Carmen & the Bull woodcut by Tom Hammick
On the eve of his new show Out of Opera at the Art Stable
(opens 27 Feb) in Child Okeford Tom Hammick talks to Country Calling
Much of the work in your forthcoming exhibition Out of Opera has been inspired by your year long residence at the ENO. Could you tell us a little about that experience and how it affected the way that you work?I was very much out of my comfort zone on this wonderful residency. Usually in the process of making work, my paintings and prints come from places that are less specific and more nebulous; combinations of germs of ideas conjured by poems and novels, films, and drawings made from everyday life, and images I pick up from the media. But here I was plonked in an incredibly sophisticated ark of a building where everything was made and driven towards interpreting a particular opera. Although these creative collaborations were richly inventive, they obviously always stuck to the matrix of a score and libretto, so I had to find a way of being truthful to each production without illustrating it.
I ended up, after a trial period of being behind the scenes recording what was going on, being not so interested in the way an opera was built in the minutiae of its parts. This did seem limiting for me personally. I found instead that by drawing during each performance I could hone in on scenes and passages of music and singing that especially moved me. And from these narratives I got to imagining stories around each opera. My imagination took me to scenes that were either hinted at or had to have happened off stage so to speak, in order for me to make sense of the narrative presented to us. So I became quite obsessed by character, what she did, what he did, what she felt, why he embarked on a decision that would turn the opera dramatically on its head. Many of the paintings and prints that I made became scenes in their own right that were never represented in a production. It’s a bit like the way a short story can give you a slice of life that acts as a metaphor for a whole relationship. Well this was what got me excited as far as how I could go about working.The images in this latest show have an extraordinary, expressionistic intensity of colour. You've described the process as being a synesthetic experience this time, could you tell us a bit more about that?
Well, as a painter, I can’t tackle the tingle factor of music. Visual art is way down the sensory pecking order. What I could do was use colour expressionistically to try and create a visual equivalent to the heightened drama being played and sung out. I came to some pretty intense colour combinations within each image that I hope in some way allude to character, and to the circumstances my chosen protagonists found themselves in. I think my brain and heart have always had a strong link to the crossover language of synesthesia and this way of working made sense to me. So using simple figure and ground relationships as a hanger for colour relationships that I could literally taste in my mouth or hear was a way forward for me.
Remembered Present 1 woodcut by Tom Hammick, below
Julian Bell, who has written a book about you (Tom Hammick: Wall, Window, World) has described your work as being linked to the Romantic painting tradition of 2 centuries ago and at the same time highly reflective of modern culture, films, literature, the news etc. Has the Romantic era been a significant influence for you and which artists do you identify with most?
Wow, what a question! I am a romantic, still quite uncool in this day and age. I can’t get away from this. What romanticism does for me is link the way we live, what we yearn for, where we are from, where we might be going, concerns about what it is like to be human- to a sense of wonderment living in a world that is still beautiful, despite the state we’re in becoming more and more dystopian because of our disregard for living a simple life. We have become so greedy, and have moved so far from what I feel is key to a good life on Earth that all I can do is try and hold onto the way I want to live. There is a whole cannon of artists and writers who have linked their lives to observations of nature and animals and objects, from the cooler gaze of the great poet Elizabeth Bishop, the writings of Henry Thoreau, to the majestic paintings of Casper David Friedrich, Nolde, Munch. even Pete Doig. These are some of my heroes.
Could you describe how a work comes into being, is it a gradual process fed by the imagination or do you have a strong image in mind before you begin?
Well since ENO things have changed. I am hot wired more into an image now. Something from memory, an image I steal from somewhere else that I use because I have an idea I need to explore. It is faster, much more of a roller coaster journey from image in my head which serves as a metaphor for the idea, to finished painting or Woodcut or etching. Drawings still help hugely on the way… its just less touchy feely now. Perhaps this is a sign of getting older, I am going back to the way I made pictures with urgency… the way I did when I was a young student trying to paint in Art School.
Above Violetta & Alfredo's Retreat etching
Would you describe for us the inspiration behind one of the images from your forthcoming show?
In the etching and woodcut of Violetta and Alfredo (see below), you see them escaping in a little boat on the water in front of and below a 60’s span house, I wanted to allude to a life they nearly managed to live. The house is their domestic bliss they held onto for a short time before it was denied to them by Alfredo’s father, who was so bourgeois that he couldn't cope with Alfredo being in love with a courtesan, despite the true love they obviously held for each other. So in this image I wanted to make something more positive, of them escaping from this ghastly double standard society, something they perhaps could do now? Im not sure, but definitely artists live like this, but in the process artists need to be surrounded by artists and not be too linked to money and all the conventions of society that are so strong at binding us together. I hope this image is more than fantasy. I hope in my heart that we can live like this now, and escape out of the high pitched buzz of a class ridden environment. But the blossom of the trees, (based on a print by the Great Hiroshige) are weeping, so perhaps they are not going to make it? I hope his outboard is powerful enough to push against the current!
Below Violetta & Alfredo's Escape woodcut by Tom Hammick