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Studio Chat: Wolf Hamm on Summers in Finland and Searching Out Humanity With Paint

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Wolf Hamm’s paintings are not particularly fashionable. They’re loud in color, cartoonishly figurative in form, and poetic in concept. But, such questions of contemporary trend don’t seem to phase the 38 year old who shows with Dusseldorf’s Beck & Eggeling. He does his best sketching on copper plates after all. Of paramount importance, however are more elemental and existential subjects: the family, the struggle between nature and urbanity, and finding the human within technology to name a few.

Most recently, Hamm has put these questions forth in a series of eight monumental acrylic on acrylic pane paintings — his preferred mode of expression — that take up the seasons as a means of partitioning human life into four segments. Having recently completed the spring section of the series, Hamm says that he’s still exploring what the second half of his eight year long project might look like but that, as a totality, the work should serve as an allegory of human societal development as much as it does an individualistic narrative.

For the first in a recurring series of studio visits, Alexander Forbes sat down with Hamm to discuss the productive limitations of painting from front to back, the visual DNA he picked up from summers in Finland, and the dangers of taking one’s knowledge for granted.

It’s quite cool when you see the paintings from behind. You could almost show them as abstract works if you turned them around on the gallery wall.

There is a point right before the last color goes on that is very interesting. Normally I paint them black because I don’t want light to seep through from behind. Because I paint in reverse I first have to start with the darkest and lightest portions and then work towards the middle. I like it because the background is the last part to be added. You get to start with the figures, the actual subjects who are acting in the work.

Compared to oil, you don’t have that same end process of finessing every detail, right? You kind of have to get it all right the first time.

As long as the paint is liquid, you can still erase it, but after that, you just have to take the image for what it is. It also pushes you forward because you realize that as long as you spend with one detail you can’t go on with any other part of the painting. I have to be good in one moment, leave it, and not think that I could come back the next morning and do it better. It’s not possible.

The paintings start with drawing. At times I use airbrush because you don’t have contact to the paper, It makes it feel kind of magical, it also leaves a lot of contrast — black line white paper —, which helps with the paintings later. Color is very good for emotion but sometimes I need this very precise approach. For me drawing is a completely different kind of practice as well. It is really like thinking. The best thing is when I just let it flow onto the paper without trying to be conscious of what I’m actually creating. I do the same thing with etchings. I have a small printing press that I can take with me when I travel. I like to sketch with pen, but with the etchings on copper you can be so much more detailed and really be sure that it won’t all blend together in the end. I do it especially when I’m traveling, often in Finland as my mother is from there.

The country plays quite a big role in your painting practice as well, correct?

I guess so. It’s funny; my photographer came with me to Finland once. When we stepped off the plane, he said immediately that he now understood all the colors that I’m working with and various other visual elements. It must be something just inside of me I think. The nature there is something that is completely engrained in my memories. Summer is Finland for me. I grew up in Germany, but we went there every summer for the long nights. It was great.

But you’re also mixing those natural components with contemporary imagery: a plug or an apple logo or a recycling sign.

I think they are just things that I’ve seen over and over again. I grew up in cities but always also wanted to be in the nature. One of the main questions I’m trying to ask in my paintings is where we can find what makes us human. We build up all these structures around us but they make us unhappy in a way. We always want to be in nature. I don’t think we should go as far as to take away all of the things developed, but it might be time to step back a little bit and regain some humanity in every day life. I think we’re starting to understand that we need to. But that’s where the plugs become umbilical cords for babies in the paintings, things like that. A lot of my work takes up the family as a primal unit, the smallest cell of society. I’ll start from birth and have a lot of works that focus on the role of the mother where we come from. But place’s her in nature as well, so it becomes a full system. Sometimes I also speak with my children about the work as well to get a lighter, more humorous perspective. Otherwise we only talk about how much we are in danger. If we only talk about how bad things are going to be, it really will be that bad!

Do you think that speaking to them also helps you access these engrained, childhood memories or visual motifs that pop up then in the paintings?

Well they give me an excuse to be like a child again some times too. We’ll go to a toy store and I’m just as excited as they are, but it’s okay because at least it looks like I’m just there with my kids. If you go there alone as an older person, you might really get some strange looks. Right now in particular I’m working on a series about childhood. In my sketches at the moment I’m trying to get a clearer idea of which direction I want to take it in. The series has a lot to do with where we come from and where we go, in a cyclical sense. I’m trying to explain our kind of collective history in the works but through the guise of a human life. The next plate in the series of eight is about the summer; this could mean the person is in the prime of their life, but what more? Going to hunt in the past? Trying to be successful in business? Though for me at the end of the day the most important aspect is the family, as this where we come from.

There is also a lot of Christian imagery within the work.

This is really just because that is what I learned when I was a child. I was happy that my parents weren’t so religious and didn’t make us go to church all the time. A close friend of the was a fairly revolutionary priest; who was having his own issues with the church at the time, so we learned a kind of amended version of the story. I think the most important thing was from a historical standpoint. Religious history has played such an important, if not the most important role in the development of our culture. So I like to use it as a symbolic reference element that have a metaphorical relationship to where we are today. For example, Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise for having knowledge. I kind of feel like we’re in an analogous point now with climate change for example. We know so much but instead correcting our mistakes, we make things much more difficult and frightening. We have the ability and knowledge to make change, but its up to us to realize it.

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