David Hammons At White Cube – Spotlighting The Injustice Of Systems

David Hammons

White Cube, Mason’s Yard presents an exhibition by American artist David Hammons; with a survey of the artist’s recent works. Hammons solo shows are rather rare events. They occur only every few years lately, and the last two were in New York, at L&M Arts, in 2011 and 2007. But now he has arrived at London’s White Cube gallery for what it is billing as the first solo show by the artist in London.

Upon entering the Mason’s Yard gallery on the ground floor; the viewer is greeted with a naturally lit, almost chapel-like installation of the artist’s works – mounted high up on its walls, with tall patterned black & white drawings, up to 10 feet in height. Hammons’ working practice could be described as unique; with a certain topographical use of materials to create ‘substance-based’ conceptual works; this has included “Harlem earth on paper with black cloth suitcase” and “dirt on paper with leather suitcase.”

The artist has created these large-scale drawings by repeatedly bouncing basketballs on sheets of paper. Hammons then frames the works and props the pieces against the wall of the actual and metaphorical white cube. At once a reference to the procedures of American gestural abstraction; the artist’s use of humble materials; substance as concept, the dirt and dust from the street which the basketball prints repeatedly into the paper, also acknowledges the influence of Arte Povera.

Hammons transposes the action of dribbling and the topographical transposition of materials into a new environment, these materials and movements become signifiers of travel; the artist often incorporates suitcases in his work, resting his works on top of them. With the work comes the evocative notion that basketball was and is a way out of the ghetto, of ‘making it’ is ever present in the artist’s work, insinuating the insulting notion of values; the journey from poverty to glamour via prejudice – the title of two of the drawings, Travelling, invokes the foul of carrying the ball too far, with the implication that such advances are temporary or in fact illusory to begin with.

The artist employs a subtlety as he incorporates sociological content into the tropes of his art, the work becomes a commentary on the position of African-Americans within a dominant culture – as well as highlighting his own status as a maverick black artist within an elite art system. Hammons operates strategies that engage with this system, as well as incursions into the art market, that have made the artist famous; often employing apparent elusiveness as a tool. A device that certainly seems present in this exhibition; if not for the viewers realisation of materials that form a strong socio-cultural narrative that are running – almost literally – through the artist’s practice.

Downstairs in White Cube, Mason’s yard, the viewer passes a number of ellusive canvases on display; as well as a fur coat from the series of battered coats that he showed at L&M in 2007 – these four new paintings are works of gestural abstraction, yet covered with cut-up, worn, and frayed cloth, tarps, and plastic, las if the paintings are being censored or hidden by the artist post creation; as if simultaneously exhibited and prohibited from view.

The works withhold themselves from the viewer while the coverings also become part of the art. The works juxtapose high abstraction with street culture, and the ‘purity of the picture plane is interrupted by the lo-fi cover’. The use of the cover also endows these two-dimensional works with a strong physical presence – the oeuvre balances precariously between painting and sculpture; becoming at once both – and neither. The viewer is left attempting to catch glimpses of the action underneath those coverings, while actually looking at the real surface of the work.

Amusingly and as if a kind of antidote to the viewers manipulated frustrations a small, late Agnes Martin – all whites and pale primary colours -hangs in the same downstairs gallery as Hammons’ paintings.

White Cube states that ‘These hybrid compositions stand in ambiguous, and perhaps critical, dialogue with European Modernism. At the same time, by turning on the polarities of visibility and invisibility, perception and omission, insider and outsider, they can be read as veiled commentaries on racial politics, art history, and misrecognition’.

Having said that, the works certainly allude to the divisions in socio-cultural currents persistent in both the art and real worlds; one mirroring the other – in such a way as art itself is supposed to reflect life; it is insinuated as thus for the institutions of art as well. Have’s, and have not’s persist; those allowed entry and those omitted, these opposing values float like ghosts between the viewer and Hammons’ art. The exhibition is the artist’s humorous testimony to the injustice of systems ever-present and manipulative of all.

David Hammons – White Cube, Mason’s Yard – until 3 January 2015

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015 photos courtesy of White Cube all rights reserved