Things Hollis Hammonds is Obsessed with:
1. Japanese Manga
2. Post Apocalyptic Narratives
3. Superhero Movies
4. Really Bad Action/Armageddon Films.
“I love seeing the explosions,” she says, leaning over the bar counter, peering around and smiling at me. Professor and chair of visual studies at St Edwards University in Austin, Texas: but with her black pageboy, smoke-colored glasses and clear gaze, Hollis Hammonds could be a character in one of her manga adventures.
A mad professor, an evil genius, doing what she can to reimagine the materialistic world.
In real life, Hammonds has 11 full-time faculty members, and “I don’t even know how many part-time members.” Although she teaches three classes a day and for a time also ran a gallery, she shows constantly. She’s had 10 solo shows all around the country just in the past two years. “I tend to be more productive in shorter blocks.”
We’re at Closed for Business on a steamy Sunday- on Mother’s Day, in fact, although as I write this, I realize I neglected to ask her if she has any children. (She doesn’t, although she does have a dog.)
“Can I get something really light and crisp?” she says. “I tend to like Chinese or Japanese beer.” The bartender amiably sets her up with a tulip of Hitachino. I order a Chocolate Rye Porter.
“I have a couple manifestations of the work,” she says. “Primarily, though, I draw. These piles, islands of objects.”
It started in April of 2011, when more than 200 tornadoes broke over the United States in a four day period. Watching coverage, Hammonds became interested in how “we, as viewers, are interested in the aftermath of both man-made and natural disasters.”
Also drawing on the aftermath of the house fire she experienced herself as a teenager, she began making charcoal sketches on white paper: “Dystopian, futuristic, kind of dark but seductive.”
“Destruction is seductive,” I say. “We’re drawn to what destroys us.” Chocolate rye, you’ll be the death of me.
So her work started as “documentation, homage. Of course, now I’ve turned it into this indulgent fascination with materialistic consumption. My father was born in the 1920s, my mother in the 1930s. So they hoarded everything. I mean, we had an entire room dedicated to plastic containers. They could not throw anything away.”
I’ve seen Hoarders. I asked if animal carcasses were ever found amidst the containers.
“That’s the defining line, isn’t it?” Hammonds said. “No, it never got that far. Before the house burned, though, my mother had a lot of collections. She had her mother’s things, her grandmother’s things. Old furniture, things like that. But it was after the fire that her desire to collect these things really intensified. She began to collect dolls, Lilliput houses. Trying to hang on to something, I guess.”
“You think collections are a way for people to try to comfort themselves?”
While Hammonds doesn’t have any collections herself, her husband, a graphic designer, does have “a collection of graphic design toys on this floating shelf.” She laughs. “He takes them down, rearranges them, everything. It’s so funny.”
She likes to do work that is endemic to place, and so she always sources her materials from the cities where she makes her installation. “I got this new studio two years ago, and I did start thinking it’d be great to have a space to collect things for installations.” She shook her head, smiling ruefully. “But we have this policy- it’s from Pinterest– anything comes in, something has to go out. We keep everything minimal and clean. Even artwork has to be approved.” She laughs again. “By my husband.”
What do her parents think of her art? “Maybe they’d feel a little… mocked, I don’t know.” But her parents are both deceased. They were each married and divorced prior to having Hammonds, and she has 11 half brothers and sisters, all ranging from 30 to 11 years older than her. She shrugs when I ask her what they think of her work.
“A lot of them really don’t know what’s going on in my life. One sister is a quilt artist. Recently she says to me, “couldn’t there be some leaves?” She sips her beer. “You know, I look at people like Anselm Kiefer. His work is very dark and also amazing. I don’t think my work is as dark as his, really, but it also ride that line of beauty and terror. My installations, because they are in physical space- the viewer experiences them with a sense of wonder. They’re visceral.”
I was curious if the house fire she experienced as a girl changed her immediately- or did its impact take a while to surface?
“Going through the process of losing everything as a teenager certainly informed my personality. I learned to not have emotional attachment to objects. I treat objects as a metaphor for the human condition but also self-worth. I’m interested in how collections can validate us societally, personally. And I’ve lost a lot of people, so I’ve also gone through the process of sorting through these… artifacts. I have this shoebox. With my father’s license, my mother’s birth certificate, trinkets like that. And I also have this box of old photographs. I’ll keep those until they’re lost.”
“It would be awful to throw away photographs. I always feel horrible when I see those boxes of old photographs for sale in antique stores. But I wonder if maybe that’s what it takes to move on as a society, philosophically- the destruction/abandonment of objects. Do you think objects might hold us back from progress?”
She shrugged. “Our search for power is consuming the world.” We were quiet a moment, looking around at the happy clutter of the bar. “I used to be a figurative artist,” she mused. “I was obsessed with it. But I’ve got to this stage in my work when I’m more fascinated with storytelling. I took the figure out completely. I use the things that are left behind to signify the figures. Chairs, you know. People’s things.”
“Keeping just the echo of the figure.”
“Yes. I had that passionate obsession with drawing figures,” she says, to the counter. “Not to say that it won’t come back, but I don’t have that anymore.”
We finish our beers and walk back to Redux. It’s locked up, according to a hand-drawn sign, “for all the Mothers in the world. Happy Mother’s Day!” Hammonds unlocks it, flips on the lights. The interior is blissfully cool and quiet. I hug her tightly and then leave her standing there, in an arena of people’s cast off things.
Come see what she’s made of them at the opening of Worthless Matter on May 16th. Artist talk at 5:30 pm.
Planning the installation
-article by Pauline West, a novelist and writer for Redux Contemporary Art Center. She is at work on her first Southern Gothic.