Wreaking Havoc on the Signified
On entering David Hammons’ recent show in a TriBeCa shop, one was handed a list of works. The roster served to orient those who preferred not to take on the test of art world savvy posed by the exhibition. One’s grasp of things could be measured by whether one knew, for example, that the stack of toilet paper on the table was not the store manager’s weekly supply, but one of the artist’s trademark sardonic one-liners. Lodged within and between exotic artefacts from Africa and Asia were more than a dozen of Hammons’ conceptual sight-gags. A ragged kimono was draped over a soiled slip, complete with protruding, bloody tampon. Nestled among the miniatures was a doll-sized lounge chair with a greying wad of gum stuck to its underside. On a wall hung a row of beef bones still held together by dried flesh, wryly titled Marimba Ribs (1994). Peeping out of a handsome wooden dresser was a wooden mallard adorned with bits of white bandaging tape entitled Tape Duck (1994). Through these and other pieces that both clashed with and played off the shop’s own eclectic fare, Hammons eloquently commented on the kind of spectatorial desire that binds him and his increasingly fetishised work to the regular collectibles at Knobkerry, the boutique.
The message was conveyed with humour; jokes were there for those who could decipher them. No viewing of Hammons’ work would be complete without a thorough reading of the network of relationships between his culturally loaded titles and jarringly juxtaposed found objects. The artist has often been characterised as a sophisticated junk dealer who breathes new life into paper bags, bottle caps, frizzy hair, snowballs, rocks, broken appliances, old clothes, rugs, grease and half-eaten ribs. He is, in actuality, a masterful investigator of how an oppositional black cultural identity can be generated through a dialogue with ‘high’ culture, particularly as it is articulated through standard English. His method relies on punning and other kinds of word games that short-circuit the dominant cultural interpretation of any given object or term to be redirected for his own purpose.
Hammons’ artful play transports the black linguistic act of ‘signifyin’’ analysed by literary critic Henry Louis Gates in his landmark study, ‘The Signifyin’ Monkey,’ into the realm of the visual. 1 Charting the evolution of this approach to language from its origins in Yoruba and Fon cultures in Africa to its many diasporic transmutations in the New World, Gates defines signifyin’ and its archetypal representation in the mythology of the signifyin’ monkey as the quintessential form of black creativity. Operating in homonymic relation to the standard English term ‘signifying’, the black variant, even in its own materiality, stakes out a space for a culturally specific practice of creating new meaning through an alteration of the relationship between a given term (signifier) and its usual meaning (signified). Beginning with early references to this practice in slave testimony, Gates finds evidence of signifyin’ in black oral and written literature, black performative speech, and black music. Within the context of his analysis, the oft-cited techniques of jazz, which involve the constant realignment of already existent musical signifiers, take on a particularly powerful cultural resonance.
Signifyin’, according to Gates, involves taking, twisting and transforming English to make it otherwise. It implicitly revindicates ‘imitation’ as a creative gesture, over and against a legacy of negative, Eurocentric appraisal of black literature and culture as unoriginal. To signify is to rework received meanings; the difference between the literal and the metaphorical is thrust into the foreground by an approach that operates by implication, indirect communication, imagistic rendering, rhythmic delivery, and parody. Noting how this method is rooted in vernacular speech patterns and is passed on from generation to generation, Gates cites numerous examples of how signifyin’ relies on shared black experience for the evocation of its double entendres; he also emphasises how this black expressivity is immanently performative.
Designating signifyin’ as the ‘trope of tropes’, Gates suggests that its stress on the materiality of the signifier provides a critical rationale for shifting the interpretations of black cultural production away from an exclusively social and political matter of content, to a close reading of the interplay of form, style, context, referencing and subject. Black cultural production, be it oral, written or visual, Gates argues, is experienced most fruitfully when appreciated intertextually, as it relies heavily on its referencing of other texts, both western (white) forms and black literature, legacies and histories. The signifyin’ monkey, incarnating the performative dimension of the reinterpretative utterance, occupies the crucial mediating position in this paradigm.
David Hammons is as inextricable from his work as Gates’ monkey is from the signifyin’ practice. No account of Hammons’ art is entirely devoid of references to his streetwise, resolutely anti-elitist persona. He has become infamous for his acerbic appraisals of high art, and his willed cultivation of a split between a black interpretative community to which he directs his messages, and a now admiring (once indifferent) white art world he loves to snub, tease and confuse. This approach is carried over into his artwork. Hammons is one of the few human beings in the world who can sell snowballs and doll’s shoes on the street as performance and make money, or urinate on another artist’s work - also as performance and social commentary. Like the signifyin’ monkey and the practice he enacts, Hammons’ performative presence shines through his funky rearrangements of urban debris and cultural icons. His visualisation of signifyin’ involves several interrelated key strategies. He works off familiar, highly charged iconography; he creates parodies that deflate pretension and conservatism; and his puns conjure up some of the more contradictory and even painful aspects of contemporary black life.
Hammons’ own explanation of his motives foregrounds the role of language in circumscribing black identity and experience. ‘I was trying to figure out why black people were called spades as opposed to clubs…So I took the shape, and started painting it,’ he noted in a 1986 interview with Kellie Jones 2. Significantly, his exploration of the epithet came precisely at a point when members of the flowering black arts movement were encouraged, if not compelled, to celebrate blackness, a call to which his works form an abject counterpoint. His Spade series of the mid-70s exploits the manifold meanings ascribed to the term as a means of chipping away at its negative inscription of black identity. In his 1974 print Spade, he shoves his face against the shape leaving a caricature-like imprint of his Negroid features. Hammons literally deflates the impact of the verbal insult by flattening it. In various sculptures, he recasts the word’s derogatory meaning by stressing its literal one. Spade with Chains (1973) transforms rusted, wasted shovels into ironic allusions to slavery and incarceration; and Charlie Parker becomes a spade spouting from a saxophone in Bird (1973). Not only was Hammons here diverging from a larger trend toward unequivocally positive views of blackness, but this use of culturally resonant found objects signals an absolutely fundamental shift in black aesthetic experimentation from mimetic representational forms to more oblique, metaphorical renderings of black experience.
Hammons’ continuing reworking of the relationship between materials, images and their meanings focuses on two primary targets - the pretence and commercialism of ‘high’ art and its exclusionary milieu, and the misguided, even limiting objectives and values of sectors of the black middle class. Works such as Flying Carpet (1990) in which fried chicken wings are arranged a suspended Persian rug, or Hairpiece (1975), in which hair cuttings are woven onto free standing wire rods, are coy send-ups of minimalism, and of dominant cultural constructions of exoticising clichés about otherness. Hammons’ many works using brown paper bags smeared with grease and chewed over rib bones push such investigations a few steps further, calling into question which substances can legitimately represent blackness within the context of art. These pieces poke fun at the aspirations of a kind of social posturing and art making (engaged in by both blacks and whites) that attempts to obfuscate its connection to their roots in popular culture.
Other works take swipes at short-sighted materialist values in American life. Indeed, part of Hammons’ way of tempering his own success has been to play the role of the sly jester, pointing to the hypocrisies and contradictions implicit in whatever context he finds himself. His over-sized basketball hoops, exquisitely adorned with bottle caps in mock-Islamic designs, become blistering critiques of black youths’ obsession with financial success through sports stardom as the admonitory title, Higher Goals (1986), comes into focus. Equally critical of their white counterparts, Hammons caused a public relations scandal in 1993 with his pranksterish send-up of the preppy tastes of Williams College’s student body - a mundane looking boulder topped with broken ventilators, set in the middle of the school’s main lawn entitled Rock Fan. In a sardonic homage to that generation’s parents, Hammons had already draped a Venus de Milo with fake Louis Vuitton bags and re-baptised her as Bag Lady, lampooning the consumerist style of aesthetic reception at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Finally his balloon-festooned barricading of a reproduction of a Teddy Roosevelt monument flanked by a docile Indian and a black servant, aptly dubbed Public Enemy (1991), forced the social contradictions implicit in his own presence in a Museum of Modern Art out into the open. Hammons refused to be dislocated for the ‘Dislocations’ show - instead, he relocated and subverted the racist pomp in both the monument he appropriated and the paternalist attitudes of the mainstream multiculturalist policies that affect him.
As Hammons’ work in particular and black American contemporary art in general have gained international recognition in the past decade, critical interpretations of the artist’s work have begun to include more attention to the cultural specificity of his practice, rather than assuming that his content is black while his method comes largely from Duchamp and Arte Povera. While the ‘authenticity’ of his expression has often ridden on his ‘location’ - that is, his history of operating out of Harlem - and on his material referencing of black culture, it has nonetheless been the artworks that have evoked an inter- and intra-ethnic struggle over recognisable political icons and have facilitated Hammons’ ‘crossing-over’, garnering him national notoriety. The most recent upsurge in his popularity began in 1988 with a public-art scandal involving his piece, How Ya Like Me Now?. Hammons’ billboard of a blond, pale-faced Jesse Jackson incurred the wrath of a group of Washington D.C. youths, whose response to the artist’s wry appraisal of the black political leader was to bludgeon it with sledgehammers.
Nearly two decades earlier, at the beginning of his career, his body prints incorporating the American flag and allusions to black unrest in the late 60s and early 70s, thrust Hammons into the art scene in Los Angeles, where he then lived. At the time, the artist was somewhat unsure about the implications of achieving commercial success through the representation of such events as the binding and gagging of Black Panther Bobby Seale during the Chicago Eight trial, works such as Injustice Case (1973) (whose title carries Hammons’ signature word play) are singularly powerful renderings of the frustration, rage and scepticism about unfulfilled promises in black communities during the period just after the Civil Rights movement. Hammons has continued to work with flags since that time, recolouring the American banner to remake it as an African-American hybrid, and sometimes hanging it outside his exhibitions to demarcate a black symbolic and geo-political territory.
Signifyin’s primary purpose, Henry Louis Gate asserts, is to redress the balance of power between white and black cultures through the recasting of an imposed nomenclature. Throughout his career, Hammons has deployed those signifyin’ strategies to straddle two worlds. His visual experiments with ‘non-traditional’ materials are much more than simple formal gestures, for he strategically chooses the detritus with which he works to evoke aspects, attitudes and sensibilities of black American culture. His work is an absolutely critical bridge that links the radical populism of the late 30s and 60s, which influenced his earlier development as a black artist, the experimental vocabularies of the 70s, and the resurgence of interest in vernacular culture in the 80s and 90s. More than a sophisticated junk dealer, Hammons sifts through our society’s waste to show us just how powerfully it can speak to the unfinished business of troubled race relations in America, which continues to irk us as we approach the millennium.
1. Henry Louis Gates Jr., ‘The Signifyin’ Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism’, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988
2. Kellie Jones, ‘The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic’ in David Hammons: ‘Rousing the Rubble’, New York: The Institute of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991, p.24
‘The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.’ - W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk 1961
Welcome to the day after the end of the history of the American Negro. The work of David Hammons pushes the notion of black Art in a way that few Amerikkkan artists have dared. In doing so he manages to challenge the virility of art endorsed by white supremacy, including his own. No one ever said the ongoing cultural wars would be pretty, but Hammons’ brilliance lies in his ability to play the game from all sides. The options previously exercised by most black artists in Amerikkka have been the ‘New Negro’ mode, pioneered by the likes of 19th century realist, Edward Bannister; ‘Black Protest Art’, flirted with by Jacob Lawrence; and the present day ‘Virtual Nation’.
The ‘New Negro’ mode of black expression has survived the longest. From poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to novelist Jessie Fausset to Michael Jackson, black artists who work in this way seem to do nothing more than say to white people, ‘Hey, I’m OK’. ‘Black Protest Art’ started with the Harlem ‘Renaissance’ and gained full momentum after the 60s, turning the New Negro poet LeRoi Jones into the revolutionary wordsmith Amiri Baraka. However, as Cornel West states in Keeping Faith, ‘The irony of the view of black art as protest - as description of the inhumane circumstances of much of black life and as a heartfelt resistance to these circumstances - is that it is still preoccupied with the white normative gaze, and it reduces black people to mere reactors to white power.’ How is the 21st century black artist supposed to deal with this conundrum? Enter the Virtual Nation Builders, including poet Paul Beatty, early Funkadelic and almighty Sun Ra. Here we find artists who envelop languages of blackness which are mostly unco-optable (even by the most well-versed of wiggers) and ignore, whilst always remaining aware of, the subjugating power of that aforementioned white gaze.
Truthfully, most artists tend to straddle all three of these modes. It is when the fault lines of gender, class and sexual identity are probed that the fractures in the black communities begin to arise. Black feminist artists such as filmmaker Julie Dash, artist Lorna Simpson and vocalist/composer Cassandra Wilson have (by no means exclusively) fused a healing spirituality with an aura of nationalist identity. Black queer artists like poet Audre Lorde, photographer Lyle Ashton Harris and choreographer Bill T. Jones have championed the language of black protest in their works.
The work of David Hammons enters these lively and raucous dialogues through every door. His body prints of the late 60s and early 70s subverted the didactic elements of protest art by taunting the viewer/voyeur with identity politics whilst simultaneously pursuing a very real aesthetic agenda - the Beauty Thing is rarely absent in a Hammons piece. 1990’s Cigarette Holders presented burning cigarettes whose smoke trails mimicked both the thin wires to which they were attached and the shadows of the wires. Hammons is the master of ephemera. Pity the museum or SoHo intern running back and forth with lit cigarettes, or the conservationist who must preserve grease on a paper bag of fried chicken wings attached to a Persian rug. In the infamous Whose Ice is Colder? (1990) the artist uses blocks of ice as a metaphor for cultural dissipation and asks its title question of the gallery system as a whole. (That unfortunate gallerina is now running around with a mop.) But Hammons’ use of the evanescent has a far broader agenda than similar attempts by earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Richard Tuttle who utilised materials to challenge elitist conceptions of what constitutes a work of art. In fact, Hammons’ agenda has more in common with Joseph Beuys; a mound of elephant shit exudes the same humour as a chunk of fat, though the shit has a sharper bite to it.
At times, Hammons’ work verges on the brink of macho swagger before pirouetting away to more humanistic overtones. Some of the recent work, pondering female iconography, emphasises this dichotomy with allusions to sexuality and family. Six Sisters (1993) presents six slips in a sliding musical scale begging the viewer to re-examine the male gaze. The sensual Kimono with Confirmation Portrait (1994), at Sara Penn’s Knobkerry afro-kitsch shop, flirts dangerously with Orientalism, pressing the buttons of heritage and identity. When the kimono is parted the viewer once again becomes a voyeur: an anonymous family photo, placed at crotch-level, peeks out from its curtain-like frame.
The battle cry of cultural appropriation is rarely, I’ll even venture to say never, invoked when dealing with the works of African-American artists. Hammons liberally peppers his work with African sculpture and motifs, but the kimonos are a recent addition to his vocabulary. While many would not hesitate, and rightly so, to scream bloody murder if a white artist were to use materials and objects which were not strictly culturally autobiographical, Hammons’ evasion of the strict confines of multiculti territoriality is due both to the racism inherent in even the most liberal of critiquing but also to the artist’s nimble handling of images. Whereas John Ahearn or Fred Wilson, for example, will put the other on a platform to champion the marginalised, one gets the feeling that the guilt of privilege is also furtively on display. At the American Academy in Rome, Hammons set up a circular tent (reminiscent of both Native American architecture and the hippie cannibalisation of that architecture) which housed a fountain. As opposed to a cherub with a horn of plenty endlessly spurting water, Hammons utilises an African mask whose mouth serves as the source of the flow. In a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art installation, African stools and benches sit in a room repainted with a mock tenement wallpaper silently awaiting trans-cultural visitations. Hammons’ installations utilise Africanisms without reducing them to a maudlin kitsch or disavowing their function as source material. Besides engulfing us in the Beauty Thing, all Hammons’ work in this vein manages both to elevate the way in which African art is seen and to point to the continua one encounters from Africa to African America.
It is here that the comprehensive debate over what survived the Middle Passage is revivified in such a way that the critical response has yet to catch up. Cultural critic Michele Wallace has noted that, ‘black criticism was blocked from the discussions of Modernism, which are defined as exclusively white by an intricate and insidious co-operation of art galleries, museums and academic art history…At this juncture one is compelled to ask “Is multiculturalism, as it is being institutionally defined, occupying the same space as ‘primitivism’ in relationship to Postmodernism?”’ In other words, who is controlling the debate? Peter Schjeldahl when writing on the art of Jacob Lawrence stated, ‘Visual art may be the obdurately white and upper-middle class field of our culture. I have a notion why. Art objects are tailored for physical spaces owned or controlled by the social elite. To make appropriate objects for or even (or especially) against the spaces takes even more than talent and more than technical know-how. It takes intimate familiarity with those rooms where art enters history.’ Of course, critics also have a role to play as gatekeepers of history, and Schjeldahl is sly to entirely shift this responsibility to the museum.
In fact, many artists, Hammons amongst them, are refusing to support structures that serve to reinforce the status quo, and black art is still being denied the critical reckoning that it has developed outside of the scope of the white gaze. Hammons’ Africanistic kimonos, for instance, while not entirely devoid of male gaze (much as the masks and other African elements are not entirely devoid of appropriation) are the cultural equivalent of Chitlin’ Foo Yung. The art establishment just does not have the tools to reckon with this.
Unfortunately, these schisms only add to the difficulty of finding that critical context. The marginalisation of the Black community has served to obfuscate black popular (currently very popular) criticism. It is too often the case, even in this piece, that the social context of the black artist’s work overshadows the artistic merits of that work. Even worse, the work will often be discussed outside of context. Some of Hammons’ work has been just too loud and obstinate to ignore this dilemma, like the much ballyhooed 1988 piece How Ya Like Me Now? where Hammons gave Jesse Jackson the whitewashing that the media often left to subtext. But it is the artist’s quieter works that are too often lost in the shuffle, and his own clouding of the avenues to his work has added to the elusiveness of his genius. A 1992 performance piece at a barber shop in Harlem, for instance, features poet John Farris getting a haircut while Hammons brings in an oval-shaped, head-sized rock with an Afro wig glued on to it be shaved concurrently. Hammons has stated that the Afro is an essence of Africanisms, and in Spiderweb (1992) hair is attached to large wires, leaves a dusting of blackness over the floor. These hair pieces evoke a complete emotional panoply. For instance, at the Loisaida home of Dr. Steven Cannon which houses the Tribes Gallery, Hammons has created a semi-permanent installation colliding his wire/hair motif with an abstract gold pattern painted on primary colour wallpaper. The piece remonstrates his long-standing friendship with Cannon. Hanging tenderly from the roller coasters of hair is the occasional crystal, twinkling with a kitschy incandescence.
At some point, Hammons stopped, or so he says, making the body prints. The artist’s continuous battle with his own ego must have been a factor. After all, when one develops a signature style, divergent paths arise. During the 80s the road taken by many artists was to become known for creating a visual style and milking it for a lot more than it was worth. The road less travelled is to develop that autograph and then drop it in order to invent an entire new language. The body prints, bottle caps, chicken wings, greasy bags and the hair are all fascinating words one utters when talking in Hammons. Especially the hair. While looking a little too closely at the Tribes Gallery installation I noticed a clump of hair with some reddish strands in it; occasionally one may also find some grey strands, prompting an allegory with the genetic cesspool we call the New World. If one of the most sublime powers of visual art is to expand upon the vagueness and vagrancies of the perceptible while appearing to make the imperceptible real, then Hammons is the key shaman of those powers.
Coco Fusco and Christian Haye
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