When and how does a rough-hewn rock from Georgia’s Chattahoochie River become a purse in the style to which Queen Elizabeth is famously partial? Or tattered oyster shell from the same state’s Tybee Beach metamorphose into an opera mask?
Contrary to what you might be thinking, no environmentally friendly, ecologically sound sleight-of-hand is at play here. These and other painstakingly elegant artifices burst into reality courtesy of English-born artist Tim Hadfield, who now resides in the well-groomed, eccentrically Southern mecca of Savannah, Ga.
Call it conceptual art, if you’re looking for a label. “I like to think I can take almost any object and come up with something new out of it, come up with a different meaning locked inside the form,” reveals Hadfield.
The artist’s most recent work is on display at Asheville’s Zone one contemporary gallery, in an show appropriately called In Form. Flanking this exhibit is an installation titled Fresh Millennium, which both humorously criticizes and grudgingly celebrates the work of much-lauded, yet much-reviled interior-design wizard Martha Stewart. Specifically, the installation revisits certain pages from the February 2000 issue of Stewart’s popular Living magazine. Fresh Millennium features more work by Hadfield, as well as that of fellow artists Randy Akers and Athena Marsh (who happens to be married to Hadfield). For the purposes of the Stewart spectacle, the three artists collectively call themselves H.A.M., which is boldly emblazoned directly onto the gallery’s walls.
The small, arresting pieces Hadfield unveils for In Form are carefully executed on stark white paper in colored pencil, graphite pencil and watercolor — enhancing selected bits of natural detritus (“My house is full of stones and leaves and branches I’ve collected,” he confesses). By adding a well-placed pencil line or two, Hadfield reinvents and sometimes shockingly displaces natural forms such as stones, shells and leaves. By the same token, the artist occasionally turns unnatural materials into deeply organic tableaus.
“Old Lady’s Purse” involves Hadfield’s picture-perfect-with-a-twist rendering of a small, scaly stone he picked up near the Chattahoochie River. “I found all these unusual stones at the river,” he remembers, “and I was especially struck by the texture of this one, which is like skin.” By adding two semicircular lines, the stone becomes a purse. The texture looked like crocodile,” says Hadfield. “I felt like it was like an old lady’s purse. And I liked the idea of the intervention of my marks being as simple as possible.”
Similarly, “Phantom” appropriates an oyster shell Hadfield found on the beach. In the artist’s hands, the weathered shell becomes a gorgeously delicate mask. Two round spaces carved out by harsh coastal elements become “eye holes.” The artist has added a single pencil line to create the illusion of a mask. “I love the idea that you can take almost anything from the natural landscape and sort of reinvent it and turn it into something else, and take something inanimate and make it animate again,” Hadfield explains. “And this shell had these strange two holes in it, so it looked to me like a mask of some type, when I first found it. By adding the graphite line, I just sort of emphasized that element that was already in place.”
A series of three small stones becomes “Boat (Invasion),” “Summit (Conquest)” and “Fort (Possession).” As indicated by their titles, the stones — again, rendered with near-photographic detail — are reinvented by adding to their respective tops the simple lines of sails, a flag and turrets. “The idea is that these three are as simple as they can be, and yet they take on this heavy weight,” Hadfield points out.
And speaking of heavy, “Smile in the Time of Kosovo” is a haunting reminder of the recent, horrific “ethnic cleansing” of that country by Yugoslavian troops. It consists of Hadfield’s detailed drawings of eight irregular rocks — each of which somehow resembles a skull — the pieces are arranged in two rows, strung together with a mouth-shaped line. “I always had the idea of using these little stones, which again came from the Chattahoochie, as teeth,” explains Hadfield. “And I realized these ‘teeth’ also looked like skulls. Kosovo was so terrible, and I had a connection because I’d been on holiday in Yugoslavia in the past. So this was meant to be kind of an ugly drawing in some ways, to represent the ugliness of what was going on. And it’s really not so much a smile as a kind of grimace.”
Works such as “Savannah Square,” “Figure With Pink,” “Figure With Yellow” and “Figure With Blue” feature artificial materials (laminate and Formica samples, to be exact) at their center — not reanimated by Hadfield, but actually affixed to the pieces. In an interesting play between the real and the unreal, the unnatural becomes natural here — particularly in “Savannah Square,” which is meant to represent one of the city’s trademark public spaces. Four wood-toned laminate samples make up the “square,” while a single leaf — executed in watercolor and colored pencil — floats in each corner. “The leaves are drawn to look very real, and then these laminate samples are really an artificial surface pretending to be wood — so it’s a play within a play. And then the piece forms a square. But the idea is, the arrangement looks as if it’s almost living, walking — with the arms and legs [i.e., the leaves in each corner] slightly off-center, so it’s not balanced. It’s more of the unreal being more real, as it were.” And the colored Formica pieces that form the three “Figure” works foreshadow the tongue-in-cheek homage to Martha Stewart: Fresh Millennium.
“On the one hand, the three of us are actually fans of Martha Stewart, because she gets the very best people to work with her, and her stuff is beautifully photographed and the colors are phenomenal, especially where Living magazine is concerned,” relates Hadfield. “On the other hand, her kind of homogenization of the whole idea of design is really disturbing.”
The installation consists of three gallery walls: one by Akers (a Savannah resident who’s best known for his computer-graphics work in such Hollywood blockbusters as Aliens, Out of Africa and Peggy Sue Got Married); one by Hadfield; and one by Athena Marsh, a Savannah painter/graphic designer.
At the heart of the installation lies the notion of interiors as art.
“The idea was that we each would chose a page from Living magazine, and would [interpret that page on] a gallery wall. Then, we’d be able to stand back and look at how three different people would interpret these pages. We each chose our page from the same issue of the magazine and were able to do the wall exactly how we wanted. It was nice, because none of us knew what the other was going to do. So that was fun, the spontaneity of the whole process. Who knew whether it would work or not?”
The artists arrived in town on Thursday and had one day to complete the installation, before the exhibit’s opening on Friday. “What I really liked about doing this installation … was … [that] I couldn’t obsess over it,” Marsh relates. “Basically, it amounted to one whole day to do it, start to finish. So I liked the immediacy of working right there on the wall. While you want to get it right, you also have to accept that it won’t be perfect — which was sort of a way of subverting Martha’s insistence on just exactly that: everything being perfect.”
Aker’s wall is curtained by a line of carnival-colored feather dusters hanging from the gallery ceiling. The Living page this artist chose to interpret features a lamp, a profuse flower bouquet and an elegant vase. Far from the dizzying perfection of Stewart’s magazine pages, however, Aker’s interpretation is a bit (beautifully) sloppy — with dripping paint and a vague, impressionist feel.
Marsh’s wall is more hard-edged. Taken from a magazine page that brandishes the words, “When was the last time you used some glue?”, the artist used bold blocks of color (lavender, tangerine, yellow, lime) containing simple line drawings of hot-glue guns and such. “I used colors from Martha’s paint range on my wall,” Marsh points out. “In some cases, we followed the layout of the magazine and chose the colors used there, but we also took a bit of artistic liberty and used other colors that we liked. And to be honest, at least two of the colors I know of that we used in the installation were Martha Stewart colors that Tim and I have in our house, and they happened to fit. So, while we’re poking fun at her, we’re still acknowledging that we have this stuff in our home.
“I liked the combination of the hard-edged blocks of color and the more spontaneous drawings,” continues Marsh. “I did all of the drawing on my wall in 20 minutes. I deliberately wanted it to be quick and almost sort of bad drawing. I liked the idea of it being not-quite-so-perfect. And that’s what Tim did on his wall, as well, because he used the charcoal and those sweeping lines. His drawings are, of course, normally quite tight. It was out of character — and kind of liberating.”
The sweeping lines on Hadfield’s wall depict, in part, a cozy breakfast scene: grapefruit halves, coffee cups, linens — all done in voluptuous Stewart oranges, yellows and pinks (“Ablaze” and “Tinkerbell” are two of the evocative technical names for Stewart’s paint shades). A “to-do” calendar — which fell on the Living page Hadfield chose — is also part of his wall, offering such suggestions as “Home in order” (Feb. 17), “Pick up fallen leaves as they accumulate” (Feb. 18), “Remulch where necessary” (Feb. 20) and, perhaps most memorably, “Vacuum and turn mattresses” (Feb. 22).
“When you look at the calendar, it kind of looks do-able,” reasons Marsh. “But, in real life, your average person is lucky to get one of those things done in a month or more. And the ‘vacuum and turn mattresses’ thing is just her tidiness taken to an outrageous extreme. Some of the suggestions are really useful, and some are just completely in another galaxy.”