Frances Hamilton: Pieces of Time
At the Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons College
I was enchanted by Frances Hamilton the first time I saw her artists’ books and painted stories ten years ago at the Cutler/Staviridis Gallery in Fort Point Channel. Her work then was light-hearted and fanciful — nymphs and odalisques floating through luxuriously decorated landscapes reminiscent of Persian miniature paintings. It was funny, poignant, and always very beautiful — she paints in gouache and watercolor, with a lyrical line and a delicate touch. And it had the magical quality of the best children’s books — fairy tales and Arabian Nights and the old Oz books — books that transport you into another world: the world of the imagination.
Over the years, I’ve followed her work as it has grown darker and deeper, and some of Hamilton’s paintings have really moved me, especially Beastwood Trilogy, which she showed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the 1981 Boston Now. Beastwood was an open book retelling a walk in the woods. All kinds of birds sang in the trees, against a golden-orange background; the leaves and the songs they sang fluttered in the golden air.
Dream Book is an open book relating the artist’s recurring dreams. I must get home before dark shows a labyrinth of small houses along a winding street. I escape a murderous crowd by flying shows her flying in a nightgown above a group of enraged people carrying fierce weapons. My brain on a table shows a big egg-shaped brain on a small wooden table. Discovering the rooms in my house I don’t use shows her lying in bed wrapped in a blue blanket in a room with a big picture that looks out onto mountains and a lake. Nightscape: Lullaby shows an empty red dress, a riderless white horse. a nightingale in a leafless tree, a starless sky, an endless night.
In Halloween, terrifying masked figures — witches, bandits, people with paper bags over their heads — roam a street that winds down a grassy green hill lined with a cluster of Colonial houses. The Singer and the Song is a patchwork quilt of fragmentary childhood memories clustered around a landscape of deep green grass and trees — a torch singer in an evening dress, a woman vacuumming, a child skipping rope. My favorite painting is Reading Tolstoy — a girl in a rustic summer house, sitting up in bed, reading a book, surrounded by a lavish border of leaves.
It’s appropriate for Hamilton to invoke Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, because her paintings, like his novels, are about the most important thing in the world: real life. They’re about birth, death, family, feeling, memories, dreams. “Life is everything,” Tolsoy wrote in War and Peace:
“Life is God. Everything moves and changes, and that movement is God. Harder and more blessed than anything else is to love this Life in all one’s sufferings.”
Hamilton’s art doesn’t come from the head; it comes from the hand and the heart. And that’s why a show of her work is always so rewarding. Her images stay with you, growing richer and deeper, as time goes by. They trigger memories. Major or minor, they touch a chord.
by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com