Visual Arts

Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer on Queer Feminist Abstraction

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Hammond: What Tirza has done is juxtapose two bodies of work in a conversation with each other. That's the bracketing kind of thing. We don't have everything in between like in a survey. And the weave paintings, which are from '74-'77 here, were shown in New York when they were made. They were shown and reviewed and talked about. And then they were wrapped up in plastic in the studio.

The work that I became known for over time was the work with fabric and so forth. That became the kind of work that people associated me with, even though in the middle of working with fabric, I made paintings that represented traditions of fabric -- but they were paintings. And that was very important. Because of that, they didn't, over the years, fit the easy stereotype of what constituted "feminist art."

And so feminist art has either continued to be made of fabric -- hanging up your grandmother's wedding dress or something like that -- or representational work, work that's very symbolic.

Latimer: And iconography-rich.

Hammond: Very feminist, coded iconography that is stereotyped. And the weave paintings don't do either of those. They are very conceptual in a certain sense. They take a little time. They're not an easy or fast read. You can't go in and go, "Oh, that's feminist art," and walk out the door. You might walk out the door, but it's not because it's feminist art.

Latimer: Or you might look at it and appreciate it formally and not ever have a feminist read at all. That's also part of it.

Hammond: So it's not a type of work that has a very coded, stereotyped, feminist iconography. In the interim time period, there were shows, but there wasn't anybody thinking or writing about the work, and that's what's new.

Latimer: I want to say too about that bracketing, one thing that this does is kind of mess with a narrative that's a progress narrative in the history of art and the history of modernism and the history of abstraction that goes: "Art moved in the modern era from representation toward abstraction and toward pure abstraction." Often, careers are looked at in that way -- often quite falsely.

To look at Harmony's work, none of which is figurative per se...

Hammond: There are a few figurative elements.

Latimer: There are a few. But to look at it as moving away from a kind of biomorphism toward a pure abstraction; I mean, this kind of shows it's all abstract. All art's abstract. Hammond: I literally came of age as an emerging artist in the late '60s-early '70s. That [abstraction] was very much in the air. I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. I mean, my teachers were second-generation abstract-expressionist painters. So, you know, I think in terms of paint and abstraction, for better or worse. But this show has given renewed attention on this body of paintings from the '70s that come from certain kinds of feminist sources.

Because of this reemergence of feminist interest in abstract painting as well, there is a renewed interest in these paintings. This show is responding to that as well.

There is new critical writing on the work that hasn't been there. There has been a ton of writing on my other work, but not this body because it requires a different kind of time looking and thinking. And this was a perfect juxtaposition, because as we were saying in the beginning, so often artists who have worked for a long time, you're used to asking the same questions. The same issues are there. Part of looking at the weave paintings from the mid-'70s is that many of the issues are still going on in the large paintings.

Latimer: That's part of the idea of this show: The becoming and unbecoming of monochromism as a genre, the becoming of each of these works of art, the importance of process, the work disclosing and in some cases concealing and disclosing the process of its making but also the larger cultural productive context that goes way beyond some sort of narrow idea of what art is and its putative autonomy.

Can you unpack that?

Latimer: I guess the still dominant narrative about abstract Euro-American painting owes a debt primarily to the formalists like Clement Greenberg and the championing of an idea about each discipline becoming purely itself. That was the logic -- the evolutionary logic of modern art. Art is moving toward its purist form, its pure materiality, to painting flat uniform color so the monochrome being the perfect end logic, with no reference outside to: "What is a body?"

It wasn't expressive. It had no psychology. It existed on its own terms and that was its purity according to this one line of influential thinking that obviously has always been highly contested.

But the way that we learn to think about art and to make art in our professional silos as art historians and artists has been very shaped by that narrative. That narrative has been incredibly naturalized: That's evolution; it's almost science.

So becoming monochrome, according to that narrative -- Clement Greenberg's narrative -- is all about purity and autonomy and not about the world and the artist having any kind of visible relationship or encroaching into that pure field of painting.

Hammond: Even fissure or friction.

Latimer: Nothing to sully, with the mundane or the human, that perfect field of color. That's the logic of monochrome that Harmony's work brings into a kind of productive debate about, "What does that narrative cover?"

I mean, why are we accepting this as a truth when in fact the world is involved in the production of everything and participates in a conversation with viewers and with makers? It's a negotiation that includes all kinds of other cultural traditions that are even more fundamental than that of Western painting since the Renaissance, such as the rugs that we walk on, the woven materials with which we wrap ourselves in and all of the textures and colors that have shaped our memories and sensibilities, even things that are very subliminal and have been, in a certain sense, suppressed and demoted in visual and cultural history: Those are just utilitarian objects; those are baskets; those are rugs you can walk on.

So, to bring that back into the field of vision and the field of painting, because those things and those traditions are related and to revalue them because...

Hammond: ...because who were the makers?

Latimer: Because part of humanity that has been getting the short end of the stick value-wise for a long time -- women -- have this historical relationship with craft and that non-coincidence of the relative devaluation of craft and the valuation of fine art, that schism, that binary that reinforces male-female binaries. So bringing those things into the foreground...

Hammond: ...I'm merging them or making them less separate.

Latimer: I feel like I can move back and forth. There is a lineage of painting that we were talking about before. We are reclaiming a history of painting that is outside Clement Greenberg's boxes and white cubes.

Read on for more from Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris