LLOYD HAMROL: HEART FELT
By Peter Frank
Some of our best sculptors have all but disappeared from our galleries and museums. Their successes have not so much destroyed them as derailed them, shunting their invention and production out of mainstream artistic discourse and into the realm of “public art” – a realm where imagination is challenged so formidably by exigency, and where responses to that challenge can be so handsomely rewarded, that the desolate struggles of the studio are all but left behind. Sooner or later, however, most of the sculptors who so intrigued us two or three decades ago, and whose success then attracted the attention of architects and consultants and cultural commissioners, return to the context of art itself, wanting to explore ideas and methods finally more appropriate to the intimacy of the studio than to the public arena. Many of these artists, we are gratified to find, are deft enough to maintain their involvement with the public sphere while scratching their experimental itch.
Lloyd Hamrol, for one, has returned to object-making even as he continues to evolve as a “public” sculptor. Hamrol has been able to plant a foot in each camp by remaining true to his sensibility while introducing alternative materials into his “private practice,” materials that serve and even extend his style while allowing that style to continue answering to the purposes of public art. Furthermore, by turning to an unusual, if hardly unprecedented, substance in the quest to realize a new body of autonomous objects, Hamrol has re-engaged the arguments of recent art history in his work – while still pleasing and yet challenging his audience.
To fashion his latest studio work, Hamrol has turned to felt. If not the perfect sculptural medium, felt would seem at least the perfect medium for fashioning three-dimensional objects. Its heft, its neutral coloration, its peculiar flexibility, and its historical, almost atavistic associations all render it malleable and resistant, provocative and familiar – a substance redolent with associations and yet readily fashioned into unpredictable shapes. A few artists have exploited these characteristics – but to such a degree, and at such critical times, that they have all but eaten up our regard for felt as an artistic material. Robert Morris’ experiments with felt, dramatically realized and rather quickly abandoned, examined felt’s relation to gravity and the formal (and metaphorical) results of that relationship. Joseph Beuys’ persistent engagement of felt in his sculptures, installations, and even performances tied our associations with the material to the specific (if apocryphal) role(s) the material played in his own life, imparting to felt an almost mysterious aura of allegory. In the wake of Morris’ and Beuys’ feltworks, anyone else’s is, unfairly, judged derivative. In both their shapeliness and their clever employ of felt, however, Hamrol’s new sculptures issue so clearly from his well-established sensibility that we can finally look past Beuys’ piles and Morris’ plies to a fresh recontextualization of felt itself – and, at least as importantly, a fresh new body of work by a veteran sculptor at the top of his game.
Hamrol turned to felt not two years ago. His earliest work in the medium displays many hallmarks of both his sitework and the large post-minimalist sculpture with which he originally made his mark in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. These hallmarks include quasi-architectural references, not least to indigenous dwellings; stackings, pairings, and other compilations of nearly (but, significantly, not exactly) identical units; and the slight skewing of geometric forms, giving them a sometimes voluptuous curvaceousness. The new-found material allows Hamrol to realize his sculptures in widely disparate sizes, and to take on distinctly different characters when expanded or shrunk; if any of the smaller works functioned as maquettes for the larger, they differ from the larger enough to stand on their own as integral formulations.
A single element comprises the building block for Hamrol’s more recent feltworks. Myriad ordinary strips of felt, thin enough to ply but thick enough to hold the ply, have been bound and tied, bundled and knotted into one another, bunching and gnarling themselves and one another into intricate balls of highly concentrated energy. Here, Hamrol has endowed his feltwork with a new-found rawness and power, a coiled, feral intensity that can prove infectious. Perhaps because of their multipartite structure – and the contrary fact that all those parts are essentially identical – these knotlings promise not simply to engage and entertain the onlooker, as Hamrol’s previous sculptural objects have, but to involve and even engulf the viewer, as have Hamrol’s siteworks. But it should also be noted that these new knot pieces propose to enmesh the viewer in a very different manner than do his site pieces; while the latter physically take the visitor into so many gentle eruptions of landscape, the knotworks propose the absorption of the visitor in a veritable whirlwind of kinetic activity, the abstract equivalent of a rugby scrum or a battlefield – as close, in some ways, as we’ll ever get to being part of one of those agitated scribbles that represent an all-out fistfight in a comic strip.
Hamrol’s most recent forays into felt seem to untie the knots, allowing the strips – now larger and wider – to interweave with and undulate upon one another. The strips still torque and cluster, but rather than coiling into taut, ferocious clots they flap broadly and almost languidly, wave upon wave of intricate choreography blossoming with a new-found grace and elegance. There is still a subtly antic quality to these works, and their reliance on felt strips as the lone coherent unit maintains a visual relationship to drawing, relating them at least obliquely to the modern sculptural tradition of “drawing in space.” (Odd to think of Hamrol’s art as descended from Picasso’s and David Smith’s.)
The knot pieces and the wave pieces, then, seem physical manifestations of abstract animation. They conflate several realms of imagination, some socially available and some solely the province of Hamrol’s studio musings and workings. There has long been a droll aspect to Hamrol’s work, a slightly goofy eccentricity that renders even many of the most profound siteworks that much more approachable. Now that he’s got himself – and us – tied up in knots and untied into waves, Hamrol has expanded his sculptural thinking out of the plaza and into the playground. Are we having fun yet? Thanks to Lloyd Hamrol, and how.