David Hammons, Jan. 18-Mar. 10, 2007, at L&M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
This February in New York is frigid but snow-free, which has me thinking about David Hammons, the 60-something New York artist who famously sold snowballs at Cooper Square in Manhattan in 1983. Hammons cast himself as a street vendor, offering his abstract and transitory "Pop Art" objects alongside other vendors with their fake bags and other wares. Titled Bliz-aard Ball Sale, the action perfectly encapsulates Hammons’ ability to give the Duchampian gesture a provocative ghetto resonance.
These days, audacious "conceptualist" art is commonplace in the international salons of the avant-garde. If this state of affairs upsets you, then "Hammons" at L&M Arts, an exhibition billed as "a collaboration between David and Chie Hammons," may not be your cup of tea. It is easy to dismiss these works as, well, "easy."
Hammons’ installation for L&M’s decorous Upper East Side townhouse is spare and restrained. In the first-floor gallery are five different fur coats, displayed on rather dilapidated old dressmaker forms and dramatically lit. When viewed from behind, each coat is revealed to have suffered rather vicious and specific sneak attacks. One coat bears the rainbow scars of spray paint, two others are molested with thick squirts of blue and oily brown-black, respectively. Yet another bears an unfortunate splotch of yellow paint.
Upstairs, Hammons seems to finish the job. A fur coat stands alone, majestically even, in the space at the top of the stairs. The back of this fur is blackened and charred, and a burnt scent lingers in the air.
It’s unclear whether these objects were made in the studio by Hammons (and his wife -- perhaps the coats are hers), or whether they were obtained from PETA, whose many animal-rights demonstrations have used similar props. (In any case, the artist has asked the gallery to refrain from giving out press images of the works, or information on the prices -- thus the illustrations here.)
Incisive and fierce, Hammons strikes with humor and clarity. It’s irresistibly delicious, this display of lavish but debased fur coats on shabby, dirty forms in a gallery space off Madison Avenue. While the imagery may be heavy-handed and even banal, it is remarkably apropos. If the famously elusive Hammons is going to be lured to Manhattan’s gold coast of retailing, it comes as no surprise that his work reflects the hidden side of mercantile consciousness. As PETA might point out, fur is dead.
Needless to say, Hammons is targeting the wealthy, who provide a large part of the patronage that fuels the art world. But he is also mocking a vapid culture of ostentatious display, a field that involves all of us. This kind of self-criticism, and the contradictions that arise from it, have long been central to the pretenses of vanguard art. Once again, the artist seems to be asking a question that is transcendently simple -- what side are you on? The guy has balls, and they aren’t made out of snow.
NATASHA ROJE is a critic and curator at a New York art gallery.