Visual Arts

Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer on Queer Feminist Abstraction

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Where does functionality come in? Hammond: It's interesting, because when you take materials or objects in a painting and you repurpose them from how the object was originally used, you can use them to call up those functions or to function in the same way or to intentionally not. I would have to say that I've done both. The weaving references function that way.

Latimer: But you're thinking in the other way? You mean, what's the utility? Are you hung up on that?

Thinking about this collision or perversion of abstraction, I think my question--

Hammond: That it becomes non-functional.

Yes. Or only function in an artistic way. It's not a pragmatic, utilitarian thing I can wear or drink from.

Hammond: I don't think about that so much, but it's in there, it's in there, at least conceptually. Latimer: It drags the idea into a place where the idea has been excluded.

Hammond: Right. I agree. I had a show recently where I had some paintings that were mixed-media, earlier works, and there were just things in there like buckets hung on paintings. The buckets were rusted out, totally dysfunctional. I was putting really dysfunctional elements in the works.

Latimer: Functional dysfunctional elements.

Hammond: Yeah. It's functional in the painting. Like you're saying, where there is something being hidden or being revealed, the hidden thing becomes part of the overt meaning. It's that same thing again. And just really rusted out, dysfunctional buckets, early bag pieces, they didn't function as bags. You couldn't wear them. You couldn't use them. You couldn't carry things in them. The rug paintings on the floor -- they referenced rugs, but you can't use them as rugs. There is definitely something in there. I don't think about it a lot, but it goes on in there.

Westword interviewed Catherine Opie recently. She spoke about how her art has shifted from representation toward abstraction and attributes this to a diminished political urgency between the AIDS crisis and the present. Because your work has been dealing with abstraction for so long, I wonder where you are on all of this. Where's queer identity and theory going? Is it dissipating? Is it failing as a project? Has it become assimilated into mainstream culture? Is there urgency still? Latimer: I want to make a couple observations inspired by a few of the key words you threw out there. One is that political urgency takes different forms. We're obviously not in a less urgent space today than we were in the '90s as humans. And yet, maybe the utility, strategically, of identity politics, as it was useful in the '90s, is changing.

But one of the things that you said about having failed or something failing, I think is really interesting to think of in terms of queer politics and queer strategies today. Speaking to your point of dysfunction, the significance of failure and acknowledging failure and using failure is in [Judith] Butler's theories of performativity -- the failed performance of something that can illuminate a construct that's been so naturalized as to not be available for questioning or intervention in terms of identity, in terms of relationality, in terms of capitalism, in terms of the exploitation of planetary resources. There is that insistence on bringing failure into focus and not as a shameful proposition but as a pedagogical proposition.

I think of things that are not failed, in terms of a good hostess, in a way, that the effort is all concealed and it all seems so natural and happy. The felicitous painting, where everything just kind of works, where all the sweat and the agony of it is completely masked, to open those discourses up and to show what's going on behind the scenes is something that failure can do.

Strategically, politically and culturally, failure has been a really important concept for the last ten years in queer communities and queer cultural initiatives.

Hammond: Well, it's shifted away from representation. It's become more complex, layered and interesting than all of that.

Latimer: It's not about who your object choice is or your gender performance, given the usual array of rather limited choices...

Hammond: ...stereotyped choices.

Latimer: That whole thing of kind of opening that up and failing to conform to any of it quite comfortably is a really important thing.

Hammond: Which is one of the things you'll see in the catalog. I have what I've written as a sort of manifesto of monochrome. One of the things that I write in it is that I think about how the surface and the colors perform.

You can't say these paintings are overtly feminist or overtly queer in the coded ways we were referring to about queer paintings during the queer renaissance dealing with representation and queer identity. These paintings don't do that. But, we can say they perform queerly. That's the interesting shift for me, but that's for me. I'm the artist. That's the more intellectual space that I move in or I think in. It's really how I think about things.

Latimer: It's not an iconography. It's a way of being or a way of working.

Hammond: Yeah. I don't know if that's time based or not, but for many of us it's gotten much more complex and layered and interesting and beyond...There is a point where representation may have a real political urgency to it at a certain time.

Latimer: Absolutely. Hammond: But we're not there right now.

Latimer: As soon as you say something like that, of course, both of us are thinking, well, "Who's we? And who's we, where and when?" Of course, it's all very uneven.

Hammond: And we like that.

Latimer: Not having any judgment or trying to make it into a progress narrative constantly, but yes, representation, when you're talking about what's going on in Africa and not being heterosexual, representation or being able to see something or some mode of relation that you can relate to and that takes you outside of that system of judgment and condemnation is huge. It's all good. But it's the universal expansion.

Hammond: The conversation gets bigger and richer, I think.

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