Lewis Hammond’s paintings tread a thin line between existential dread and human comfort. The London-based painter, who graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 2017, builds images that are filled with skewed perspectives and long, foreboding shadows, which point to the unsettling ambiguity of an angst-ridden dream. He often extends this sense of agitation by including banal objects infused with surreal symbolism, such as a collection of knives hanging on a wall, or austere thorned branches that could double as barbed wire.
Figures often appear in his work too, but they are usually somewhat obscured, either extending beyond the picture plane or hidden in tight embraces. In other instances, their likeness appears stretched and distorted, much like a corrupted photograph, making it seem as if they could slip away from view at any moment. There is often a sense of erotically charged, cloistered activity that many of us might relate to at this current moment, whether that be safe in the arms of a loved one, or pining for connection beyond our own four walls.
You spent time in Mexico City, working towards your current exhibition Lulu, before being forced to return London due to the pandemic. Has your time abroad, not to mention this significant rupture, directly informed your work?
Suddenly having to leave Mexico at very short notice was bound to have an effect, not to mention returning to London and needing to finish the show. With everything going on, making art did not feel as immediately urgent as it usually does for me. Perhaps somewhere in the paintings this fragmentation is present. Alienation, isolation and representations of primal states seem to be locatable in this body of work. The paintings could probably be diagnosed as a physical representation of my own, or a collective, neurosis.
It is hard not to read everything through the lens of our current crisis, but it is impossible to ignore the inherent threat often visible in your paintings, whether that be a collection of hanging knives or thorny branches as bars. Where does this sense of danger come from?
We live in a highly globalised world with a shared consciousness, yet very different material experiences exist between one person and another. I often feel my paintings are an attempt to find a language or figurative depiction of what a collective sense of anxiety might look like, or could be represented as.
The work sometimes references the shared global panic of our times. We live knowing our natural resources are finite; feeling the impact of climate change; seeing how small events can cause a devastating reverberation across the planet. This is something that has always been in my work, but of course is possibly more pronounced at times like these, when the whole world is acutely aware of the precarious state we are in (which many people don’t normally find themselves in, or notice or acknowledge).
“I see a world that is unstable and increasingly politically fractured. I think my paintings tap into that”
By sheer luck I was born into the western world and have enjoyed, by comparison, a relatively comfortable life thus far. I think, in light of recent crises we are becoming distinctly aware that we’re always just a few steps away from catastrophe. Perhaps we have always been in it, but it was just slowed down or less visible. Now it has come to the fore. I see a world that is unstable and increasingly politically fractured. I think my paintings tap into that. This particular group of works has a survivalist thread running through it, but that is not to say all is without hope.
Can you tell me a little about the spaces that you create in your work? Your use of dramatic shadowing and skewed dimensionality can often feel surreal or indeed claustrophobic, and to my mind points more to a psychological space than a physical one.
My reference points are a melding of first-and second-hand sourced material, both imagined and constructed environs. I build the spaces with quick sketches to further elaborate collaged imagery that guides me in the painting process.
I begin painting with a skeletal structure or composition in mind, with the work constantly revised and edited throughout. I am always adding or taking away elements, while keeping the door slightly ajar for new imagery to enter the work. This can be a painted detail or a palette shift, to encourage a particular reading.
I am generally less concerned with an accurate representation of a particular space than with capturing a specific feeling or mood. I think that constructing the images with the differed and distorted perspectives can encourage some form of embodiment for the viewer, some sense of lost footing or disruption so that one arrives back in one’s body, even if that is through a sense of unease.
Physical and sexual intimacy is also a recurring subject in your paintings, what are you hoping to unearth or convey when you create these images?
I suppose these “moments” act as a counterweight, to balance the often-disquieting circumstances the figures that populate the paintings find themselves in. They are also stand-ins for potential forms of resistance and sheltering in the face of adversity. For example, in Kyur, the figures are bunkered down. I think the work has a calming aura to it, there is an uncanny feeling to the space. It is almost domestic, which depicts something as everyday as an afternoon nap, yet it comes off as ethereal and dreamy. I am interested in how I can push a potentially banal image to provide suggestions of various narratives or subtexts.
What about the distorted flatness you employ? It reminds me of when a digital image gets stretched if you force an aspect ratio, or corrupted when it is uploading to the internet.
That is perhaps an effect of my working process. I have a range of source material that I push through various media to form a preparatory image in particular ways. I like the feeling of a distorted lens—there is no empirical truth or vantage point. Everything bends and contorts to the will of and in service to the painting. There is a focus on psychological states throughout my work, for which there is no fixed visual representation in our dreams or our mind’s eye. I hope my paintings are close to touching that idea in some way.
Lewis Hammond: Still life
At Lulu, Mexico City, until 27 June by appointment onlyVISIT WEBSITE