Bye bye, ladies and gentlemen - we hope you enjoyed the show. We might be one planet, yes, but this planet sure is one at war with itself, doomed because mankind just loves to be the spark that lights the fuse that will burn down the last remaining bits of what’s left of our assumed high culture. Fine arts have always loved being a critical observer of the current status quo and beyond, and one of the finest additions of artists to join these illustrious ranks is Toronto-based Toni Hamel, whose work doesn’t shy away from interpreting the psychological unease characteristic of our age. Nevertheless Hamel leaves enough space for ambivalence, as it is up to the audience to regard her images as simply being downright trippy or as a stimulus to finally remind ourselves about the repercussions of our current thinking models. She took a quick break from working on the follow-up to her famed “The Land of ID“ series to answer a few questions for Lodown in early November.
Toni, your work comfortably sits between the satirical and the downright bleak... would you say that adding this kind of offbeat humor makes your images more accessible - or more ambivalent - for the audience?
Yes, I would say so. Since I often tackle uncomfortable topics, I use humor and satire to sweeten the pill and stave off the doom-and-gloom aura that might otherwise cloak the work. Humor is also a device I use in order to appeal to a larger audience. Some people might smile at my images without truly comprehending their meaning, while others might interpret such humor as a more poignant aspect of the message relayed. The ambivalence you speak of is also intentional, in fact the jarring and at times disturbing pairings of humorous images with serious content is perhaps the main characteristic of my work. I play with juxtapositions in order to alter perceptions, compelling the willing viewer to dig deeper, to watch rather than look at my images. I consider myself a storyteller and as such I like for my narratives to carry a message whether it be a pun, a suggestion or a warning. I tend to create work that has meaning, that makes the viewer think, reflect and perhaps even learn.
How come you explore the manifold dilemmas of our time through these rather nostalgic settings and characters then?
That's simply a strategy. I usually reference the 1920s to the 1950s, a time period that marks the inception of our current socio-economic model. The early 20th century saw the rush to capitalize on natural resources, the advent of consumerism and the ever-expansive ideology that sees the "me" as master of the universe and its sole beneficiary. These are all events that, in my view, have contributed to the current abysmal state of affairs. I cull the source material from a wide variety of image banks and photo archives. From these I select individual elements - namely figures - and place them in invented settings. Now removed from their original context, these figures are simply actors ready to take on whatever role I want them to play. Placing these bits of documented reality into fictitious settings not only makes the scene even more absurd but it also renders the image itself atemporal and universal. Right now, I will continue working on the sequel of "The Land of ID“, which is titled "High Tides and Misdemeanors“, until I run out of things to say on this topic and then I'll move on to something else. Stay tuned.
For “Home on the Range“, one of your most recent paintings, you integrated this My Little Pony figure into the mix... are the possibilities of putting pop cultural characters into a different context something you’d like to investigate a little further in the future?
I would if it made sense, or if it added value to the overall scene and its implied message. I must point out that in my images nothing is gratuitous or left to chance. Every element in the picture-plane is carefully selected based on its ability to carry a particular message. I wouldn't be interested in haphazardly introducing a pop-cultural character simply for the sake of doing so, or without any consideration for the integrity of the meaning implied. The presence of My Little Pony in "Home on the Range“ hints at a natural world that is slowly disappearing and being replaced by artificial, man-made, plastic stand-ins - even those creatures that we hold most dear will eventually be replaced by mass-produced biological surrogates - G.M.O. anyone? - or mechanized substitutes. The funny thing is that we don't seem to be fully aware of this phenomenon nor do we seem too concerned about it. It's a bit like the 'boiling frog' story: a frog will jump out if it's placed suddenly in boiling water, but it will stay in if the water is brought to a boil slowly... until it's cooked to death! In psychology this phenomenon is known as Habituation and unfortunately nobody is immune to it, but vigilance and awareness of it would prevent its occurrence.
At least to me, your work enters similar territory - in both, artistic execution and topics - like the ones of new Belgium masters such as Michael Borremans and Patrick Everaert, since they also played around with misguided experimental arrangements. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your influences?
My influences span the entire gamut of Art History, from Manet to Henry Darger, Bosch to Neo Rauch and so many others. It is difficult for me to pinpoint precisely whose work affects me the most since that also varies from day to day... I suffer from bipolar disorder, so my preferences change as quickly as my moods. I am not familiar with Everaert's work, but I do love Borremans'. I went to see his "As Sweet as it Gets“ exhibition at the BOZAR in Brussels a few years back, and I must say that it didn't disappoint. In all honesty, I'm just one of many artists who have succumbed to Borremans' spell. The list is long and it keeps on growing: from Gideon Kiefer to Christopher Orr, Johan Barrios to Chen Han; Borremans' influence is apparent in so many contemporary artists! Too many in fact to list here.
It is true though that early on in my career I was looking at Borremans' work as a point of departure for my own. At that time I was re-entering my art practice after a hiatus that lasted more than twenty years, and I felt somewhat lost and confused, stylistically and creatively speaking. I knew what I wanted to say but couldn't figure out how to say it. Borremans' work then became a reference point - that’s apparent in my older work - a launching pad from which to leap back into my own head. Yet, although I liked the surreal quality of his work, I felt that his skewed narratives were perhaps too open-ended and defied fixed meanings, whereas I wanted to illustrate more precise points of view, to create self-contained bits of information - sort of short stories, perhaps? - that could stand alone, on their own. Luckily my work evolved through the years and nowadays I finally consider it free from any influences and derivations.
And here’s the million dollar question: would you say that humankind has managed to finally be doomed for good... or do the latest political events (and connected environmental ones) somehow offer a very last chance for us to come to our senses?
I'm a realist, a pragmatist and a humanist. I wish I wore rose-tinted glasses or owned a crystal ball. If I'm allowed yet another cliché, I'd say that the dim light at the end of this tunnel seems to get dimmer by the day, meaning that the political will to change the direction of our travel is simply not there. I'm not sure where this journey will lead us, but I know that we're traveling in the wrong direction, and at too great a speed. All I can say is that wherever we are headed...it won't be pretty.