Lorie Hamermesh:
Past Work (1985-1999)

Joyce Cohen

The themes of desire and feminine identity so central in Lorie Hamermesh’s new work are foreshadowed as early as 1985 in paintings that assert the subjective voice of the artist with titles like Self Portrait and Diary of a Grown-Up Girl. Many feature a Victorian bureau with open drawers out of which spill fragments of memories and threads of a life being lived. We see pictures of the artist’s children, her clothes, paintbrushes, tiny landscapes, and fantasy cottages complete with picket fences. In 1986 these glimpses of domesticity become increasingly unsettling. Contained, Confined, Defined, Designed (1986) implicates both house and female body in an image showing the overstuffed bureau surrounded by Ginny Doll wallpaper. Charming interiors become positively menacing in Open Door (1987) in which the now-familiar cottages are exploding in flames as little girls in pretty frocks look on. A tiny cleaning lady scrubs away on the foreground floor, undeterred by the chaos around her. The door beckons us into a room with a solitary table where an open window gives few clues to the world beyond. With this painting Hamermesh introduces an emotional mix that characterizes her work into the 90s—the vulnerability of the girl-child’s authentic self and the struggle to grow.

Lorie Hamermesh graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts into an art world where formalism and the aesthetics of minimalism were giving way to new possibilities of painting. The feminist art movement of the 70s had legitimized autobiography, personal mythologies, and gender as subjects, and thanks to artists like Robert Zakanitch and Miriam Schapiro, pattern and decoration were no longer deemed incompatible with serious work. Painters as diverse as Phillip Guston, Anselm Keifer, Elizabeth Murray, and Ida Applebroog advanced the centrality of content over pure abstraction. It was against this fertile backdrop that Hamermesh was encouraged by her teachers to work form her own direct experience, and the results were paintings that joined psychodrama and modernist assemblage.

In Jump If You Love Gerry Bergstein (1989), a centerpiece in her second solo show at Gallery NAGA, Hamermesh not only pays homage to an important teacher, but showcases her innovations with materials. She fixes drawings with layers of paper, dips fabric in roplex, and leaves torn and glued edges visible. Passages are thickly painted and illusionistic space is decorated in a style worth of Matisse. Her title refers to Bergstein’s 1979 painting Honk if You Love DeKooning, and like Bergstein’s, her painting is about art itself, its complex sources and inspirations. With it Hamermesh asserts her own coming of age as an artist and the status of her mixed media paintings as both performances and built objects. A flowery curtain is pulled aside to expose a painting and a stage set complete with actors and props. A blackboard refers to the authority of the classroom and to Bergstein’s use of trompe l’oeil. One house floats in space and a pictographic drawing of another appears on the blackboard awash in tears. The child absorbed in jumping rope provides a vision of female energy and play. (Faith Ringold would use jumping rope in her Double Dutch On the Golden Gate Bridge (1988) as a direct emblem of feminine creativity and empowerment.) In Hamermesh’s painting we read it as an activity at once innocent and obsessive. Her jumping girl is alone, airborne. Her hair flies free; her skirt floats up; her feet are off the ground. She flies, if only for an instant. We witness a moment in which female jouissance and mastery intersect—girl games becoming artistic control.

The motif of the stage as female socialization appears again in Act III, a 1991 painting juxtaposing the girl-child with a family photograph of the artist, her mother, and siblings. The designated pretty child is overexposed in the spotlight while birthday candles illuminate the dim faces of family members. Anguish and loss are palpable under a surface of pastel flowers, ribbons, and gingham. The crying house is in the background, a reminder of the ambiguities of home and family, public and private identities; a serpent coiled at the bottom of the stage becomes a stand-in for the libidinal energies lost in female socialization. Commenting on the subtle politics of these paintings in the early 90s, critic Nancy Stapen called them “part critique and part love affair.” Despite the pain and resistance of Hamermesh’s girls, the eye is consistently brought back to the beauty of relentless femmage, color, and sensuality. The coexistence of anxiety and beauty will come to be recognized as one of this artist’s unique signatures.

In 1994 the paintings became smaller, more compressed, less narrative. Hamermesh appropriates photographs from old magazines and advertisements from the 50s. In Rerooted (1994) a disembodied heart reads as an overripe rose. The rose is pregnant with implication. It became an earthly plant only after Eve’s fall from grace, having grown without thorns in the Garden of Eden. The plant that grows out of the heart/flower entwines a group of women with its roots. The picture is borrowed from a 1950s sewing-needle package given to the artist by her mother and shows women engaged in domestic craft. One raises the needle like a sword. The transformative potential of nature suggested in Rerooted reminds us of Frida Kahlo’s many self-portraits where the body is nourished through vein-like roots, linking the artist to the earth and to her heritage.

Other works juxtapose the flower, the heart, and images of animal life with paper doll dresses—pretty frocks that charm even as they constrain the spirit. In a rare artist’s statement of this period (she rarely writes about her work, preferring it communicate on its own terms) Hamermesh offered: A cut flower is seductively beautiful but does not last. It has been “cut off” from its roots. This body of work reflects my reverence for nature and on a deeper level, a longing to be reconnected with what is instinctual and natural within me. (October 1994).

Not So Tame (1996) shows the frilly dress breaking apart and animal life—snakes, birds, a running dog, a wolf smoking cigar—framing the absent female body. Two 1997 paintings—From the Heart and One Last Nice Girl—mark the end of the series in which instinctual and socially constructed aspects of self are posed in conflict. With Off Middle Road (1997) the artist turns to the full sensual embrace of unpeopled landscape in familiar scenes near her home on Martha’s Vineyard, away from the intrusions of society.

The urge to compound images, to layer, to hide and reveal meanings led to Hamermersh to new technical challenges in 1999 and to works in which she silk-screens on scrims of transparent fabric and stretches this skin over painted and collaged surfaces. Helen (1999), one of the first of the new works, is named for the artist’s mother. It uses another family photo, pink to recall her mother’s lipstick, and fragments of her apron. Hand stitching, this most direct reminder of women’s earliest art—the art that mothers pass on to their daughters—heightens the nostalgia of this powerful image. Lost possibilities and longing re-emerge in the paintings of 2000. Those included in the exhibition Veiled Passions show Lorie Hamermesh’s command of a rich visual vocabulary developed since the mid-80s and realized with fresh complexity through a new combination of printing processes, paint, and collage.

Joyce Cohen teaches art history at Simmons College and writes for regional and national art publications.

Jump If You Love Gerry Bergstein, 1989 Oil, mixed media on canvas, 56 x 73 inches.