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ASHLEY HAMILTON IS QUEERING PAINTING.
She gave me a preview last week of her work-in-progress that will be exhibited in UTC Art Department’s first of two senior shows on Apr. 1. She’s just now about to graduate from UTC, but her work has already gotten a lot of attention, including a featured profile in The Pulse’s 2012 State of the Arts issue.
Queering something, she explains, means questioning its traditions and norms—like canvas and paint in her field—and deviating from them. Her queered painting is a three-dimensional assemblage of found objects. Some are as she found them, some have her marks on them.
She’s become known for layered 2-D abstractions on large canvases, mostly in a dark color palette, with layers of overlapping and obscured shapes and words, but she wanted to push herself far outside her artistic comfort zone.
“I was wondering how I could push it further, because this became really comfortable for me after a while because I’ve done hundreds of them,” she says.
When she does that kind of painting, and now this queered painting, “Part of my practice is walking the streets of Chattanooga and being aware of my surroundings. I call myself a flaneur at my core.”
The idea of the flaneur, the leisurely stroller through urban streets, began in the nineteenth century and is typified by the poet Charles Baudelaire who called the flaneur the “botanist of the sidewalk” and insisted that the artist must be immersed in the city.
“I’m always taking pictures of moments on the streets that interest me,” she says. “That entails also collecting these found objects.”
She showed me an old suitcase, open against the wall, with half a door hinge still attached to a piece of door, a curved piece of curved pressed wood with milled holes in it, a card filled with thumbtacks almost fresh from the store and dozens of similar artifacts. Against the wall were several torn fragments of wallboard, some with marks she had made on them.
“They’ve all been abandoned at one point in time, but they find recovery through my own fascination,” she says. “I empathize with these found objects. I recover them by giving them new possibilities and meanings through a different context in an art form.”
The piece she’s working on is made entirely of these found objects, plus a few marks she makes. She points out a playing card that’s “in conversation” with some red marks.
“Some pieces I leave as is, but some require just a little bit of my touch, so it questions the author, authorship,” she says. “There’s a fine line between my mark and just letting the object be. I just intuitively make marks and arrange things spatially, then I reflect on it later and make changes accordingly.”
This piece can be seen on all sides, which she says, “challenges the idea of a painting hung on a wall that you just have to look at from one direction. You can see it all around from all sides. Maybe you also get a sense of impending failure, this sign that’s threatening to fall or this found remnant of a staircase that was being built, but it stops.”
There’s also a sign covered in plastic.
“The sole purpose of a sign is meant to be seen, but when covered up it questions its own existence,” she says. “Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in: Denied signification or lost signification or misunderstanding. As you walk around here you might have the feeling that something looks familiar, but you’re not quite able to penetrate the meaning. It’s full of possibilities, possibilities from impending failure. All these objects were abandoned, but now they find recovery through possibility.”
Her work has been strongly influenced by her exposure to other artists that are challenging the boundaries of form and genre, first at Easy Lemon, the artist residency program she and Tim Hinck put on where they invited artists to do nightly performances for five to ten days of work that the artists themselves found most challenging. Then there is the New Dischord festival of interdisciplinary art, another Hinck collaboration, in which she started playing with sound and inviting viewers to interact with her work.
“I think more and more, my work is existing in this expanded field, an interdisciplinary field where I’m starting to reach out beyond painting,” she says.
She sees her work as rooted in the intrinsically human struggle to understand self.
“That’s why I walk the streets and find empathy with these objects,” she says. “In some way I think they’re extensions of myself. When I find a found object, I find a relation between us. I find the similarities and also resonate with the differences. I see found objects as their own little intimacies. They have their own stories to tell.”
Ashley Hamilton’s queered painting can be seen in UTC Art’s First Senior show at the Cress Gallery, opening Tuesday, Apr. 1. Presentations at 4:30 p.m., opening at 5:30 p.m.