Print as a Means of Gesture

Tamar Chameides

From afar, David Hammons’ Rock Head (2000) looks like a stone that has endured unusual exposure to an element, which had naturally darkened half of the form. At a first glance, I thought it was a rock that was half submerged in nutrient-rich creek water for many years, excavated and put on display for public viewing. It was only until I took a couple more steps closer that I realized the darkness I saw from afar was actually human hair, adhered so tightly to the rock that it looked like it had grown out of it. These short trimmings of hair clearly belonged to many different individuals, as some were white as well as different shades of brown, all thoroughly mixed in unison. While one can argue that the body of this work is just a large generic rock with no distinguishable traits, it is the freedom from any presentational aesthetic that allows for such an impactful and interpretive piece, an anonymous yet universal identity.

Hammons, who works with found materials, collected this hair from the floor of a historically African American Harlem barber shop. The word  “roots” struck me while reflecting on this piece, as one can make the connection between historical roots and hair roots, which have been wildly displaced and “pasted” onto a foreign foundation. Even the location of this piece speaks to this idea, as it now sits in a glass case in Providence, Rhode Island, a place with history in the slave trade. There is an eerie and unnatural quality to this piece, as stray pieces of hair separated from the scalp make you wonder what actually happened to the head they grew out of. The simplicity of the rock allows for the hair to be the focal point, while simultaneously offering a dynamic new shape from every perspective you get as you walk around the display case. The use of this hair forces us to rethink the idea of what waste is. Hammons claims, “our hair is positive, powerful, look what it can do.” The detailing of distinguishable partings creating “rows” of hair on a small patch of the head further narrates the historical culture of African American identity, as they resemble cornrows, a hair braiding technique formed by enslaved Africans in America. Similarly, a notable “bald spot” can be distinguished on a section of the head, which, in my opinion, brilliantly anthropomorphizes this rock, showing that it has either gone through immense aging or stress, or it has withered due to outside elements over time.

While this piece may present itself as simple in its aesthetic, it has become a profound icon for African identity in America, and especially in New York City, where Hammons lives and works. This piece transforms something natural, found, and easily accessible into a universal symbol for racial identity and iconography that will live on for generations to come. Hammons’ choice of material for this piece gives us a glimpse into his view on the subject of the eternal and indifferent qualities of race on earth. By using stone, a widely used natural material historically known for its durability, Hammons comments on the strength and endurance of the marginalized African American community. When bridging two found materials together, each one is equipped with its own context to create an entirely new subcontext. The anonymity of this rock is extremely important, as it can be interpreted in many different ways and be accessible to a wider audience, perhaps with a focus on the people of Harlem, given that’s where the material stems from. Harlem is an extremely rich pocket of New York City, known to be the hub of Black culture and community. Much of the Black community came to Harlem in the early 20th century in efforts to flee the Jim Crow south and for an abundance of unoccupied housing due to poor city planning. In the context of the early 2000s, this piece engaged the audience by responding to the gentrification of Harlem happening during this time, triggered by the slow economic crash and the shortage of real estate in the rest of Manhattan for white homeowners. Like many geographical cultures undergoing gentrification, there will be resistance and effort to strengthen their voices and revive identity, as demonstrated by  Hammons with his collection of African American rock portraits interwoven with the culture and black businesses of Harlem.

Tamar Chameides, Face Your Face, 2021, butter charcoal

David Hammons, Rock Head, 2000, stone and hair. Courtesy RISD Museum

This unique medium gives the rock a whole new narrative, as we begin to understand Hammons’ unique and unconventional artistic processes, which include him carefully executing full body prints, in which he utilizes the human body and its materials as an instrument for expression. These body prints caught my attention a few years ago when I discovered Hammons in high school. I was fascinated by these one-of-a-kind impressions, created by a still figure captured in time. Hammons usually covers his body and clothes in a buttery substance, which then sticks onto a canvas when he lays down on its surface. He then brushes charcoal powder over the greasy print to reveal an intricate gestural figure. It’s this unique process that inspired my interest in printmaking, my major at RISD.

I have started experimenting with butter printing to convey personal meanings. I’ve covered my entire body in butter; it’s not a great feeling, although the outcome is worth it. To me, these prints take the plush, majestic nature of the human body and translate it to a bold, often warped graphic print. The almost instantaneous shift in form from body to paper displays the disillusionment behind mere physical beauty, that it can be manipulated in such an easy manner. Exploring what beauty means in my art reflects my complex relationship with self confidence. During the peak of COVID when masks were mandatory at school I learned that I was much more comfortable in a public environment when my face was covered, because I hated being vulnerable to people’s gaze. This became an unhealthy obsession and by the time the mandate was lifted, I continued to wear a mask for all the wrong reasons. To confront this, I began to print my face similarly to the way Hammons does in efforts to “face your face,” which is the title of my series. Exploring emotive experimental mark-making like Hammons has opened my eyes to all the possibilities of print. Whether Hammons uses butter to depict flesh or hair to mark a rock, he makes an impression on something and adds a deeper meaning behind these gestures.  

The cultural distance between myself and this piece, along with Hammons, is something that I realize I will never be able to entirely close. But I have let myself be impacted by his work and listened to his words and commentary on the cultures of marginalized peoples within the Eurocentrism that has shaped the America I reside in.

Tamar Chameides is going to sit in the sun later today.