The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton is located in a repurposed 18th-century stone grist mill along the south branch of the Raritan River. Its old wood creaks and exudes vestiges of history alongside the contemporary art it exhibits. Since 1970 the museum has exhibited the likes of Toshiko Takaezu, Harry Bertoia, Isamu Noguchi, Salvador Dali, Red Grooms, Philip Guston, Louise Nevelson, and Ad Reinhardt, as well as local artists.
Three exhibitions this summer offer three different approaches to contemporary artmaking.
“Contemporary Perspectives in Print Media” takes up most of the gallery space this season (see sidebar), but on the second floor, follow your curiosity through the black-curtained portal and enter the world of “Mary Oestereicher Hamill: regardisregard.” It begins “a dialogue that calls into question contemporary art’s engagement with issues of human suffering and privilege,” say exhibition materials.
Once inside you are facing a wall covered with cardboard cartons, onto which are projected scenes of people without homes. Such decamped individuals are often associated with cardboard — cartons can become shelter, or a blanket under which to keep dry and warm. In our world of online shopping, everything arrives in cardboard that even the most ardent recyclers often find themselves discarding, much the way we’ve discarded and disregarded this segment of our society. When we see a pile of cardboard cartons, we are conditioned to look away.
The motivation for the project is reflected in its title and in the closing words, “Look at us. See us. Listen to us. Hear us.”
“I called the project ‘regardisregard’ because the heart of the matter is to see, to regard,” says Hamill. “In this case to see what generally goes unseen, what is disregarded. Thus to ‘regard disregard.’ Additionally, the title carries the idea of what matters, what we value, what is worthwhile.
“Further, it was important to me that this artwork would not somehow be just us who have homes looking at them who have no homes,” continues Hamill. “And so the project has been characterized by interactivity, by activism, presenting (in the words of Mark Bessire) ‘the gaze behind the gaze behind the gaze.’
“What I want people to take away is greater awareness, especially more keen and sensitive seeing of the way things really are.”
During this respite from the brightly colored artwork outside the curtain, we contemplate the disregarded, listening to a recording composed by Ruth Loman for four soloists and chorus singing words of the homeless excerpted from the tapes.
Hamill wrote the libretto. “During the many hours of videotaping by the homeless collaborators, the cameras were also gathering incidental street sounds and discussions. (Loman and I) selected the most poignant and meaningful utterances for a libretto.” Among the words are “sleeping by the fence beaten with a bat,” “no shelter,” “no safety,” “sleeping in the doorway I turn into a dog,” “on the streets but we are not seen,” “Listen to us, see us, hear us, look at us.”
On another wall is a lightbox with film strips, where we view people behind a chain link fence, an American flag, figures on the street.
“regarddisregard” resulted from a collaboration with 33 homeless men and women who were loaned camcorders to film their world for a day. The videotaping occurred in Boston between 2001 and 2004 — the men and women learned to use video cameras to capture sights and sounds of their daily lives. (The collaborators’ names are respectfully etched into a board, a wood scrap marked with footprints.) The very bench you can rest on while taking this all in was crafted of salvaged wood by the homeless collaborators.
As part of the original project, the collaborators wear placards with their images hung from their necks to make themselves seen—not invisible—to lobbyists and legislators at the Massachusetts State House. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called the performative installation “wonderful,” saying “these photographs tell us more eloquently than any words that the homeless are all around us…”
The filmstrips resulting from the project became walls of a shelter when exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where gallery goers were taped for a live feed to the homeless via monitors in downtown store windows. “It was integral to the project,” Hamill reflects. “Homeless people would not just be seen but would be seeing. They were intrigued with being on the sidewalk and looking at the store-front monitors that showed the museum visitors experiencing the art project. At the same time many people inside the museum found themselves participating in a process more complex and deep than the simple act of looking.”
Interventions such as this occur in both artmaking and psychology, another hat Hamill wears.
“Having grown up female in the 1950s in Ann Arbor, I’ve been on a path of forging social change ever since adolescence,” she says. “Over the years my interest in helping marginalized and under-served sets of people has remained a constant.”
The daughter of the chief medical director for dentistry of the U.S. Veterans Administration, who also served as vice president of the American Dental Association, and a mother who spent her time raising six children, Hamill went to work as a senior research scientist in the New York Department of Mental Hygiene. Her team’s work led to national legislation ensuring equal education for people with disabilities. From there Hamill earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University and served as associate dean at Brooklyn College.
“Two decades ago when I decided to step away from institutional responsibilities and work on my own, I turned to making art,” she says, honing skills at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston “to address in a freer way the same kinds of concerns as I had earlier… Making art entails seeing differently. Seeing differently can in turn have significant implications for oneself and one’s choices.”
Her path to working with the homeless population began at the start of the millennium after a visit to the Venice Biennale. It was there, she “decided that I would make art aspiring to universality and addressing what I thought of as the worst problem facing humanity, namely the worldwide growing divide between the rich and the poor. I wanted to make art that could move thousands of people to see what was going on… I had decided that the palpable visual embodiment of this issue was the homeless people sitting and lying on the sidewalks I walked each day. I began by taking documentary photographs but immediately felt that these men and women would be better served by documenting their own lives on the street.”
Hamill has also worked with dispossessed populations in Vietnam, Beijing, New Mexico, and New York’s Chinatown, giving them tools and means to tell their own stories. “In a remote rural village in Vietnam we lived for a month in an empty school house and delivered simple medical care to people who had never seen a doctor; in the evenings I led them to document their fishing and weaving and then ultimately to display their photographs in the community center. Later, as public affairs officer for Project Hope on the hospital ship USNS Mercy, I worked with people living in Cambodia. And, long interested in the tradition of respect for the elderly in Chinese cultures, I carried out small art projects with them in the hutongs of Beijing and in New York’s Chinatown.”
With Chath PierSath she directs the Cambodia War Widows Project. While visiting the region in 2006, delivering medical care to remote rural people, making art, and documenting the medical expedition, she was struck by the destitute state of the people. “It was horrific. I wanted to go back to be helpful and learn about their culture.” She had an opportunity to return with Project Hope. “It was striking that Cambodia’s poor were thoroughly neglected. I wanted to make them the focus of an art project to help bring international attention to their situation.”
In making cyanotype pillowcases in memory of their families’ and deceased husbands’ objects (these were exhibited in 2015 at the Woodrow Wilson School’s Bernstein Gallery in Princeton, where Hamill now serves as curator), “they were able to explore memories and creatively re-imagine their past,” gaining understanding and new perspective.
“Nobody ever asked them before,” Hamill recounts the reaction of the war widows. “They wanted their stories to be heard and their artwork to be seen. They gained a sense of satisfaction in making art that would communicate far beyond the borders of their remote village.” And with funds raised from exhibiting their cyanotypes and stories, their village was able to construct a small toilet building with running water.
At press time, Hamill was in the process of packing up the Princeton home where she has lived for the past several years and moving to a new home, also in Princeton, where she will have a studio. She lives with her husband, John Neale, a physician, and is mother to Andrew LaFarge Hamill, a sculptor who lives in Brooklyn and is a partner in Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, and Carl Oestereicher, who lives in Manhattan and writes.
Hamill’s upcoming season at the Bernstein Gallery includes: September 1, a civil rights exhibition with comics and graphic novels on the lives of Martin Luther King and John Lewis; December 1, in conjunction with the residency of Gustavo Dudamel at Princeton University Concerts, “Music Made Visible: Metaphors of the Ephemeral” by Marsha Levin-Rojer; March 1, 2019, “Biodiversity Loss” by Maya Lin and the What is Missing? foundation.
Mary Oestereicher Hamill: regardisregard, Hunterdon Art Museum, 7 Lower Center Street, Clinton. Through September 2. $5 suggested admission. 908-735-8415 or www.hunterdonartmuseum.org.
Printmaking takes new forms in “Multiple Ones: Contemporary Perspectives in Print Media” at the Hunterdon Art Museum through September 2. Says curator Sheila Goluborotko: “With the development of the digital cosmos, the potential for editioning and multiplication has become meaningless and at times nostalgic; nowadays, everything can be transmitted and shared on multiple platforms, numerous times.
The print media in this exhibition literally comes off the wall, as in a sculptural origami-like monotype and screenprint by Lauren Kussro that plays with light and shadow; words about identity printed on found oxidized silver plate flatware made by removing patterns of tarnish (Guen Montgomery); biomorphic forms cut from wood by Marilee Salvator and etched with prints in bright colors that add another layer of biomorphism; and, captured on video, a screenprint on ice that becomes motion as the ice melts. Jill Parisi works three-dimensionally in etching on paper made from locally farmed flax and Loktah tissue.
Katie Truk wants to prove pantyhose are more than just a torture device for women. “Katie Truk: Stretched Sculpture” is also on view through September 2. “Her pieces are a marriage of the sensual malleability of pantyhose and the rigidity of wire,” say exhibition materials. “Thread binds and extends the aggression and vulnerability, echoing life’s twists, turns and pulling within our rigorous regulations and expectations.”
“When you break it down, my work is about tension and geometry,” Truk says. “And isn’t that what the world is based on?”