What's in a Name?

Jane Hammond had a problem: The titles of her paintings were becoming too cumbersome. When she was starting out as an artist, she didn't want to get pigeonholed by curators and critics, so she sought freedom in restriction on her own terms. Limiting herself to a vocabulary of 276 "found" images that she had compiled over time, she set to work making paintings that are variable and cohesive, structured yet with an element of randomness, depicting her imagination as much as the world around her. But then she titled them "Untitled," followed by parentheses enclosing the numbers by which she had cataloged her found images. You can see the predicament posed by rather complex pictures.

She hit upon the idea of soliciting titles, which then might act as catalysts to her imagination, and she decided, with some trepidation, to approach the poet John Ashbery, whom art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently described as being "famous for the soaring abstraction and pitch-perfect vernacular of poems whose meaning is anyone's guess." A week later he faxed her 44 titles, which have inspired Hammond to make just more than 60 paintings. And now, with the arrival of "Jane Hammond: The Ashbery Collaboration," 16 of them have come to visit the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery.

Organized by Jill Snyder, executive director of the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, the exhibit is a hoot. At first glance, these large exuberant canvases suggest a surrealist enterprise, with their odd images and bizarre juxtapositions, their dreamlike (or nightmarish) scenery -- and those titles: Midwife to Gargoyles #2, Long-Haired Avatar, The Soapstone Factory #5, Forests of Fire, The Mush Stage. This work has to be bubbling up from the depths of the unconscious, but there are two unconsciouses at work here. And there's still the little matter of that pictorial vocabulary of 276 images -- Hammond hasn't tossed her restrictions aside. The images and titles may percolate in her unconscious for a while, but these canvases are less concerned with the expression of an inner, hidden world than with the outer, constructed world. Call them pop surrealist.

The artist insists that no one is more surprised than she that this collaboration has proven so fruitful, but there must have been some inkling. Take one of the earliest works in this exhibit, Pumpkin Soup #2 (1994), a painting fairly brimming with fecundity. A friend of Hammond's has called it a wedding portrait; in it Jane and John are framed in the mirrors of two white 18th-century vanities. Between them is a blue monkey holding two candles who might be officiating over this marriage. In front of Hammond's picture are flowers and a wooden puppet figure; before Ashbery's, a Tinker Toy-like armature and a small red centaur. The puppet and the toy are reminiscent of de Chirico's protosurrealist paintings, while the centaur suggests Chiron, the wise tutor of Theseus and Achilles, who became the constellation Sagittarius after his death. Vines and gourds proliferate across a platform bridging the distance between the vanities, the gourds managing to be both phallic and bulbous at the same time. And the peach-colored ground for all this plenty is punctuated by transfers of birds and butterflies -- not exactly the birds and the bees, but if we grant a little poetic license…

Hammond acknowledges the impact that this marriage has had on her practice in a quote that accompanies Pumpkin Soup #2: "The minute I started the collaboration with John Ashbery, things crept into my painting that hadn't been there before…I made my first shaped paintings; I made my first two-part paintings; I violated a very strict idea about the palette that I had before; and I started incorporating transfers, graphite, linoleum block prints, rubber stamps and other things…" It's as if, once another sensibility was admitted, her process took on a life of its own. It's an invigorating range of invention that's on display here: the open-book-shaped Night Stick (1996), the foot soles decorated by a tantric yogi who wandered into a Renaissance atelier in Sore Models #2 (1994), the circular game board of Mad Elga (1996).

And just when you think these paintings couldn't get more inventive, you come to No One Can Win at the Hurricane Bar (1998-1999). A map of Florida splays across the skewed canvas, the panhandle jutting out over the top and the rump of the state hanging off the bottom. A tattered sail and a broken yardarm cross the map at an angle, and circular winds are blowing a toaster, a chair, a broken ship's wheel and sundry other objects across the state. Four (painted) darts targets are scattered across the surface, a bull's-eye at the center of each resembling the eyes of the storms that Florida seems such a magnet for, while a roulette wheel combines with an anemometer to reference chance forces beyond our control. Though completed a year before, it's impossible to look at the controlled chaos of this painting without thinking of the presidential election fiasco of two years ago.

Not all of these works can be read this way (most of them are much too hermetic to give up any kind of narrative), but each invites us in to trace Hammond's found images through their various permutations, and to taste the fruits of this collaboration between the poet and the painter. May we each make such a happy marriage.

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John Devine