The hair of the dog? To fight fire with fire? A spike with a spike, net­works with net­work­ing, insti­tu­tions with insti­tu­tion­alisms? Pow­er with the accu­mu­la­tion of pow­er? Strikes with strikes, vio­lence with vio­lence, class with class? Escapism with escape… Art with art? What means jus­ti­fy what end? For the self? The career? The fam­i­ly? The nation? The world? All’s fair in love and war, right? Sor­ry, he says, but it’s all for my love Olive!

A small selec­tion from a larg­er body of new paint­ings, this show stems from a sin­gle image car­toon of Pop­eye The Sailor Man. The cartoon’s rela­tion to the depic­tion of time, rep­e­ti­tion, vio­lence, and love inspired the series. The paint­ings are con­struct­ed using a sim­ple sys­tem. Right fist or left fist? Back of the hand or front of the hand? White paint or black paint?”1


Con­sid­er­ing so many of Vancouver’s com­mer­cial art gal­leries are exhibit­ing a love affair with abstract paint­ing of late, I was pleased to vis­it Jordy Hamilton’s exhi­bi­tion at Wil Aballe’s Art Projects space. One is con­front­ed with a melee of trunks and limbs over and over again—in each paint­ing, the repeat­ed motif of the body mor­ph­ing into a tree of Pop­eye fore­arms (with a soli­tary flower held up in a fist2 man­ag­ing to remain unscathed up top), ground smash­ing up against fig­ure, sin­cer­i­ty strug­gling with cyn­i­cism. One almost gets the sense that the artist’s painter­ly prac­tice is not entire­ly com­fort­able with itself, to the point of self-mock­ery, and it doesn’t pull any punch­es either when it comes to its assess­ment of the art world. Although this is of course my inter­pre­ta­tion (with a lit­tle help from the artist state­ment above). I see an irrev­er­ence in Hamilton’s work that might not be entire­ly leg­i­ble at first sight, but I also see a search for some­thing deep­er dwelling in the paint. One can detect humour in his flog­ging-a-dead-horse” paint­ing strat­e­gy, and in the apolo­getic and self-dep­re­cat­ing title that greet us at the front door.

Does the self-con­scious title refer to the embar­rass­ment of admit­ting to the impulse to paint (and still not real­ly know­ing what it means to be a painter who has a lot to say besides…)? The title wel­comes us as a warn­ing just as we enter the gallery (it also reminds me of a few stu­dio vis­its I’ve had with artists who are torn by doubt, and want to take a lit­tle pres­sure off the sit­u­a­tion by bring­ing the work down a few notch­es in advance). You would think the title would be, Sor­ry, a bit daft but…”, but that’s not the word­ing. The words seem jum­bled, as if the artist were tongue-tied. And what we behold in actu­al­i­ty is essen­tial­ly a jum­ble of body parts and paint strokes on can­vas, arms over arms and fists over fists – is it the strug­gle of the artist with him­self (beat­ing him­self up), or the artist fight­ing an invis­i­ble force—such as that of art (in all its insti­tu­tion­al and roman­tic forms)? And why beat one­self up in the stu­dio or in the are­na of art, over this (paint­ing)? What does it serve beyond the thirst for recog­ni­tion? Or at the risk of sound­ing corny, is it a sub­li­mat­ed form of love?3

Hamil­ton tells us, the series is from a sin­gle car­toon image from Pop­eye The Sailor Man. Every­one from at least the artist’s gen­er­a­tion of spec­ta­tor­ship back to Popeye’s debut in 1929 remem­bers the spinach-fueled fights of the Pop­eye com­ic strips and ani­ma­tions (Elzie Crisler Segar and Max & Dave Fleis­ch­er respec­tive­ly). The love tri­an­gle of Pop­eye, Blu­to and Olive always dom­i­nat­ed the main plot line, with Bluto’s brute force and less-than-gal­lant inten­tions toward Olive being the bane of Pop­eye exis­tence; a fight invari­ably ensued, and Pop­eye always had to resort to spinach to out­do Blu­to. Pop­eye car­toons are well known for their exag­ger­at­ed, over-stat­ed motion-effects. And in this par­tic­u­lar image Hamil­ton glommed onto a beau­ty. In the repeat­ed motif, it is hard to tell whether there is only one man fight­ing (Pop­eye) or two (Pop­eye and Blu­to). And because the arms mul­ti­ply to thir­ty or forty arms in total, one could even begin to see the fig­ure as a grotesque new being of Leviathanesque pro­por­tions.4 One deduces that there is only one per­son here, see­ing as the front of each fore­arm sports that tell­tale anchor. One imag­ines that the image refers to the famil­iar sight-gag of the oppo­nent hav­ing stepped out of the fight-cloud, so as to watch the soli­tary fight­er bat­tle it out with no one (the ulti­mate humil­i­a­tion). Is the joke on the artist, on the view­er, on the art world? Why this pile up of limbs held up for all to see? Why the macho image of the car­toon-cloud fight? Why must we look at a series of paint­ings that are essen­tial­ly rep­e­ti­tions of the same con­tent over and over again? One might answer: social cri­tique, auto-cri­tique, and find­ing new strate­gies that allow one to con­tin­ue paint. They all go hand-in-hand, bat­tling it out on the can­vas. The strat­e­gy mate­ri­al­izes itself alle­gor­i­cal­ly as this repeat­ed, accret­ed form. In repeat­ing the same form over an over again, the image is what it is and at the same time it is what it is not. The paint­ing itself has become a wrestling match with paint.

The mass of limbs, the var­ie­gat­ed fak­tu­ra of the paint, the lim­it­ed black-and-white palette, and the black-out­line low-brow car­toon sub­ject mat­ter remind me of Philip Gus­ton. It may well be an homage to Gus­ton, and the con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of his idio­syn­crat­ic prac­tice: nev­er fol­low­ing trends, uncom­pro­mis­ing in sub­ject mat­ter, alien­at­ing and com­ic all at once. Oth­er painters come to mind. Mont Saint-Vic­toire was the top­ic of between sev­en­ty and eighty paint­ings by Paul Cezanne, all paint­ed with­in a twen­ty year peri­od at the end of his life. Appar­ent­ly his con­cern was not to ren­der the moun­tain exact­ly but to achieve a sense of har­mo­ny par­al­lel to nature” (his words). The return to the self-por­trait was a con­stant for Rem­brandt. If one is unsure of what to paint, or doesn’t have any­one handy, there is always one­self to fall back on. How to paint took over from what to paint.

Hamil­ton deals with his sub­ject a lit­tle more alle­gor­i­cal­ly (more in line with Gus­ton), the Pop­eye fig­ure reveal­ing a ridicu­lous mas­culin­i­ty, action dri­ven, pre­dictably iter­at­ed motions, reflect­ing all the homoso­cial­i­ty and self-love involved in pur­su­ing that so-called ide­al love object. The daisy at the top is almost an after-thought in each one, the sym­bol let­ting the view­er know why I am going this.’ The lone daisy seems to point to an objet petit a5 that fills in for the absur­di­ty of going through the motions of such exploits each day—the strug­gles in the stu­dio, the smat­ter­ings and daub­ings, some­thing to hang onto, that con­stant that you can always turn to when life begins to lose a bit of its lus­ter… At the same time, the lim­i­ta­tions on the painting’s for­mat, palette, and sub­ject mat­ter were per­haps a strat­e­gy that forced the artist to focus sole­ly on the paint itself – a loos­en­ing of sub­ject mat­ter so as to bet­ter con­front the stuff of paint. This loos­en­ing is hint­ed at in the titles of each paint­ing or group­ing of paint­ings, in their empha­sis on pared down being: the group­ing of four–“we are”; and then the var­i­ous indi­vid­ual paint­ings: he is”, she is,” you are,” I am.”6 The paint­ings are. They are paint­ings made of paint. And while they do rep­re­sent also, this is done repeat­ed­ly to the point of ridicu­lous­ness or exhaus­tion. As a group and indi­vid­u­al­ly. The one is many and the many are one. We are all in it togeth­er, and it is look­ing more and more com­i­cal and grotesque, but nonethe­less vis­cer­al­ly mov­ing, the longer it goes on.


Many thanks to Ari­ane Noel de Tilly for edit­ing.



1 Jordy Hamilton’s artist state­ment for the exhi­bi­tion A Bit Daft: Sor­ry but.

2 This one iso­lat­ed fist trans­forms from its place in the fisticuffs, into an almost icon­ic all pow­er to the peo­ple” type motif—although here it would be more all pow­er to love…”

3 As the­o­rized by Freud… And one won­ders about the lines in the artist state­ment: Art with art? What means jus­ti­fy what end? For the self? The career? The fam­i­ly? The nation? The world? All’s fair in love and war, right? Sor­ry, he says, but it’s all for my love Olive!” The state­ment has a cheeky Quixot­ic qual­i­ty to it.

4 Refer­ring to Thomas Hobbes’ fron­tispiece image in his book The Leviathan (1651).

5 For Lacan, the unat­tain­able object of desire. It is untrans­late­able, and the mean­ing dif­fi­cult to pin down.

6 Pop­eye would always say, I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I am,” mean­ing per­haps that he can’t help what he is, and he’s the gen­uine article.