Ashley Hamilton’s work reflects her personal history and progress
When I visited Ashley Hamilton’s studio at Mercy Junction to learn about her prolific body of work and its origins, we talked as she added red paint to a series of turquoise canvasses. What she had to say makes her work even more fascinating.
The Pulse: What are your earliest memories of making art?
Ashley Hamilton: I’ve always been completely infatuated with drawing and painting. It was the only time I truly felt at ease—in my own little world. I remember especially being drawn to abstraction, and at a young age I’d make sculptural paintings by using a whole paint tube to make thick marks that came off the canvas. I also have memories of making abstract sculptures out of straws.
TP: What do you think about when painting?
AH: I go into this subconscious state where I am both here and not here. My mind runs a million miles per hour when I am painting, yet I have no clear thoughts in the process; it’s just a continuous series of reactions. However, there are conceptual themes that run through my practice, and they are always somewhere in my thoughts.
Conceptually, my work is rooted in Lacanian psychoanalysis—specifically theories regarding the phenomenon of “repetition compulsion,” “death drive,” and various theories of semiotics. My work is derived from the intrinsically human struggle of understanding “self.”
I attempt to understand “self” by first understanding the world around me. I turn towards the street and traumatic times in my life as aesthetic source material. While painting, my mind filters through all these things: critical theory, looking inward, and the streets.
TP: What materials and processes do you use?
AH: I mainly use acrylic, spray paint, charcoal, and collage. My process always starts with walking along the streets to find what I call “traces of humanity.” Peeling paint on building walls. A covered up sign, questioning its own existence. Fragmented objects. Failed attempts. Suspended signification. Questionable origin. I’ve always been fascinated with street art, but what I’m more interested in is the defacing, the covering up, the ripping apart.
My process sort of sublimates the street by simulating its process; I paste grid paper to the canvas and continuously cover it up and rip it apart, leaving traces of each layer along the way. Any text that may be in my work is from old journals, but is hardly ever able to be read.
TP: What do the vertical marks represent?
AH: The repetitive vertical marks in my work originated from my personal journey through addiction: in this case, my addiction to self-harm. When I was first trying to stop, I’d make these marks to fill a huge wall in my studio as a distraction and a way to refrain from cutting. It allows me to have that obsessive repetitive motion without being self-destructive.
I suppose it was a way of processing the trauma during those darkest times, but now they are part of my history and I still use the marks in my recovery process. Most people would probably never know the semiotics of my work unless they knew me personally. I like the idea of people thinking about them as simply a design, or counting numbers while incarcerated, or even a repetitive “I”.
TP: How has recovery affected your work?
AH: It has been quite the journey. While in active addiction, my life was completely chaotic and unmanageable. I was severely suicidal, and it showed in my old work. It was mainly black and white with very little hints of dull color—and, of course, those repetitive red marks. Any legible text was haunting.
I remember one gallery owner jokingly told me he’d have to hire a therapist for people who come see my solo show. Through recovery, my work has changed significantly. It’s starting to become much more playful and colorful, with just little hints of the past.
TP: Any observations about the art scene in Chattanooga?
AH: I’m a graduate of the UTC art program, which is a gem with some of the most outstanding professors I’ve ever met; there are some really great artists coming out of that program! My only wish is that there were more affordable studio spaces in town and more galleries that show challenging work.
TP: Any advice for other artists?
AH: Say yes to every opportunity! Look at other artists. Talk to other artists. Think critically. And keep making work, no matter what!
See more of Ashley’s art at ashleyhamiltonart.com or at AVA’s Gallery Hop on Sept. 12. To arrange a studio visit, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org