers Gallery, surrounded by the veritable “chapel” of works that make up Hammick’s Lunar Voyage, Nicolson suggested he was Wordsworth and that Hammick could be Coleridge. What’s the link between these high priests of Romanticism and a contemporary artist’s series of feverdreamed imagery? Nicolson averred Hammick’s work made manifest the connection between the inner self and the giant fact of existence that is the universe. For Nicolson, Lunar Voyage represents both “the beyond and the within: the soul as cosmos”. Hammick’s sympathetic yet droll response to these literary allusions – the Romantic poets walked at night to gain access to a time of “unrememberable being” apparently – was simply to say, “thank God I’m a painter”.
Lunography, the second print in the series, is a work one could look at for hours. Not simply because of the fascination maps and atlases hold intrinsically. The huge glowing orb, yellow-grey on the left, blue-grey on the right suspended in a Prussian blue corona simply mesmerises. The vast sky is strafed with wood grain texture from the printing block and a tiny craft with its rainbow trail traverses the dark expanse. It is sublime.
Inspiration for the series came from many sources. Caspar David Friedrich cropped up, of course and, perhaps less obviously, Marc Chagall – less obvious until you remember Chagall’s luminous, deep blue skies.
Nicolson noted that what characterised people when they appeared in the works was a “certain thinness”. Figures are flattened, pared down which only serves to emphasise the gigantic things going on around the “sparkle of small lives”.
We see people, the family our space traveller will leave behind through the windows of home on Cloud Island. They are quietly going about their business while in the background on another launch pad isle the silver silhouette of a rocket bisects the purple skyline and
overlaps a gorgeous, stark black and white cratered moon. Orangey pink constellations dart and flare overhead like a choreographer’s dance notation.
Hammick confessed there’s always a story behind the paintings and prints he makes, though was at pains to add he rarely lets on about this. He wants viewers to connect with the images in ways that are personal to them. So there’s specificity in the work, figures and situations that Hammick can locate firmly in his everyday life but also – appropriately given this is one man’s lonely foray to the moon and back – a deep sense of absence, of loss and longing.
Hammick likened his imaginary voyage, the (phallic) drive to seek adventure through journeying heavenwards, to his own art practice. He likes to paint at night, in a studio that’s a longish walk from the warm glow of hearth and home, the company of loved ones. And admits that for him to pursue a creative life – though this goes pretty much for all painters, writers, poets, etc. – he needs to spend a lot of time alone and that constitutes an unbelievably selfish existence. The artist as rocket man who can do none other than follow his calling might come across as romantic tosh to some but in Hammick’s case it’s more heartfelt mea culpa. At one point in the discussion he actually apologised for his
Lunar Voyage series of works being “quite male”.
Another inspiration, explicitly referenced in a stunning print titled
Wake, where a red moon hovers above a midnight boat ride toward a launch pad isle, was the graphic genius of Hergé. Hammick cited the visual invention and brilliant economy with which the Belgian cartoonist rendered the adventurer Tintin’s world. And it’s the humour and references to popular culture that punches through any too po-faced a metaphysical reading of Lunar Voyage. While undoubtedly the works are a meditation on being and nothingness they’re also a love letter to late 1960s and 1970s: the colours of washed-out comics, album covers, films such as Kubrick’s techno-poetic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Nicholas Roeg’s
The Man Who Fell To Earth.
In terms of art references, the crossing of boundaries between a literary and painterly consciousness plus the inventive, sometimes disorientating compositions put me in mind of R. B. Kitaj’s works. In the expanses of deep, immersive hue one can’t help thinking of the tendency of colour field painting to envelop the viewer.
In the fifth print of the series, Journey to the Moon psychedelic swirls explosively propel the rocket towards its lilac orb
destination. The streamers of brilliant writhing exhaust plumes might allude to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album cover but could just as well be a nod to Morris Louis’ 1961 painting Alpha-phi. The subtle use of greys and the icy-cool pastel patterning of the space pods somehow reminds me of Jasper John’s later works. And, both in terms of composition and the way certain motifs are rendered throughout the series there’s a constant echo of the masters of Japanese wood block printing.
Hammick said that for him printmaking is more Zen than painting. Where “painting is a seat-of-your-pants nightmare that’s great when it works but hardly ever does”, with printmaking you’re forced by the process to reach a point where finite decisions need to be made and acted upon. There’s also the fact of working with other people, technical collaborators, mitigates against endlessly fannying about with an image. While there are passages of exquisite detail: ludic lunar cartography (there’s not really a chocolate lake in the moon’s Sea of Serenity is there?), fiendishly complicated control panels in the space capsule, patterning on his absent families’ clothing… One thing that sings out from the body of work as a whole is its bold, unfussy directness.
The whole series is, as I’ve said, a visual treat on so many levels but Star Path is a particular favourite. Here Hammick has again let the grain of the wooden block be whizz lines clawing across the expanse of sky. More distinct patterning on the rocket body itself helps thrust it moonwards. Unexpectedly the rocket’s boosters are locked into an icy cerulean trail. Seeing the material trace of the reduction woodcut process used as part of the image is a brilliantly pointed disjunct.
Simple, time-old methods and materials: wood, ink, skill have produced these works that picture a technology that cost billions to develop. There’s numerous witty connections that link separate works in the series: top right of Star Path the family home we visited on Cloud Island is now upside down in the rocket’s wake. And we constantly catch a glimpse of contemporary earthly matters. An example is in the 13th print titled Nightfall – one of Hammick’s children is wearing a T-shirt with Shepard Fairey’s Latina Woman on it and the words ‘obey no one’ decorate her skirt. The figures’ faces may be blank but love and intimacy are rendered in pattern and detail. Character and particular presences persist in the poses adopted, in floral detail on a midi dress, in red socks, in black Mary Jane shoes.
So there’s a commingling of the big questions – ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What is my relation to an ocean of emptiness?’ – together with tender references to domestic life, everyday mundanities we miss so achingly once removed from them. Hammick sees sci-fi narratives as the modern equivalent of Western movies, particularly classics such as The Searchers where John Wayne’s character leads a mission journeying deep into Comanche territory. And Nicolson saw Lunar Voyage through a more Homeric lens and made the point that for Odysseus the epic journey is less adventure, more a trial of suffering.
At the Flowers talk an audience member asked about Hammick’s practical approach to the works. He draws every day and during the production of the print series filled four or five books with linear studies, no colour at this stage, just flat almost map-like working drawings.
This mode of developing the content and design of images, an exercise in distillation, is revealed in the penultimate print of the series. Living Room sees the space-travelling artist returned to the heart of family life, it is a
formally riveting work, sharing the quality of Henri Matisse’s L’atelier Rouge where your eyes constantly rove over the picture plane trying to find a visual clue as to the room’s architecture and your place in it. Viewers are forced to play out that sense of dislocation felt when trying to reintroduce oneself back into a life and space you’ve been absent from a long time.
On the table in the foreground is one of Hammick’s Lunar Voyage preparatory books with drawings and notes-to-self that refer to the saga with a prosaic reminder to ‘cut out the sea… do not cut out any part of island’.
To sign off on a less commonplace note, studying single prints in
Hammick’s series is a joy, you can lose yourself in them.
But seeing Lunar Voyage as a whole, to be able to spin around in the middle of a room and take in pretty much the whole viridian green and blue to rainbow lambent to lamp black journey is a real pleasure. There’s wit and visual invention akin to Hockney’s Rake’s Progress but a profound elegiac solemnity also.
Adam Nicolson was right when he said visiting the exhibition was like being in a chapel. Lunar Voyage – Hammick’s Stations of the Cross – launches all sorts of emotions, fears and longings. The journey is revealed to be not simply adventure but a test also, of character as well as a luminous, mindful examination of our place in the universe and the relations we have with the things and people we hold dear.