Jonathan Hammer is an artist based in Madrid, Spain. For more than 30 years he has worked in several media including works on paper, photography, unique books, sculpture, ceramics, and prints, as well as his signature screens and panels made from marquetry of exotic skins. Hammer is the founder of the Villa Bergerie artists residency project in Spain.
Hammer has exhibited widely in Germany, Switzerland, Norway, France, England, Japan, Mexico and the United States. In Spain he has had nine solo shows. He has had 10 solo exhibitions in New York (including five at Matthew Marks Gallery). Most recently, Hammer has exhibited in solo shows in Madrid, Spain, Ayisha, Japan, and Columbus, OH. Along with numerous group exhibitions in museums, including several in Spain, Hammer has had solo shows in Geneva at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Derfner Museum. His works are in many private and public collections including: the Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Hammer Museum (UCLA); Berkeley Art Museum; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York Public Library; and the Jumex Collection, Mexico City. An authority on Zurich Dada, Hammer has published his critical writings on the subject in his book “Ball and Hammer”, Yale University Press, 2002. He has received honors from among others: Art Matters, NY; Pro Helvetia, Switzerland; The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, NY; The Pollock Krasner Foundation, NY; PEW Foundation, Philadelphia; Arp Foundation, Berlin, Germany. In 2022, Jonathan had a solo exhibition, Resurgence, at Contemporary Art Matters in Columbus, OH.
I am honored to present Jonathan Hammer’s Resurgence at Contemporary Art Matters, marking our 6th solo exhibition together in Columbus. My first visit with Jonathan was in his San Francisco studio in the early 1990’s, set up through an introduction by writer and curator Klaus Kertess. I was astounded by the delicate nature of the drawings and leather pieces and challenged by the deep intellect and soul of the artist.
Hammer’s work is all encompassing, the artist probes life’s dualities, uncomfortable truths, painful memories and joyous celebrations. Throughout his career, his focus of investigation has shifted widely to encompass early 20th Century art and history – notably with his revisionist Dada publication Ball and Hammer (Yale Press) – up to his collaborations with contemporary art world luminaries like Carl Andre and John Baldessari. While he has found a home in Spain, with a studio in Madrid and an artist residency, Villa Bergerie, on a farm outside of Barcelona, the subject matter of his work reaches further afield, from Lithuania to Japan. His recent exhibition in Kyoto digs deep into the folklore and 20th Century historical connections between Europe and Japan. Everything the artist does involves a multi-layered approach, reflecting on personal experiences, historical influences and larger cultural realities.
Resurgence marks a return to the US with an exquisite group of leather paintings, drawings and ceramic sculpture. Hammer is a maker, a historian, an explorer, blending the hand and the mind. With this body of work, Hammer explores the natural world, from the sea creatures we recognize to the abstracted notions of the microcosm of organic material. The subject of this series, like all of his work, is a combination of the personal and universal. While visiting the Maldives, he found beauty in the sea. But, the experience also came with a sting, both literal and figurative, in that he became gravely ill in a diving accident after being cut by a poisonous coral. The works in the show are not illustrations of any specific idea or scientific diagram, they are rather inspired by the powerful organic matter that gives us life and can equally cause havoc.
Leather Hammerhead depicts a unique and unmistakable shark, a being whose domain is not defined by borders or cultures. He is a creature as powerful as he is fragile, dependent on the natural world for survival. His odd appearance and rarity elicit fear and fascination and has made him the subject of tales throughout time. Here, the shark can also be seen as a self-portrait, with his unique nose, a frequent theme of the artist. Beached is a diptych of abstracted natural life – an octopus with tentacles and a sea creature clam with a foot, both pushing forward – created with rich textures of exotic leathers. The title suggests that they have landed on shore, deprived of their natural habitat in the sea.
The drawings and sculptures evoke more of the organic life of the sea, of coral, as well as of the microorganisms that are in all beings comprising nature. Nature is a force that also disregards borders, ethnicities, history, class and religion. It is glorious and feeds us, yet when disturbed can cause death and destruction. Wreckage and Jetsam are massive drawings on handmade Japanese paper celebrating the sumptuous life in the sea with bright colors and dense composition. The titles suggest something more menacing, the power of the sea to wreak havoc, cause destruction and disease. Even the smaller Phosphene drawings depict lively abstract compositions. As the title suggests, they are not seen with open eyes, rather imagined studies of organisms. Modern-day threats come from all sorts of undetected viruses, physical, mental and virtual. The power of an organism can bring a global population to its knees.
Stylistically, the leather paintings have a Modernist aesthetic. Blending rarified leathers and touches of gold with an elegance calling to mind the simplistic shapes of early masters like Miro and Arp. The works on paper combine a gestural abstract style of later 20th century, yet channel the earlier experimental vitality of a Kandinsky. The hand of the artist is ever-present, bringing back a unique quality, looking back and forward simultaneously, like the rhythmic ebb and flow of waves.
New additions to Hammer’s practice are the ceramic sculptures. These pieces incorporate handcrafted clay, fired in his studio, paired with found driftwood, painted and inlaid with precious materials, gold and ivory (harvested from old piano keys). They are inspired by coral and the sea, further reflecting on the vital, yet fragile underwater habitats.
There is no more intellectual artist than Hammer whose vast knowledge of history and literature brings a compassionate approach to his work. He draws us in by the sheer beauty of the pieces with their lush colors and playful materials, engages us and then very slowly brings our attention to the gravity of issues. By holding up the mirror of art in such a way, we are faced with the seriousness of the subjects presented, from environmental issues caused by global warming, to diseases like COVID and AIDS. We are all organic beings living in a world that is as marvelous as it is fragile. Hammer’s work enlightens as it challenges. He reminds us that our imaginary borders and blindness toward our surroundings may harm what is vital and dear. His work helps us see.