New York

Chris Hammerlein

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the character Edward Casaubon famously devotes his life to deducing “the key to all mythologies”—a sort of ur-fable underlying and explaining all others—only to realize that there is no such thing. He dies a beaten man, leaving behind a mountain of disorganized notes. Brooklyn-based artist Chris Hammerlein seems to have something in common with Casaubon: For the past eight years, he has been making drawings that delve into the mythic iconography of various locales and epochs, including that of modern pop culture. But instead of evincing a desire to unify the field, his work embraces the irrational nature of cultural forms and illustrates their tendency to burgeon according to the tenets of chaos theory rather than organize themselves according to the principles of logic.

Over the course of his career—first mostly in small, spare drawings daubed with watercolor and smudges of crayon and pastel, and more recently in big, intricate black-and-white works—Hammerlein has depicted figures that might be derived from Japanese prints, European heraldry, African sculpture, and pretty much any other tradition you’d care to name. While this catholicism might suggest that he is motivated by a kind of sunny humanism, the drawings themselves quickly put the kibosh on such a reading. As one recent commenter on a blog succinctly put it, Hammerlein’s art is “wonderfully f- - - - d up.” This f- - - - d-up-ness has taken increasingly subtle form—earlier works tend to feature more overt grotesqueries than recent ones—but it’s still there, and, coupled with his superbly fluent draftsmanship, it defines his practice.

Hammerlein’s latest drawings, a group of large graphite-and-ink works recently on view at Derek Eller Gallery, are populated by sirens and Rhine maidens, centaurs and knights, and creatures who are half-human, half-flower. There are also boars, cats, lions, monkeys, and fish. These figures are grouped into tableaux that variously adhere to or subvert the laws of perspective, and for the most part they’re surrounded by thick, dark fields of undulating ornamentation that sometimes resembles Art Nouveau vegetation and sometimes appears to represent nothing but line itself.

In Vishnu, 2006, the titular god looks beleaguered, slouching with his cheek resting on the back of one hand; he’s clutching a seashell in the other hand and resting in the curve of a segmented form that might be the tail of a giant crustacean. All around him are layered, spiraling forms—stylized waves, perhaps. A tube emerges from his navel; it appears to be emitting smoke that has coalesced into a row of disembodied heads that float above him. In Sirens, 2006, three big-eyed, waifish nudes are enwombed by rococo swirls of graphite; one siren pushes against Hammerlein’s marks with the palm of her hand, as if to see whether they will give. The artist’s horror vacui has become his subjects’ misfortune; they seem aware that they’re trapped in teeming pictorial fields.

One of the striking things about Hammerlein’s style is how it has evolved. The drawings in his previous show at Derek Eller looked like perverse homages to Albrecht Dürer; he now seems to have added James Ensor, Odilon Redon, and Jugendstil to the mix. Whatever influences crop up in the future, it seems certain that Hammerlein’s profusely imaginative visual syncretism will continue to vault his images far beyond pastiche.

Elizabeth Schambelan