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The Independent September 2008

September 2008

Lonely figures on the path of life, by Sue Hubbard

It is the colour one notices first in Tom Hammick’s new paintings: the midnight blues, the searing yellows and vibrant reds. The first painting in the show is tiny; an apparently felled or fallen pine lies darkly silhouetted against an inky evening sky, flushed by the blaze of a sinking red sun. It is a highly romantic work. The little pine, alone in the great wilderness of nature, seems to embody a sense of isolation, and evokes something of Caspar David Friedrich, that archetypal German Romantic painter, whose subjects stand on the edges of cliffs and mountains, their backs to the viewer, staring out into the empty void as if searching for meaning.

Hammick has always been a strong colourist but here his colours bear little relation to the natural world - less even than in his earlier work. His stormy purples and deep, slightly toxic oranges and saturated reds contribute to a sense of dreamlike otherworldliness, suggesting, as did the German Expressionists, a direct connection with the artist’s emotions translated onto canvas. As in the Fauvist paintings of André Derain, or Kirchner’s sickly yellow Bathers in a Room, painted in the early 1900s, Hammick uses colour to evoke states that are at once haunting and uncanny, ominous and tender.

Isolated figures in fields, a mother and child, or a single man digging a garden are recurring motifs. Marooned in flat plains of intense colour, these essentially lonely subjects seem to connect to something elemental and atavistic. Because often the newly dug vegetable and flower beds - painted in solid blacks and browns -look more like empty graves than fertile patches for growing flowers or food. An achingly lovely blue tree, sprinkled with pink almond blossom, spreads over these dark pits in Three Beds like a beacon of hope. To label these religious paintings would be an overstatement, yet implicit in this work, with its strange little figure lying in one of the black rectangles like an Indian widow in a red sari committing sati, is, I think, the notion of some sort of resurrection and an enduring relationship with the cycles of nature.

Pattern forms an important part of Hammick’s work. It is as if he is deliberately taking on that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, who wrote in 1957: “Decoration is the spectre that haunts modernist painting, and part of the latter’s formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself.” As in Matisse, Hammick’s canvases are enhanced by the tension between the decorative surface and the figurative elements. A talented printmaker, he has been influenced by Japanese woodcuts and masters such as Hokusai. This fusion between the simplicity of the Japanese print and his symbolist colours evokes a similar sense, found in Rothko and Barnet Newman, of “secular spirituality”.

There is a quiet poetry in Hammick’s work that stands in opposition to much of the noise and brouhaha of the current art scene. He begins with what is local and known, depicting the land and seascapes around his home in East Sussex. Unafraid of being beautiful or emotional, or of speaking with authentic feeling, these paintings of lonely figures looking out across moonlit fields, or standing isolated, as in Path, on a green ground contemplating the narrow way ahead, seem to suggest the transience and fragility of human existence.

A small canvas, in blacks and deep blues, of a bend in a night-time road, shows the reflective chevrons pointing into the haunting darkness ahead. Everything is silent and still. There are no figures, no cars and, one feels, no noise. The painting evokes, with great pathos, what awaits us all. For as TS Eliot wrote in “East Coker”: “O dark dark dark. /They all go into the dark,/The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,/The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,/The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,/Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,/Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark…”