March 27 was the public presentation, albeit virtually, of the exhibition by the young, yet seasoned British artist Lewis Hammond with his first Italian institutional exhibition While We Were Sleeping at the Casa Masaccio in San Giovanni Valdarno, curated by Rita Selvaggio.
The fruit of over a year of work, research and reflection, this show is anchored firmly in dialogue with the history of painting. There is a dark apparition of the seclusion and mental instability that have marked this fluctuating period of lockdowns, re-openings, re-imaginings and social isolation that seems to shroud the psyche of the pieces comprising the exhibition, a sentiment in keeping with the oeuvre of the artist, whose work tangles with vivid interiorities and evocative externalizing. The clouds on the horizon may be just about to clear, or may just as well be approaching, as this exhibition wrestles with the legacy of the home of one of the most celebrated painters of Italian history.
We are welcomed by Drowner, taking in a mouthful of water and perhaps a last glimpse of the world above the murky rippled surface. Incapable of gasping for air or seemingly retreating to a fate as predetermined as it is skewed by perspective, what initially feels like the deformation of an aspect ratio places the viewer on the move, seeking the appropriate perspective before settling with the discomfort of an inability to step out of one’s positionality. Perhaps the drowning woman is generative of a predisposed positionality that is evident, yet stubborn to reveal itself. This painting by Lewis Hammond is indicative of an invitation posed by the exhibition While We Were Sleeping to ground ourselves in a metaphysical perspective that refuses to be defined by the same rules of geometric calculation that made famous the work of Masaccio, whose childhood home hosts the work. This sentiment saturates the space with a groggy dissonance of coming to the late realization of having missed something, or having been overtaken by something that was perhaps foreseeable. A Sankofian foresight informed and formed by the past, albeit aspirational in the way that vulnerabilities offer hope through heightened states of consciousness.
Unfolding from room to room, muted palettes, talismans, life distilled into layers of perception, veils and indeed glazes of oil paint speak to the interiorities of ritual. From trompe l’oeil to tableaux vivant, the nearly 20 paintings in the exhibition wed themselves with the intimacy of a space that is ostensibly further exposed in regards to its history as a domestic site through the works’ presence. A twisted satyr-like figure sits as the backdrop to a series of sharp objects that seem to adorn the surface of the painting, from which the title is drawn, like talismans that protect and disrupt the image itself. This grimacing figure, akin to the satyrs and nymphs at the feet of the oversized Neptune in Florence’s piazza della Signoria, is simultaneously trapped by the array of cutting tools, which vary from broken scissors to a combat knife, while also protected by them, or perhaps worshipped through them. Evocative of the tradition of ex-votos—the subject of the painting Untitled (Now Let Us Pray)—functioning as restful prayers, I am brought to a more geographically distant reference of two plantation desks by William Howard carved in the 1850s in Mississippi. The wooden surfaces of these antiques are covered with pictographs of field labor, tools that seem unaligned with the actual function of the elegantly carved desks. These pictographs position the value of the hand and trade of the maker alongside the process of being made, centering the maker rather than the intended user. Hammond’s works equally linger between the illusion offered by painting and the offering of the act of painting itself.
Figures who seem as aware as they are unperturbed by the viewer’s presence lure into the velvety tones of dimly lit spaces punctuated with natural elements in the form of stars, which undertake interpersonal constellations, hurricane clouds of annunciation, plant offerings and a beached mammal in a domestic interior. The intensity and resolve of contortions, double exposures and solitude are the keepers of what reads as undisclosed intimacy, positioning ourselves and with us the inhabitants of these worlds before or after the storm. Paolo Uccello’s flood scene in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella comes to mind, with its grey-washed figures trapped between fortified walls of earthen reds and the violent solace of water, as the narrations encrypted in these works remain similarly at arm’s length, implicit yet unpronounceable, or perhaps purposefully untenable in their illusions so as not to permit deciphering.
While We Were Sleeping. 2021. Oil on canvas. 160×120 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Missa
In his opening remarks about the exhibition, Hammond spoke of “an abundance of hope and desire for transformation,” which underwrites works whose unsettling queries about the psycho-spiritual dimension are as ancient as the human desire for art to be capable of invocation and intimation. This aspiration for hopefulness is counterbalanced by a fatigue of audience-less performativity and the elusive specter of legibility. This fatigue is intensified by unanswered invitations for accountability and a critical need for a reconsideration of what we can learn from the scent, surface and the visceral function of painting in a period plagued with screens, which exasperate social exchange and expand access, which remains impossible.
While We Were Sleeping is on view until June 5 at the Casa Masaccio in San Giovanni Valdarno. The show is curated by Rita Selvaggio, with the co-promotion of BHMF. www.casamasaccio.it/lewis-hammond-while-we-were-sleeping