Peter James Smith on Bill Hammond 'Song Book'

Posted on 31 July 2023

Bill Hammond

Song Book

acrylic and metallic pigment on ten particle boards, diptych
title inscribed, signed and dated 1986; original Dunedin Public Art Gallery loan label affixed verso 1520 x 1205mm

$130 000 – $180 000

Exhibited: ‘Bill Hammond: 23 Big Pictures’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, September 11–14 October 1999 (touring).

Illustrated: Justin Paton, Bill Hammond: 23 Big Pictures (Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 1999), p. 31.

Provenance: Purchased Webb’s, Auckland, 22 November 1995, Lot No. 50.

View lot here

Peter James Smith on Bill Hammond 'Song Book'

Featured in Important Paintings & Contemporary Art | Tuesday 15 August 2023

Bill Hammond’s Song Book is likely to be simply heard before its visuals can be noted. Its feedback loop has drumbeats hammering, vocals shattering and amps vibrating set after set. For the pub-rock drummer or percussionist in a folk band, playing skiffle, making sound, is a way of being seen and noticed. And only then, as the viewer steadies themselves against the sonic instability, they will finally experience Bill Hammond’s Song Book 1986 as a painted surface of introspective rooms, cut off from the world, abutting rather than connected, time-shifted like a storyboard for a flickering movie with a soundtrack on the howl.

Hammond the disrupter puts these things before us to upset the traditional tableaux of New Zealand landscape art. The traditional charm of Peter McIntyre’s ‘New Zealand’ painting is espaliered against the studio wall as Hammond lurches inward rather than outward. The result is a painting of the 1980s age; a painting of competing risks, of self-help gurus and pyramid scheme dossiers, of left versus right Rogernomic infighting—a painting that looks in on itself well before any flicker of the digital was ever conceived. Importantly, Song Book acquires its legendary status by being one of the paintings in the landmark 1999 exhibition Bill Hammond: 23 Big Pictures that travelled to all corners of the country: from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery to The Auckland City Art Gallery/ Toi o Tāmaki, then to the Te Manawa Art Gallery Palmerston North and City Gallery Wellington/Te Whare Toi. This is quite a fanfare for a mid- career painter. In an interview with Hammond at the time, curator Gwynneth Porter records Hammond’s words in the catalogue... ‘It’s not autobiography, it’s something else.’[1]

To get near the ‘something else’ requires looking under Song Book’s covers at the ten collective tableaux ranged around. Hammond inflects these room-like visual images like a cultural engineer taking sides, with labels Song Book I and Song Book II in brushpoint running along the uppermost boundary. The tension in these adjacent rectangles is palpable, their collective power more volcanic than the meandering time sequence of adjacent images in Colin McCahon’s masterwork Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury painted decades before in 1950. Hammond’s writhing landscape motifs of humanoids, trees and mountains are not en plein air; they are ferociously housed together under the one roof. The wall paintings double as windows of artificial light. The trestle tables support ranges of fake mountains in a panoply of window dressing (perhaps for the art dealers of the time), but they also have the measure of inverted egg cartons lining the walls of a makeshift recording studio.

One reading has the left-side panels promoting the inner experience of the audience/listener with deeply-etched reclining figures and the right-side panels offering the adrenalin rush of on-stage/studio performance. There the vocalists stiffen, muscular and stricken, like the sinewy Joe Cocker convulsing in mid-song. The text at central left cites Varetta Dillard’s 1953 rhythm and blues hit Mercy Mr Percy and nearby, a bloodline rope encircles a mountain stack with a noose ready to drag it away. Have mercy. We are pulled across arteries of blood into a nightmare dream sequence loaded with a sense of interiority and claustrophobia. But as writer/curator Justin Paton points out: ‘...secreted in that nightmare, is a dream of protection and retreat: the interior as a refuge for the assailed self.’[2]

Hammond did have haunts of studio refuge in Lyttelton’s former Kilwinning Masonic Lodge in Canterbury Street. In the mid-1980s he brought the Volcano Café and Lava Bar to life, not only with his trademark mountain insignia on the parapet above the brightly-painted door, but until the 2011 earthquake, his painting Volcano Flag was a living bar tab hanging on the wall. There, on Friday nights, for those in the know, he would play drums in The Old Man’s Club band, reputedly placing a piece of paper over the reverberating surface to make it sound like a snare drum. We are reminded of the rolling drumbeat and the restless floating guitar of Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 recording Albatross, because like some ancient mariner, Hammond completes Song Book with fleeting glimpses of this lofty bird.

[1] Gwynneth Porter, ‘We have everything and nothing’, Bill Hammond: 23 Big Paintings, 1999, Dunedin Public Art Gallery publication, Dunedin, p18. [2] Juston Paton, ‘Bill Hammond’s Apocalyptic Wallpaper’, ibid. p 8.

Peter James Smith