New York

David Hammons

Jack Tilton Gallery / P.S.1 Museum

David Hammons’ tough, discursive iconoclasm is fueled by an improbable amalgam of influences, including Marcel Duchamp, African-American culture, Dadaism, and Harlem street life. At The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S. 1 Museum, a retrospective of work from the past two decades subtitled “Rousing the Rabble” illuminates the many passages this artist has traveled. In contrast, two successive installations at the Jack Tilton Gallery provide a more focused look at work completed since the artist spent one year at the American Academy in Rome.

Hammons’ work has always tampered with the borders of the art world; it is an activity shaped and sustained by sly crossovers, by evidence gathered from both high art and impoverished circumstances. The work’s restless, random quality expresses Hammons’ ambivalence about these two worlds, both of which he inhabits in a condition of quiet exile.

Other people’s castoffs—rejected objects and pejorative stereotypes—are Hammons’ métier. The main gallery at P.S. 1 contained a selection of basketball backboards created and collected by the artist. Untitled, 1987–90, is a misshapen board whose deformed rim is made of bottle caps wired together. Attached to the backboard is a necklace of draped chains; the arrangement and size suggest an exaggerated, misplaced net. Highfalutin, 1989, is a backboard made from an old frame window set on its side. Around the frame and rim Hammons has installed flickering, electric flame fixtures from a chandelier that cast an ominous glow on this sporting apparatus.

Hammons is a skeptical observer of basketball and street life; he sees these “acceptable outlets as false promises sought on misdirected time and energy”—ultimate dead ends for most African-American teenagers. A wall hanging entitled Air Jordan, 1989, made of bottlecaps attached to a torn, deflated inner tube, hangs limp and useless, driving the dismal point home.

Hammons’ insights on black urban culture are wide ranging and take many forms. 1990 Recreation of Untitled, 1981, 1990, is an island cluster of two-foot wires stuck in the gallery floor. On top of each wire is a tuft of human hair (and sometimes objects like eggs and rubber bands) collected from the floors of African-American barber shops. The intimate tactility of this human scale is countered by a big (10-by-16-foot), bold, mock political campaign billboard called How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988. Originally installed on a building in Washington, D.C., the towering tin-and-plywood image of a blonde, blue-eyed, white-faced Jesse Jackson, was defaced by enraged citizens who failed to appreciate it as an ironic comment on racism. The current installation of the damaged piece is surrounded by a cordon of sledgehammers—the tools used in the public assault.

The first of the two exhibitions at the Jack Tilton Gallery included two installations that concern the displacement of black-owned markets by Arab and Korean businesses, and the piece entitled Highfalutin that was also included in the P.S. 1 exhibition. In the second exhibition at the gallery, he presented a spare grouping of projects completed in 1990. Cigarette Holder consists of a three-dimensional wire sconce mounted on the wall. The end of each length holds a cigarette butt; ashes and other butts scattered on the floor suggest evidence of some long, frustrating vigil. Upon request, the gallery staff could add new cigarettes to the wall sconce and light them. In one corner of the gallery a garment-district-style clothing rack is packed with black clothing. Death Fashion constitutes a morose commentary on the coincidence of New York’s most fashionable color statement and connotations of death.

Hammons’ work doesn’t play by any preconceived esthetic rules. It invents and demands new standards of participation and leaves little unscathed in the process. The skillful manipulation of social conventions, linguistic puns, and the metaphoric use of materials produces witty, ugly, beautiful, and unsettling effects. Whether lasting or ephemeral, Hammons’ projects, incorporating eloquent body prints, wine bottles, or fried chicken wings, enrich the legacy of compassionate, political art.

Patricia C. Phillips