Critics’ Picks

Barbara Hammer, Untitled 1, 1972, ink and watercolor on paper, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2".

Barbara Hammer, Untitled 1, 1972, ink and watercolor on paper, 6 1/2 x 8 1/2".

New York

Barbara Hammer

145 Elizabeth Street
September 13–October 11, 2015

Barbara Hammer’s work in experimental film has incalculably shaped the collective memory of lesbian and feminist experience. But, before she came to the medium—and before she came out, leaving her marriage “on a motorcycle with a super-8 camera” and shooting some of the first lesbian films in history, Dyketactics (1974) and Women I Love (1976)—Hammer made drawings. Her first-ever solo gallery exhibition presents sixteen of these works.

Hammer’s popularity and visibility in the art field has ebbed and flowed over the course of four decades—largely synchronous with vogues for and backlashes against identity politics. The works in this exhibition sidestep those trajectories altogether, veering into a surreal and at times psychedelic style that jibes with Hammer’s filmic eye. Not unlike the conditions within which queers existed in the ’70s, Hammer’s drawings oscillate between deep-seated political dread and shades of dreamy possibility. In two gouache, ink, and watercolor works (Untitled 4 and Untitled 5, ca 1970), a drowsy head rests on a tiny rural landscape, alongside gargantuan (and seemingly dead) flies, snails, and small rodents. Ink outlines ooze with rich greens, yellows, reds, and pinks, but there are conspicuous areas left uncolored, wanting for interpretation. Many of Hammer’s figures wear sly sidelong glances, bright faces peering out of the planar picture frames.

Lesbian Whale, the lone new work in the exhibition, is a video animation of Hammer’s early notebook drawings set to a sound track of commentary by the artist’s friends and peers. The script is composed of fragments and stray thoughts—“as a feminist I’m very skeptical”; “not necessarily physical time but emotional time”—and it’s not quite clear whether it’s spontaneous, planned, composed by the speakers, or read from Hammer’s notebooks. If Hammer’s artistic influence is well documented, this slippage between voices, authors, and images suggests an ethos of collaboration and conviviality that may prove to be her greatest legacy.