Richard Hamilton

This exhibition was divided into two sections: “Installations,” a series of works designed as rooms, and “Ulysses,” a group of drawings and prints inspired by James Joyce’s novel. Throughout “Installations,” curated by Mark Francis, Hamilton consistently draws attention to the notion of surveillance and the ways in which rooms can imply, or be a function of, relationships based on power and control. Treatment Room, 1984, for instance, recreates the space of a hospital emergency room, complete with antiseptic walls and furnishings. The setting is Orwellian in its overtones: the image of Margaret Thatcher on the television screen hung over the operating table; the window through which one may witness the “operation”; the austere use of industrial gray and white; Hamilton has fashioned a scene which lacks only a human presence to complete it. The medicinal atmosphere of Treatment Room is very much present in Lobby, 1987, as well, a hotel setting in which the use of mirrors provides for an endless repetition of the space’s interior design. The mirrors, primarily through their positioning in the large painting that dominates the room, function as a neutralizing device, multiplying the motifs beyond the confines of this particular installation. The carpeting, the furniture, the flowers, the mirrors themselves—all of these elements have become “givens,” foreclosing any possibility of variation in this space.

Perhaps the most effective work, in terms of concretizing Hamilton’s inscription of elements such as power, surveillance, and repetition within interior design, is The Citizen, 1982–3. On the walls of the room are smears painted to look like excrement. A painting pictures a Christ-like figure wrapped in a blanket. The figure is a hunger striker, imprisoned in Northern Ireland. His gaze is directed squarely at the viewer, implying a reversal of the power relationship within which he is confined. Hamilton has revealed a space that the public is not meant to witness. However, the simple gaze of “the citizen” turns that privileged position inside out.

The title of The Citizen also refers to the character in James Joyce’s Ulysses who was most directly linked with Sinn Fein. In his series of works based on the novel, Hamilton has produced a number of portraits of another character from Irish lore, Finn MacCool. This image of a black-bearded man wrapped in a blanket is virtually a double of “The Citizen.” As a result, both images are enhanced: the character from Ulysses taking on a contemporary, political significance and the portrait of the hunger striker being situated within Joyce’s dissection of Irish society. “Ulysses” comprises works from 1948 to 1987; remarkably, despite the variety of styles and media employed by Hamilton, the differences in the finished works over the course of 40 years are minimal. In some pieces, his use of the working drawing to develop and multiply various pictorial embellishments (such as the study of Leopold Bloom, surrounded by phalluses and toes) parallels Joyce’s generative use of language, in which images follow one upon another, sometimes and directly sometimes indirectly. In others, Hamilton’s fracturing of pictorial space functions as a mirror to Joyce’s handling of narrative, as both illustration and revelation of the text upon which it is based.

Michael Tarantino