Make a few circuits of Tom Hammick’s oversize woodblock prints and you’ll undoubtedly conjure a backstory for the artist’s recurring figures and motifs. Set on Earth and in outer space, weaving journey and family, Hammick’s personal narrative for this suite of prints is explained in the catalog, but whatever your own mind’s eye comes up with will be no less valid.
Hammick’s wide-ranging formal chops propel an idiosyncratic odyssey. Jet contrails, rocket exhaust, boat wakes — these flowing shapes add compositional thrust to the scenes while weaving a graphic matrix that visually links all seventeen images in the show. Shifts in scale lead one’s eye and psyche along the tableaux; in Pitch, Earth hangs in the night sky, achingly small in comparison to a geodesic dome nestled on the surface of the moon. In Nightfall (created, like the other prints here, in 2017), a dark-haired woman stands in front of three figures, two in animated poses, one standing aloof. All four characters are faceless but with individualized body language, clothed in jazzy prints. Chamber places us inside that dome on the surface of the moon, the same woman looking through a window at a space capsule flashing across the cosmos. That lunar vehicle reappears in multiple pictures, most strikingly in the almost-seven-foot-tall Sky Atlas, where its aqua-hued exhaust contrasts with a circular star grid in gradations from red to blue, an elastic galaxy in which vast distance is compressed into a neighborhood jaunt between a leafy island on Earth and a tangerine moon.
While many of the pieces here vibrate with tangy, head-shop colors, others are tinged with melancholy and a literal darkness. In Wanderer, a man uses only his eyes to roam, observing the star-pierced heavens through a telescope, his dark clothes and tripod melding with the night sky. Is the implication here that the characters are actually only dreaming about the Day-Glo voyages seen in the other prints?
Throughout human history, mankind has dreamt of life elsewhere in an infinite universe. But so far, at least, this is an escapist fantasy — even on our home planet we individuals can feel alone, despite being surrounded by a riot of sentience. In the five-foot-wide Terrestrial, the recurring mother figure and the three others (one in a pink jacket, another in lime-green boots) turn their backs on the viewer (artist/father?) and walk toward the sea through a forest illuminated only by moonlight. With its Stygian landscape, Blackout is even more intense, the only figure as negative as a shadow, sky and ground barely discernible in the gloom, like the spectral grids in Ad Reinhardt’s “black paintings” from the 1960s.
The press release for Hammick’s show quotes the astronomer and author Carl Sagan’s passionate ode to Mother Earth: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” But to see our home planet as a dot, you have to journey far beyond the moon, implying an optimism that something more than loneliness awaits human beings jetting into the unknown. That was the hope, anyway, of manned space flight, and although Hammick’s imagery conveys the speed, technology, and weightlessness of those buoyant, postwar days of prosperity and progress, his vision contains its own contradictions through heavy layers of ink, palpable woodgrain, and the serendipitously beautiful imperfections of color registration and tonal blots that come with the old-school woodcut process.
These mixed signals align with the retro font used on Hammick’s rocket ships, which is extrapolated from the N, A, and S letters in the logo designed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1975. As Wired magazine pointed out in a 2015 article, NASA’s “worm” logo was created under the auspices of the Federal Graphics Improvement Program, “an ambitious effort to revamp the visual identity of government agencies, most of which were, in a word, ugly.” (Unfortunately, while beloved in the graphic design community, the “worm” was not a hit with space jockeys, engineers, or bureaucrats, and was replaced in 1992 with the agency’s previous “meatball” insignia, which dates back to 1959.)
Born in the midst of the space race, in 1963, Hammick lives and paints and makes prints in London. He writes in the show’s catalog that the concept for his “Lunar Voyage” series had been kicking around his mind and sketchbooks for a couple of years. “I wanted to try to bring together a narrative that explored both the outsiderness of being an artist and the unique incompatibility of life on our planet.” Does he mean our poor stewardship of the environment? Or simply humanity’s inability, in too many instances, to just get along with itself?
The moon shots of the 1960s and ’70s have long inspired complicated flights of fancy; one as bountifully textured as Hammick’s was Sun Ra’s film Space Is the Place, released in 1974. The Arkestra mastermind imagined taking African Americans to a lush planet free of racism via a mystical, musical conduit. Nefarious NASA agents try to steal Ra’s teleportation secrets, and music industry tools seek to co-opt him, but the promise of a better day far away wins out. Nowadays, we explore the solar system with robots, but Hammick reminds us of the adventures — and travails — of astronauts in tin cans. So far, 2017 has been a nasty year, but there have recently been flashes of hope, like the sun glinting off a chunk of orbiting hardware. Hammick’s square-format print Journey to the Moon envisions a rocket spewing vividly colored curlicues of flame — like the cover of a Beatles album that never was but should’ve been. Maybe it’s time to revamp those heady days of the Right Stuff, to make our head trips reality once again.
A rainbow flight to the moon? Sign me up.
Tom Hammick: Lunar Voyage
529 West 20th Street
Through December 16