Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer on Queer Feminist Abstraction
Art naturally evolved from representation (pictures of things) toward abstraction, argued modernist art critic Clement Greenberg and his fellow formalists. Portraiture and landscape painting be damned: In pure art, paintings do nothing but express their essence as painting. But in the 1960s, painting about painting fell out of style and new forms emerged, feminism and queer art included. Both relied heavily on representation, pop cultural symbols, performance and text to explore political and social issues involving gender and sexuality.
Harmony Hammond, Suture Harmony Hammond has been pushing the limits of abstract painting since the late 1960s.
Feminist artist, activist, educator and writer Harmony Hammond has been a queer amongst queers, staying committed to abstract painting from the late 1960s into the present despite the reemergence of symbol-rich art. Her career is the subject of the show Becoming/Unbecoming Monochrome at RedLine, which looks at her weave paintings from the 1970s and puts them in dialogue with some of her current, large-scale works.
See also: Catherine Opie Talks Selfies, AIDS and Her Shift from Representation to Abstraction
At first glance, viewers might not notice the queer and feminist politics of her art; they could confuse Hammond with any run-of-the-mill abstract expressionist committed to the purity of the medium. But according to Hammond and the show's curator, Tirza True Latimer, those viewers would be very wrong.
To learn more about Hammond's work and the exhibit at RedLine, Westword spoke with the artist and Latimer.
Westword: Talk about your career as an artist.
Tirza True Latimer: In my essay in the catalog, I talk about Harmony's beginning in activism as a feminist and queer feminist and her involvement in the '70s founding A.I.R. Gallery [Artists In Residence], and also as a cofounder of Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, and her curatorial initiative on the first lesbian show in SOHO, and later accomplishments in the curatorial realm advocating for queer and feminist artists, and the editing of Lesbian Art in America.
All of those activities run parallel to her career as a teacher and a maker of art that seems to address feminist and queer concerns in biomorphic ways and thematic ways, such as her early weave paintings that look like braided rugs. You can kind of think, "Ah," and quickly go to the place where you're looking at handcraft. You're looking at horizontal rather than vertical. You're looking at something that's in life, that's used, that's stepped on, not something that's in the pristine, sacrosanct space of the gallery and thinking of all the politics of all that.
Who makes this and who makes that and what's the relationship of those things to each other? You can kind of get to the feminist content and some of the queer work by color and form and pairings of like but not identical things that might complicate the notion of a kind of a necessary male-female complementarity in pairings.
The working in twos, the exploration of difference and equality formally, those thematics have been generating new interest in recent years because of a whole new generation of feminists coming out of a period o, "Oh, we really accomplished all that" and post-feminism.
Younger people are realizing that the discourse has changed and their actual material realities in the world -- in terms of very resistant biases that are gender-based and sex-based -- that those things, no, they haven't been resolved. This is still a project and requires not only vigilance for protecting some of the legal incursions against prejudice that our generation actually made. Abortion rights, for example, are constantly coming up for review. There are the job discrimination issues. The whole gay marriage debacle, really, and its high points as well have brought feminism back into the forefront of the political consciousness in a new generation.
The work that Harmony did in the '70s really has a new audience now, and it's been circulating in these exhibitions like the WACK! [Art and the Feminist Revolution] exhibition.
Harmony Hammond: It's like a new generation of feminists.
Latimer: We went through the terrible '80s.
Hammond: It's a new public.
Latimer: There is a new public and a new group of artists...
Hammond: ...that are ready.
Latimer: They know that history...
Hammond: ...the DIY...
Latimer: ...the queer craft movement.
Hammond: They know that history. They embrace it. And they move on.
Latimer: They are looking at Harmony as a resource and a mentor and an example. This work is in circulation. It has been reproduced. It has been shown again. That's fantastic. But the downside of that is the downside for any artist who has had a long career of being periodized and being known for a specific kind of work that was done in a specific mode in a specific context and who has continued to work and has continued to evolve.
Harmony: It's really what most artists do.
Latimer: What we wanted to do here was to put some of the less explicitly feminist, but no less feminist and less explicitly queer work from the '70s in conversation with more recent work to kind of not do a retrospective or a survey -- which is a necessary thing that must happen, but wasn't our ambition -- but to kind of bracket, in a certain way, this fuller career and these longer conversations about politics and abstraction and feminism and painting.
Read on for more from Harmony Hammond and Tirza True Latimer.