For this edition of Fan Mail, Matt Hamon of Missoula, MT has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.
Potomac, Montana, created where Matt Hamon currently lives near the Blackfoot River, is part of his en plain air series. Done on site like many painters past who seek to capture the essence of place, the work takes on wider reference to human manipulation of the landscape. Hamon says: “I consider drawings and paintings to be records of a performed relationship with a subject….Much of my interest is in expanding what that record might suggest or contain. Once finished, the large paintings are cut at random into pieces of varying size. By assembling the resulting pieces in piles, stacks, and sometimes as individual paintings, they evoke disorientation, reference abstraction, and re-present the landscape.”
Lucy Lippard says in her book, The Lure of the Local, that landscape is always shaped by its inhabitants, and in art, an idea of the landscape is formed through the act of framing, rendering, or interpreting. She tells us that “British geographer Denis Cosgrove defines landscape as ‘the external world mediated through human subjective experience.'” She continues: “The word landscape originated in the German fifteenth-century term landscaft–a shaped land, a cluster of temporary dwellings or more permanent houses, the antithesis of the wilderness surrounding it, according to John Stilgoe…Today the word is commonly conflated with place, nature, view, scenery, and has radiated out into any number of meanings from the popular pretty rural scene to a complex social construction or produced space.”
Hamon says he is influenced by Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura”, the sense of uniqueness or originality about a piece of art. Benjamin tells us “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” but what has been spawned is a type of art which is made to be reproducible and has no original, such as photography, cinema, and text. Viewing an artist’s website (as I do often in writing this column), we are faced with a reproduction. There is a diminished view of the art (especially sculpture), but an opportunity to explain and curate ideas and a greater potential for public viewing than the traditional gallery setting.
Reproduction allows for a mass cultural experiences. New media allows for new kinds of perception. Similar to the idea of withering aura, Lippard sees the reproduction of a landscape as inferior to the original. “I personally get a lot of pleasure from looking at landscape paintings, though not as much as from landscapes themselves; a painting, no matter how wonderful, is an object in itself, separate format the place it depicts.” Hamon has a similar boredom: “I love the process of landscape painting as a way of interacting with a place. However, landscape paintings as images don’t interest me so much. The solution was to deconstruct them and reformat them. It’s amazing what a table saw can do for one’s work!”
About his construction of an oil rig on a strangely verdant land, Hamon says, “Regarding After Albert Bierstadt’s Deer in a Clearing, Bierstadt was a member of the Hudson River School, an informal association of painters who promoted westward expansion through their sublime and luminous images that idealized the American west via hyperbolic light, color, and scale. After Albert Bierstadt’s, Deer in a Clearing, is a playful and somewhat sardonic response to this late 19th century painting.”
Landscape paintings often harken traditional values – a view of man and nature in harmony – or perhaps a lost eden, or maybe the landscape embodying an expressive mental state (infiltrating the ambivalence of nature). Today, in an era of mass reproduction, uniqueness of place and landscape are often obscured by malls or mickeydees, asphalt, or industry.
“Though Benjamin was likely arguing in favor of this democratization of images and objects, I personally lament the loss of this aura in visual art,” Hamon says. By using mass produced objects in his Beneath series, and layering icons of mass consciousness, Hamon has brought back the sense of aura, making a unique object out of reproductions. The objects present a narrative by engaging them in a new way in physical space. Benjamin tells us that this loss of aura is useful: “The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” and by allowing the “beholder or listener” to meet the reproduction in his/her own context, there is a “shattering of tradition” which allows for a “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage”. Hamon engages in this shattering when evokes history and heritage in a work such as Four hundred eighty-five years of U.S. History.
“Four hundred eighty-five years of U.S. History is a reference to the first (failed) colonies near what is now South Carolina. Above the two “Native American” figures is a somewhat banal scene with a woman mowing a pristine lawn at the border of an arid space. The home is illuminated by a television playing the sequence What Makes the Red Man Red from Disney’s Peter Pan. I recently purchased these two caricatures of a Native American boy and girl at a national home improvement retailer. It is abhorrent that such figures which caricaturize, exotify, and reduce marginalized cultures continue to be produced and collected.” The power of the miniature is that it distills details to the most essential elements, and like a liquor or stew, it renders into a more potent version.
The iconography of the west is shown ballooned up in the ceramic figures, hidden basis of the modern landscape. The underground reflection of the above civilization shows us artifacts of place and time. Often history can be wiped away when creating new structures, and the total change of the landscape can be the result of innovation and progress. This narrative of the destroyed, covered, or hidden landscape is evident in Hamon’s en plein air paintings too.
On a drive through Montana, you can see a huge open pit mine when going through Butte. Through Washington state, often memorialized in murals is the wealth that logging has brought and continues to bring. A sense of loss permeates the “post-rural” collective that Hamon’s art is part of. Edgar Smith, another collective member says that “Exploited, ravaged expanses can loom just behind a ridge from pristine peaks and prairies.” His works present a “response to public vs. private land issues in the Northwest. The paintings and wall constructions focus specifically on the Clark Fork River drainage in Montana, from Silver Bow Creek and Butte, to areas just west of the Missoula valley.”
Hamon describes the process of the “post-rural” collective as “the experience of coming of age in remote, rural areas of the country and later contextualizing these experiences in the narrative content of contemporary art.” A play on the idea on the illusive concept of post-modernism, Hamon and his friend joked that they were “more post-rural than anything else.”
“We were laughing at our “redneck” backgrounds and how authentically belonging to (or emerging from) a rural environment was likely creating a lens through which we viewed education, the zeitgeist, and the metropolis…. This was at a time (early 2000s) when it seemed deer antlers (images or otherwise) were ubiquitous in west-coast, contemporary art. Of course, antlers easily become kitsch as soon as you remove them from a rural domestic space.”
Lippard sees the role of artists as “envisionaries” who “should be able to provide a way to work against the dominant culture’s rapacious view of nature, reinstate the mythical and cultural dimensions of “public” experience, and at the same time become conscious of the ideological relationships and historical constructions of place. The dialectic between place and change can provide the kind of no-one’s-land where artists thrive.”
A sense of place is the feeling that contrasts locations with each other. Lippard differentiates place (understood from the inside, being there) from landscape (seen from the outside, looking at it). As we ask where we belong in the world, we search for unique features or flourishing culture that appeals to our own identity. There is limited bombardment and a quietude that allows for a vast expanse of fantasy and curiosity in a rural environment. But, there is an isolation from a wider social group in the country. Our cities can be thriving places because of their inhabitants. Lippard tells us that neither nature or culture are deterministic in forming human identity, yet nature, culture, and our concept of self all inform each other and are not separate from each other.
Describing his rural upbringing, Hamon says: “I grew up in Igo (population 600 at most and down the road from Ono and Ogo)… a small, remote town in Northern California. A sense of place informed by wandering the woods as a child” inspired his enquiry into a variety of media including painting, drawing, sculpture, and video. Matt teaches in the School of Art at the University of Montana in Missoula and is a featured artist in Scott Ligon’s forthcoming book from Watson-Guptil/Random House, Digital Art Revolution.