An Investigator, Not a Maker, Of Images

British artist Richard Hamilton borrows from media, kitsch, peers, shunning self-expression

BRITON Richard Hamilton could hardly be called a primitive artist. As the recent Tate Gallery retrospective amply showed, he is a modern artist of calculated sophistication, observing with critical self-appraisal his own every move. This is not to suggest, however, that he is a subjective, introspective artist. He is objective to a fault and avoids expression of his individuality. Identified as a "pop artist" in the 1960s, he was part of that loosely definable movement's conscious reaction against the mo re romantic aspects of Abstract Expressionism.

A series of "self-portraits" painted in 1990 seem emblematic of Hamilton's brand of self-disregard: His face, sometimes blurred, usually cropped unconventionally, is hidden behind a scrawl of paint marks. The odd paradox is that the more he tries not to be in evidence, the more aware of his presence we become. He eyes his viewers from behind the mask of his art. And the discomfort in viewing his art has something to do with knowing that Hamilton is watching you as much as you are watching him.

Rather than being a maker of images, he is an investigator of images.

Hamilton has even gone so far as to call his art "self-confessed plagiarism." There is a smirking sort of irony in this. But the fact is that here is an artist whose images are often in quotation marks: lifted from newsprint, magazines, videos, computer-generated images, fashion plates, promotional brochures, snapshots, postcards, film stills, kitsch of various kinds, pin-ups, architecture, interior design, and the styles of serious artists.

These sources are subtly altered, sometimes radically transformed, but not into some instantly recognizable "Hamilton style." His interest is in many styles, not one; in other styles, not his own.

Indirection is his way. He doesn't paint a subject straight - a couple of dreamy female figures among trees, for example, or a hotel lobby with its smart mirrors and staircases confusing the eye in disorienting perspectives: What he paints is the way such subjects have already been presented, for other reasons than "art," and in some other medium and context than as paintings in galleries or museums.

The girls in the glade come from advertising for a range of colored paper tissue; the lobby comes from a postcard of a specific hotel entrance hall. Both sources for Hamilton's paintings are persuasive images, their unreality specifically linked to the function of selling.

Hamilton, using oil paint on canvas, lets the sources infiltrate the character of his work to a degree that is self-effacing.

Oil paint in his remarkably skillful hands is transformed into an exaggerated kind of soft-focus photography. Or, in the case of the hotel lobby, into a sharp, slick, bright surface suggesting everything a sharp, slick, bright hotel would like to be.

Hamilton is fascinated by "process" and interested in today's plethora of imagemaking processes. He has been an active and highly inventive maker of prints, something this show scarcely touches on. His printmaking helps to explain many of the concerns and motivations of his paintings. He is (not unlike other artists who were first known as pop artists, such as Warhol) intrigued by repeat, multiple images and also in the possibility of these basically identical images each being different in some way.

He reinvented the exterior of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in the form of six 4-foot-square reliefs made of fiberglass. He subjected these reliefs to different paint jobs, as if they were cars or coffee machines for sale. The museums come in black, "metalflake," black-and-white, spectrum, gold, or "Neapolitan." To see all six reliefs together in this exhibition is to encounter a kind of narrative of ideas that amounts to a chameleon-like vision, indicative of Hamilton's style of adaptability.

Hamilton revels in explication. The catalog for this show is full of discussion, descriptions of the way different works developed, and information about them. In a sense Hamilton is as much a "conceptual" artist as a pop artist; in some cases the source of a painting only a few decades old has already become obscure to today's viewer.

His "Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland" for example, needs the lengthy, catalog dissertation that accompanies its appearance in this show. We might as well be studying a Titian. But without this art-historical analysis, this painting's unusually (for Hamilton) bitter satirical intent, might be easily overlooked. It is, anyway, strange "satire."

It is as if, once again, this artist were investigating the potential of satire, or painting a thesis on the subject, rather than being outspokenly satirical.

A seam of satirical intent runs through his art, but it is often submerged, and even when it does surface more overtly, it is still held tidily within the cool, understated, meticulously deliberate, amoral stance of his aesthetic.

The subject of "War Games," the most recent painting shown, is instantly recognizable: the Gulf war as seen in the living room via television, sanitized, organized, and depicted as a fascinating media event - as super-efficient instant communication.

Hamilton's mute point is made in this familiar domestic context by a scarcely noticeable seep of blood coming out from under the TV set. Everything else is clean, crisp, smooth, and industrially precise. But in all that safe, admirable state-of-the-art home technology there still lurks a miniscule hint of the art of human feeling.

The Richard Hamilton retrospective, which closed this past weekend at the Tate Gallery, will be at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Oct. 28 through Jan. 3, 1993.

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