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Details from John Hamilton's paintings

Sweet or sinister? You decide!

HOT reporter Cathy Simpson reviews John Hamilton’s current exhibition at The Weekend Gallery, Hastings.

John Hamilton is a Manchester-based artist with a style all his own. Gallery owners in the past have commented that they have never known such extremely contrasting views of the same artist’s work, and this is why his paintings are so unforgettable.

It’s worth reflecting on how we read people, and the environment around us, before visiting this show.  Of course, as humans, we tend to relate everything to the human body – which is why we can see faces and figures in the bark of trees, why dolphins appear to be smiling and gorillas, frowning.  We observe the creases around eyes, around mouths – and assess what this person in front of us is feeling.  We read flickering expressions and then decide whether to walk on by with a very fast nonchalant stroll, or whether prospects look promising!  We are genetically programmed to respond positively to features which remind us of human babies – round heads, large round eyes, small noses and mouths.

John has very cleverly edited the facial features of his characters;  he began by painting mythological subjects where creatures and angels had round, blank faces – to avoid giving them an identity.  The faces then developed the simple features they have now… where there may or may not be a smile, the head is round – and the eyes black and empty, offering no feedback.  He says:

‘Depending on your view of the character, what is happening in the pictures appears differently.  This often makes the subject matter ambiguous.  I love the idea that one painting can create completely opposite feelings depending on your opinion of the character.  Good/Bad. Warm/Cold. Loving/Sinister. Protective/Threatening.’

The viewer is left to interpret not only the characters, but also the subject matter.  I wondered if John works symbolically, but evidently not – though he did mention that he sees geese as protective watchers, and geese DO feature in his work.  He is more interested in notions of disguise and role play, and many of the paintings feature masks and beautiful theatrical backdrops.  They may start off with a story, but that is very quickly left behind as the characters develop a life of their own and grow into a sometimes simple, sometimes detailed, composition.  All these paintings ask more questions than they attempt to answer.  Though illustrative in style, illustrations these are not.

The Chairman

The viewer is left to decide quite what the story is, and who these characters are. There is a choice as to whether to experience the work in purely aesthetic terms, or whether to construct a personal interpretation around it. John also admitted to using others’ interpretations as the starting point for a new painting, reinforcing the notion of the audience participating in the work of art.

Quite apart from the subject matter, John is a fantastically skilful painter.  He uses oil in the traditional manner of building up the paint in thin layers, so that there is a wonderful glow and almost a luminescence about them.  The more time spent in front of them, the deeper and richer they become – almost like watching a developing photograph.

Prepare to be challenged by this charming, disturbing, satisfying and intriguing show, and above all, make sure you have plenty of time to view and savour its beauty!

John Hamilton’s work is on show at The Weekend Gallery, High Street, Hastings Old Town until Sunday 23 September. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am–5pm. The gallery also has a lovely permanent collection of ceramics and jewellery, and runs a part-payment plan for buying works of art.

Posted 21:11 Saturday, Sep 1, 2012 In: Visual Arts

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