Start with “Awake in the Dark” the large-scale installation that is the centerpiece of an exhibition of the same name at the Austin Public Library Gallery. Artist Hollis Hammonds crafted enormous totems from cast-off objects and plastic recyclables: detergent bottles, every kind of carry-out food container, wire baskets, bubble wrap, a wicker hamper, a rocking horse, metal shelving, paint cans.
Each object is hand painted black and the totems cluster around a massive black and white drawing of a family, backpacks on, trudging through a barren post-apocalyptic landscape in which the trash-totems are stand-ins for trees. An audio soundtrack plays Sasha West reading two of her poems: “Ode to Fossil Fuel” and “How to Abandon Ship.”
“Ode to Fossil Fuel” is a list-like elegy that reads, in part,
“Without you… no moving away from but still keeping family, no clean and running water, no toothbrushes, no antibiotics, no grandmother’s face on the phone teasing my daughter, no ballet shoes, no hothouse ﬂowers at our wedding, no train on my dress, no desire for a train on my dress, you have made us wealthy in goods and time, without you no cookbooks, no inﬂatable pool, no water guns, no smashing the bass at the end of a concert…”
Both installation and exhibition are an urgent imagining of human-made climate disasters, a reminder of the fragility of our ecosystem and our role in its decline. In a body of work both fierce and delicate, Hammonds and West ask that we consider both our individual and societal contributions to the environmental crisis.
Hammonds’ dystopian drawings and found-object installations have long referenced economic disparity, our feverish consumerism and the colossal detritus that consumerism creates. Often, her incredibly detailed drawings are breathtakingly big, landscapes of ruin writ large.
“Wasteland” is 25 feet long, four panels on slick Yupo (a tree-free paper) each with a scene of a burned-out rubble-strewn site. “Beautiful Monsters” is a series on luminous vellum, displayed together in a large grid, each scene based on a photograph from the April 2011 tornado outbreak, with 360 tornadoes the largest of its kind in U.S. history.
Though both Hammonds and West have been on the faculty at St. Edward’s University for several years, it was in 2019 that Hammonds became more intimately curious about West’s poetry. At first, West’s poetry became a creative prompt for Hammonds. Then it became something more. Hammonds had already secured an exhibition at Texas A&M University’s Wright Gallery, but she redirected her plans for it, incorporating West’s poetry as audio and in visuals.
“It’s a really a collaboration between my art and Sasha’s words,” Hammonds tells me when we meet up in the library gallery.
The Wright Gallery show went on view in October 2020 when the campus was largely closed because of the pandemic — a set of circumstances that reinforced the fragility of our existence and environment that Hammonds and West would invites us to ruminate on.
The current exhibition builds on the 2020 show, but includes more full text renderings of West’s poems apropos of its library setting.
Though early in her career Hammonds was reluctant to acknowledge it, she is now the first to you that tell her artistic trajectory follows from personal disaster. At the age of 15 she watched as her family’s modest trailer home burned to the ground. It took an hour for firefighters to arrive to the rural Northern Kentucky homesite.
The destruction Hammonds witnessed and the displacement she experienced still resonates. She expressly presented her personal landscape of devastation 2015 solo show at Women & Their Work. At the time she told me: “Ever since (the fire), I’ve been obsessed with piles of rubble.”
Hence the landscape of rubble in the epically-sized “Wasteland.” It’s based on snapshots Hammonds took of her family’s homesite after the fire.
I tell Hammonds her work speaks to the American character, its presumption of limitless growth and unbounded acquisition of material goods, a 21st-century iteration of Manifest Destiny expansion.
“It is an American story,” she says. “And all of us are complicit in it, and we’re vulnerable.”
As West writes in “How to Abandon Ship”:
We are the accumulated heat of all people ever.
I crawl my way back to that backwards thought:
Our smallest choices make the weather.
“Awake in the Dark: Hollis Hammonds & Sasha West,” continues through Dec. 2 at the Austin Central Library Gallery,