Reginald Hamilton’s painting faces into the past, engaging with history, art history, and memory. Equally assertively it indexes present experience as painting of modern life. As paradoxical as this may seem, it is because of this consideration of the past, not in spite of it, that these paintings take on a contemporary resonance. Drawing upon historical fragments and shards of memory, Hamilton’s paintings do not pretend to be post cards airmailed direct from some barely remembered experience, or an image bounced in via satellite from some distant historical battlefield. There is no past moment of wholeness being presented here. There is not enlightened golden age being put forth as a nostalgic vessel for our contemplation. Rather than the self-sufficient illusion of nostalgia, Hamilton’s paintings propose that our relationship to the past remains fractured, legible only in traces. Historical fragments such as the tiny enigmatic squares found at the vanishing point in Tintoretto’s paintings are deployed over and over again in Hamilton’s work. Pulled forward in time, these squares are used in reference to both “Tintoretto and his time frame and also in reference to minimalist painting such as Reinhardt’s and Malevich’s."1 The ubiquity of the square in modernist iconography and the varied circumstances of its appearance undermines any desire for a specific reference point. In images as formally similar as Malevich’s White on White of 1917 or his Basic Suprematist Element of the square of 1913 and Ad Reinhardt’s paintings of the 1960’s the squares takes on vastly different connotations.2 Thus destabilized, the square as it is deployed in Hamilton’s painting is emblematic of the strained relationship between our desire (for history) and the elusiveness of the historical referent. Throughout these paintings Hamilton builds up a partina, an imitation of age. Sometimes, as in Leave of absence 1990, parts of the surface are burned, on other occasions lamp black oil paint delineates the edge of a leaf, or smoke traces form a flame rise across the surface of the canvas. The deep umber and Rembrandt brown hues and the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow in the Instruments of Illumination 1990 series is purposely archaic and is evocative of the Baroque but it remains a kind of correspondence, a poetic resonance, not a specific allusion. In this same series, the figure of the gas light is recalled. As a technology form a bygone age these lamps are often copied by modern manufacturers as a symbol of tradition, of permanence. Lighting the landscape when the sunset fades to dusk it is lamplight of the light of the dying (or rising) sun which suffuses the canvas, or both? Is the light natural or technological? Modern or antique? In this cross-talk of references and allusions we remain enmeshed in our present context, discovering our reflections in the dark surfaces of these paintings. At each turn, our desires, our expectations of the paintings are turned away. The iconic circular figure in the One hundred (sorrows past) 1990 series appears highly sorrowful and melodramatic, its circular form reminding us of the endless recurrence, the cyclical return of sorrows past (and yet to come). Yet, its derivation is truly banal a design found on a lid from a jam jar. In Leaves of absence 1990, a series of leaves free-fall across the canvas. Drawn in, we discover that the leaves which fall across this painterly field are not drawn by hand but are thick oil paint stenciled on to the field. Here, gold leaf is mockingly deployed as a gold leaf. There, a roughly sewn seam ruptures the picture plane. The poetic image, the painterly illusion is time and again fractured by the re-assertion of the materiality of the painting. Any desire to experience these paintings as some kind of quasi-spiritual excess – divine lux as opposed to perceived lumen3 – is frustrated. Not finding nostalgic refuge in the past, nor discovering a mystic retreat, we are compelled to remain firmly in the present, ruminating on our relationship to the past and our desire for history. However, in as much as history –however constructed out of these fragments and traces of the past- is one of the fields upon which social and psychic identity is marked out, it is important to look at Hamilton’s painting as more than another post modern neo-existentialist meditation upon historylessness. To raise the question of identity is to suggest that Hamilton’s paintings must be see within a more specific rubric – that of masculinity. Traditionally, historiography has ascribed to masculinity a dominant public and dominating private role in our culture; thus for men the re-evaluation of history and our desire for it carries unique dangers and responsibilities. For while it is imperative that we critique these histories and their legacies, we are also inscribed into and produced by them from our earliest moments. There is no outside position from which to speak, no position of otherness. We must somehow plunder the master narratives for some thread, some trace of redemption. It would ring hollow for us to claim the kind of didactic implicit “no” that Serge Berard is able to claim for Carol Wainio’s painting4. At the same time there is no response to the histories of masculinity which cannot be at the very least equivocating, and perhaps should be much more. The fragmented historical referent in Hamilton’s paintings speaks volumes about his equivocating, one might say oedipal, relationship that masculinity has with the histories that have in part produced it. In this context, the circular figure from the One hundred (sorrows past) 1990 series reminds us of the generational cycles – from father to son and back again – that feed into this cycle of sorrows (and joys) past (and future). Finally, it is Hamilton’s reminder of the vast gap between our desire for history and the historical fragment that is most redemptive, revealing the absence of the ‘centre’ – masculinity’s conflicted relationship with its own veiled history.
Daniel Sharp, G101 Artistic Director