Art viewers may be elucidated and even enlightened by analysis, but art somehow eludes complete verbal capture; if it’s good, there’s always conundrum at the core. As Borges writes,
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.
Many artists are thus understandably reluctant to discuss what can be expressed completely only visually. The film director Akira Kurosawa (an accomplished painter, incidentally) once declared, impatiently, “If I had a message, I would paint a sign.” Art’s message is embodied in its looks, resistant to distillation. Indeed, the tendency of nineteenth-century art to illustrate literature or promulgate “lessons” was disdained by modernist artists who embraced pictorial meanings inscribed only in pure abstract form. These messages included emotional or psychic states (to be divined or felt by the sympathetic, sensitive viewer), as well as syntheses of shape and color never seen in the real world.
Jane Hambleton’s “Swimming Fields” drawings of 2012 featured exquisitely rendered diving or suspended figures on seemingly aged, distressed surfaces, as analogues for mental states. The artist wrote:“The surface of water is an ... ambiguous and transitional plane, a threshold between the known world and the big mystery lying unseen in the depths below.” Hambleton’s evocation of fugitive states of mind with symbols or metaphors continues in her current show, “Awake and Away,” its double title (taken from a children’s book, the gift of a friend), alluding to being present in the world, “connected to the world and the people who love me” and being “off in my head,” in a “fictional” mindspace that includes—to quote Jung—memories, dreams, reflections.
To Hambleton, the fictional past and the fictional future are both nonexistent—imperfectly remembered and merely suppositional, respectively—except within the magical universe of the conjuring imagination. In this new body of work, made over the past year, the single images of divers and swimmers who symbolized introspection in 2012 have been supplanted by assemblages of images, some abstract and some figurative, separately framed.
These seemingly random accumulations are in reality careful, orchestrated juxtapositions. The abstractions read as bits of reality, as found objects; the drawings, which isolate details from old magazine and newspaper photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, read as memorials. (By the way, hands represent, for the artist, “human connection with nature,” an interesting association for an artist so enamored of material and craft, while the faces that she draws gaze out of the frame or lower their eyes—psychologically elsewhere, thinking and dreaming.) The disparate elements, created at different times, under varying impulses, cohere into unified compositions that suggest unknown narratives, the passage of time, and the poignant transience of human life. We are both in the moment, grounded in reality, and, with the flick of a neuronal switch, imaginatively floating free of constraints: both awake and away.
The metaphysical poet Robert Herrick once described poets as amphibians—at home both on the solid ground of daily life and in the waters of the imagination. Hambleton is similarly adept at negotiating the dry and wet realms of consciousness. A down-to-earth studio experimentalist who explores materials and processes out of sheer curiosity, experientially rather than in a goal-oriented manner, she made has artwork her whole life without, for the most part, even considering herself an artist. “I always drew. I would sit in my room [as a kid], listen to music and draw,” she said in a recent interview. Nowadays, her impulse to be “off on my own, doing my own thing” is more sophisticated, informed by enthusiasm for the subjective, stream-of-consciousness writing of Virginia Woolf; the meditative minimalist music of John Adams and Philip Glass; and the art of Mark Rothko, Joseph Cornell, Morris Louis, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jay DeFeo, Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch and others. In addition, Hambleton’s visualacuity, so crucial to the composition of her visual collages, has been sharpened by years of experience as an illustrator and graphic designer.
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that if a photographer took care of the composition, the meaning would take care of itself. This could be said of Hambleton’s assemblages as well, as they offer visual and intellectual pleasures to the analytical eye that invoke narrative and emotional dimensions. “Memoria” is a cluster or constellation of seventeen parts, all created independently, yet perfectly harmonized. Look at the disposition of the reds or yellows or blacks or whites and off-whites; consider the interplay between the shapes of the component parts and the intervals between them, or the dark graphite curves in the woman’s and man’s profiles. Asserting, as dogmatists used to (about Mondrian’s abstractions) that to change one element would destroy the total unity, would be an overstatement, but the rightness of this arrangement seems obvious (not that others might not be possible). The two paintings that comprise “color chip” seem, similarly, inevitably paired: the pink of the heavily painted upper canvas seems to complete the pale lower canvas, with its pastel paint chip samples cemented mosaic-like, into the white paint matrix, like houses seen through a radiant mist. “Interior,” “horizon,” “loam,” “day dream” and “in the clouds” recapitulate the single-image realism of last year, with the vintage-photo imagery accentuated by Hambleton’s faux foxing, rich red-brown stains that evoke the passage of decades, while the hands placing branches and seedpods just so in “Tilden I” and “Tilden II” suggest magic realist possibilities—a road not taken elsewhere here. The assemblage, “Fragment,” comprises eight separate pieces; note how the two drawn heads work in counterpoint, or how the pinks, grays and beiges create visual a casual but satisfying syncopation. The nine square paintings collectively entitled “simple truths,” with their subdued, aged brown-beige palettes, Cubist compositions and Abstract Expressionist brushwork and texture, are reminiscent of Beat artists like Bruce Conner, or of the Dadaist collagist Kurt Schwitters, whose retrospective prompted Hambleton to remark, in admiring surrender, “I don’t need to do any collage.” If you work intuitively, you don’t always get what you thought you wanted; the collage impulse evidently triumphed over rationality to our benefit: even after a century of collage, these works are satisfying, and hold their own, even in distinguished art-historical company.
Despite the commanding visual authority of her works, Hambleton wants them to remain open to interpretation: “I don’t want to hit people … over the head. I want people to look at the work and find their own place in it.” By embracing this democratic ethos, and by using separate framed images that are unrelated to each other, an idea that the artist traces to our digital Zeitgeist, Hambleton belongs to the postmodernist camp, media-savvy (“You just sample [i.e., appropriate and recontextualize snippets from] everything.”) and wary of artistic overreach. The emotional quality of the works, however, links her to older works of the modernist period, and even, here and there, the spiritually charged realism of the Renaissance (or its various revivals). Hambleton “like[s] to let the piece come out of the work,” to have it emerge from material and process, unbidden, with the artist simply attending to, submitting to, the task at hand. This sounds less like the cultural production in current practice than a kind of spiritual devotion, or at least aesthetic ritual—a welcome respite from the 24/7 digital cult of data. “There’s inspiration in beautiful real objects,” Hambleton says. There’s also beauty in inspiring hand-crafted objects, even when beauty per se was not the target.
Jane Hambleton Explores the Void Between Objects
By Susan Keefe
Berkeley-based artist Jane Hambleton recently unveiled her latest series ‘Above, Below & What Falls Between.’ These mixed-media drawings explore the aesthetics of space and its relationship with objects and people. The images are particularly focused on the negative space that exist between the figures. Hambleton transforms these voids into the focal points of her pieces by drawing attention to their otherwise uninteresting presence.
Space plays a large part in composition. The decision to add or remove from a piece is directly related to creating an image that uses space effectively. As the name suggests Jane Hambleton plays respect to every aspect of the image. What is rendered at the top of the canvas, what is near the bottom and what comes in between. While viewers often quickly adjust our focus to the focal point of a painting, the artist must consider every corner and how each section of the painting relates to the larger picture. By employing the old art school method of drawing attention to negative space, Jan Hambleton is not just entertaining her viewer with her expertly rendered figures, she is also slyly educating them in the art of spacial organization and aesthetics.Exploring the void and its relationship with the figures that frame it, Jane Hambleton has created images that inspire meditation and deep thought.