Mexico City

Lewis Hammond, Attachment, 2020, oil on linen, 32 × 51".

Lewis Hammond, Attachment, 2020, oil on linen, 32 × 51".

Lewis Hammond

Looking at Lewis Hammond’s deeply introverted works online before I ventured out of the house earlier this summer to see his show “Still Life,” I could imagine the oil paint recoiling from the overhead fluorescent lights, suspecting their glare would cover entire sections of the canvas with a flat, pale sheen. In the flesh, however, the paintings are fleshy, or flesh-threatening: cuddles, thorns, knives, bites, and spikes. The British artist’s works are big, their depictions intense. His images looked out of place in a tiny gallery that mostly specializes in small-format works.

In Kyur (all works cited, 2020), a couple lies hugging at the bottom of the canvas, surrounded by a sturdy wall as well as by the shade and golden hue of an afternoon. But the sense of restfulness was complicated by what one saw in the surrounding canvases: prickly white acacia branches in the diptych The Alcovene I and II and a panoply of knives in Talisman. The branches in the former stand like prison bars on green concrete windowsills, their shadows falling onto an impassive background of deep purple. The blades in Talisman rest flat on a forest-green surface, their jagged edges and uneven surfaces adumbrated in shark grays and deep blacks. The paintings were so dense they were opaque; they made you want to turn the brightness higher on your phone-trained eyes. Writing after the earthquake that shook Mexico City in late June, I felt anxious for the Kyur painting’s couple, more than half naked and not even thinking of the likelihood of a temblor forcing them out of their coziness.

Hammond started work on these pictures in Mexico City before the pandemic and finished them in London when it was full-blown. No wonder everything seemed so ominous. The cute smiley critter in Nachtjäger / Only Knowing Hunger was, on closer inspection, revealed to be an otter-like mammal with fangs, chewing on a faceless fish or reptile while looking straight at the viewer with almost human eyes. Attachment offered similar deceptions. Were the two naked bodies, one restraining the other, engaged in playful sex or the horrible opposite of that? These figures, like the prey in Nachtjäger, were faceless, and their claustrophobic backdrop reminded me of the dungeons in the sea-facing colonial fortresses I toured as a child: cold, wet, evil. Spikes on the floor, on which the bodies appeared to roll so dangerously, recalled the hostile architecture of contemporary cities, intended to make the lives of homeless and transient people more unlivable.

Hammond’s palette and willful depictions can bring to mind the forcefulness of Mexican muralismo, but updated with today’s nervous ambience of fear and trembling. The show invited us to inhabit a purgatory state, in the sense of a place for the patient endurance of suffering. It was unsettling, filled with reminders of primordial fears—damnation, torture, imprisonment, intimate violence, the self—and it mirrored the disrupted states of mind in which we found ourselves after more than a hundred days of shutdown, wondering when we’d be allowed out, our patient endurance rewarded. Isolation and paranoia about falling ill have wrecked my attention span—among other things—yet Hammond’s show, seen firsthand, managed to hold it, maybe even abduct it, and has not quite let go of it yet.