John Hampshire, photo by Elana Gehan
Part of the joy of looking at art is getting in sync in some ways with the decision-making process that the artist used and the record that’s
embedded in the work.
— Chuck Close
John Hampshire employs and embodies labyrinths: he cloaks a mathematician inside an introvert, inside a college professor. He is best known for elaborate portrait drawings that disintegrate upon close inspection into paths of abstract lines that never overlap, a seeming chaos of doodles.
It could be argued that some writers, too, internalize within one body such a complex spirit, inquisitive and process-driven, constantly in motion, and their journals become great art, even when they feel like they are “not creating.” Biographer Diane Middlebrook reveals this phenomenon in the work of Sylvia Plath and refers to Plath’s journals as “the hand drawing the hand” (think M.C. Escher), claiming that, “Her writing itself enacts the process by which writing comes to be.”
So it is in the work of John Hampshire: the drawing enacts the process by which drawing comes to be. His drawings and paintings begin with what would seem random mark-making, only to evolve and congeal into recognizable imagery. We are left with the entire record before us, since Hampshire’s work gels at a distance, but dissolves when viewed up close. I’ve asked him a series of questions that led to these writings. We chose to remove the text of the questions, so that in the manner of his labyrinthine work, in the grand design, the hand alone could draw the hand.
— Mary Kathryn Jablonski
In the mid-1990s I started drawing self-portraits, looking in the mirror, using pen and a language of mark-making and symbols to construct the images. These consisted of things like teardrops, arrows, molecular structures, etc. I wanted these things to remain legible or visible in the finished drawing, and so the idea of not crossing any lines developed out of this concern. Over time, as the drawings became more resolved or detailed, the interest in the symbols fell by the wayside but the structure of not crossing any lines became integral to the drawing process; creating impediments to slow down the process and keep me engaged, a circuitous route to making something. While this process formally started in my work in the mid 90s it is an activity that occurred in my notebooks and doodles in high school.
Self-portrait, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2013
It’s natural for me to paint the people around me. Most of my subjects tend to be people I know, some more casually, some more intensely, than others. I do occasionally work from images of people I do not know, but this is rare. My consciousness or awareness of these people, their natures, or my relationship to them may or may not influence the work. I can’t help but think that it does, but it is not something that I think about when I am working. Formal issues of color and mark and abstraction and representation are the things that I tend to think more consciously about when I’m working. That’s not to say that the results do not have qualities beyond these concerns.
Gina, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2014
The labyrinth drawings typically are in black and white, as the introduction of color makes them much more complicated. The paintings vacillate between full bombastic colors or subdued earthy colors, or are completely restricted to grays. I usually aim for full color with the portrait paintings, but after doing several of those and needing relief, I resort to black and white.
Lauren, acrylic on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015
I started the paintings around the same time as the drawings, in the mid 90s, and the sensibilities that directed the drawings related very much to the sensibilities that directed the paintings. Painting is very much about physicality and layering and those are not things I was very successful at denying, hence the continuing of layering marks of color over one another. The paint marks themselves are more or less responsive to information derived from the subject matter that I’m looking at, whether a person in front of me, my reflection in the mirror, or a photograph. In all cases I am pulling vague and then subsequently more specific information from my interaction with the subject matter. My aim, in the drawings and paintings, is that the language of mark or line remain present and visible and that the process of the making of the drawing or painting is readily apparent or accessible to the viewer. The tension between both mark and image simultaneously asserting themselves is something I like to have in the work. I’m an abstract painter unwilling to let go of the primal desire for representation.
Inherent Strings attached, acrylic, string on panel, 11″ x 14″, 2015
The painting itself (or in some cases drawing) usually determines the degree of resolution that occurs in the work. I find that the recognizability of the human face allows for an immense amount of abstraction to occur while retaining the visual implication of a face. The degree of resolution that the painted image brings is determined by the painting and whether it’s working or not. I keep painting until I feel the work is resolved; sometimes this requires more and sometimes less resolution in an image.
The paintings more recently have also incorporated clear medium between layers of paint, physically separating the paint strokes from each other, and playing up the three-dimensional quality of painting. In some cases I’ve even incorporated string or other objects in the clear medium. This goes along with the nature of the way I handle paint in these works; less like manipulated liquid material. The marks retain themselves and their individual identities more like the tesserae used to make mosaics.
Labyrinth 308, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2014
Although I have made some very large portraits, most are somewhat conservative in scale, and it is the landscapes that tend to be more monumental. My interest is in the sublime power of nature, but more tangibly, I am interested in the dichotomy between the ephemeral qualities of weather or fire or clouds and the tangible physicality of the language of mark-making or lines that are used to build these images. While the portraits are typically of people I know based on photos I take, the landscape references are an amalgam of my own photos, appropriated imagery and imagined passages. The complexity of landscapes and weather, the deeper sense of space contrasting the surface of the drawing and the greater compositional possibilities are all attractive traits for me with the landscapes.
Labyrinth 338, ink on door, 24″ x 80″, 2015
Lately, particularly with the landscapes, I’ll start with some long lines that will break up the picture plane, which tends to be on prepared hollow core doors these days, and I’ll have very little, if any, anticipation of what particular image will develop. As I go along I start to select an image and start to build that, and then I’ll add other imagery to the drawing, working from both the photo references as well as imagination to put these disjointed images together. Intuition plays a major role in decision-making, and most thinking is retrospective rather than anticipatory with the work.
Labyrinth 311, ink on door, 32″ x 80″, 2015
I have always had an interest in math and physics, and I was a math minor in undergraduate school. I see a relationship between these pursuits and interests and those of my current work and working methods. There are simultaneous dichotomies in my work: abstraction versus representation; solid tangible marks describing soft ephemeral transitions of light in an atmosphere or form; abstract expressionist versus Renaissance ideas about pictorial space or depicting form; surface versus image. These dichotomies make me think of some of the juxtapositions or seeming incongruities in physics, such as those between the harmonious Einsteinian relativity and anti-intuition of quantum mechanics; or the duality of light, having qualities of both waves and particles.
The mystery of painting seems more alive than ever with its growing history, and physics is no different. The more we know, the more perplexing the universe seems: the simultaneity of Schrodinger’s cat in a box, being both alive and dead until you open the box. The abstraction of these ideas to a philosophical level seems easily transferred to image-making, color theory and optics. With painting, I’m not exactly sure when the box is open, or if it ever is. Things really remain undefined until the viewer experiences the work; even then ambiguities persist.
John Hampshire is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at SUNY Adirondack and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally. He is the recipient of many honors and awards, including most recently a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity, a NYFA fellowship grant, and a Purchase Award from the Hyde Museum. http://johnhampshire.weebly.com
John’s 2015 video interview with AHA! A House for the Arts can be seen on YouTube.
A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist and poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.