at the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

New York painter Jane Hammond steals imagery from a variety of sources, from old medical journals to manuals on knot tying. But these days artworks based on appropriated imagery are ubiquitous, and what’s impressive about these vivid, bumpy-surfaced oils on linen is the way many of them flash with public satire and private mystery.

The art press makes much of Hammond’s systematic approach to composition: she has a fixed repository of 276 emblematic images and in any given canvas paints one or more of them. Like letters of the alphabet, these images can be recombined so that their meanings vary from one canvas to another. In interviews Hammond generally dismisses the importance of formal considerations in her work. But to my mind the bravura and vitality of her bright, restricted palette and strong graphic lines are what make her work stand out amid the crowd of cooler, more restrained works of appropriation.

Hammond never titles her pieces per se; instead she lists the numbers of the elements from her pictorial “alphabet” that appear in the work. The untitled piece referred to as “(234, 122, 137)” features an Asian-looking man standing on two glass bottles floating in an expanse of water. He’s showing us two different types of bird’s nests, holding one in each outstretched hand. The arrangement of bottles, nests, and man creates a curious narrative whose meaning we can only guess at. This inaccessibility might prove frustrating were it not for Hammond’s unique talent for juxtaposing brilliant colors. The man’s bright red tunic against the fiery red and orange background, painted with hundreds of quick, agitated brush strokes, fairly screams at us. But the cool blues of the water hold these molten shades in check, as does the black of the man’s pants. Hammond’s bold, intelligent use of color keeps us focused on the objects, challenging us to discover a coherent meaning.

It may be best not to get too hung up on the precise message behind each painting. If there is one, only Hammond knows it. There’s more reward in recognizing motifs and identifying the different associations they raise, depending on the images and colors with which they’re juxtaposed. In this exhibition of nine large canvases and six small, vertically arranged diptychs, a white igloo (item 146) appears with greatest frequency. In the bottom half of one diptych, the igloo rests on a lumpy black background. (The lumps come from mixing grog, a ground-up fired clay, with the oil pigment.) In the top half, a strange blue snowman glows from the middle of a hot orange background. These paired images are both alike and different. Of course snow and ice are both states of the same element, water. But the ice dwelling reveals a cultural context very different from the one that might encourage building something out of snow or ice simply for fun. The artist leads us into cross-cultural comparisons, but withholds her reason for doing so. Because of this our own associations with snowmen and igloos enter in, ultimately deepening and confounding the work’s meaning.

The igloo appears again in a large canvas of great visual complexity. The canvas has been separated into four rectangular sections, each containing several images and a two-word label. The igloo is located in the lower left rectangle, along with some very oddly shaped dwellings. Images in the other sections include a madonna, a girl puppet, a male head wearing straps over the mouth and jaw, a casket, and pairs of hands praying, casting rabbit shadows, and bound with ropes. Segregated and restricted by the rigid, orderly background rectangles, these images seem to protest cultural regimentation.

In another igloo picture, Hammond’s usually ambiguous approach to meaning sharpens into a direct, clearly focused critique. Now the igloo sits in a corner of a museum gallery. A naked Asian woman lies on the floor with her eyes closed, and a Waspy-looking man in 19th-century attire stands nearby, holding a bottle filled with liquid. A hose beginning at the bottle’s base runs across the room and ends inside the woman’s genitals. The room and its framed, featureless pictures are painted with such flat, cool colors and stark black lines as to convey clinical impersonality. This is unmistakably an angry picture aimed at the white Western male-dominated art world, which continues to marginalize the work of women and minority artists.

Hammond’s aesthetic means are often strikingly different in different paintings. One large canvas, for instance, presents an immediately appealing design and color combination. Two ribbons of paint, one orange and the other red, wind through each other on a turquoise and lavender background rectangle, which lies askew within an outer frame of white that’s slightly larger. Various nonsensical phrases have been painted on the ribbons in white letters: “A Prudent Man Shuns Hyenas,” “No Old Rabbits Are Greedy,” “Some Quadrupeds Can Whistle.” The absurdity increases when we learn from written material that the ribbons may be arranged in a fly’s basic flight pattern. The handsomeness of this abstract-looking work reinforces the humorous note in the otherwise savagely ridiculous proverbs.

Hammond sometimes quiets her palette to reveal a touching sensitivity. In one painting a clown is enveloped in an impasto of beautiful off-white paint–indeed, he’s part of this gentle color field, for only his outline has been sketched in black paint onto its surface. Some areas of this muted expanse hold hints of pale green and yellow, while other areas have been randomly scratched. The clown, who seems a symbol of anonymity and loneliness, elicits empathy. This is decidedly Hammond’s most moving piece, but it too has a strange mystery: a floating red rose clearly has some relationship to the clown nearby, but what is it?

Hammond’s diverse approaches to style and composition are consistently intriguing. But she is careful to include a couple of canvases that show that her own invented system of imagery is primary. One painting features a huge female head, perhaps a self-portrait, in profile. Different areas of the brain are painted in different colors, and each is numbered. Along the edges are printed unusual names and phrases, each with a number that corresponds to one of the brain-section numbers. By inviting us to play a match game with text and image, the artist reminds us that we are playing her game now. And even though the individual numbers and words are familiar to us, we don’t know how they relate to each other. Because comprehension eludes us, ultimately we’re excluded from the game.

Hammond’s underlying point seems to be that all systems are based on exclusion. The last painting in the show carries this point one step further, making randomness even more obvious. It is a large, abstract picture composed of a checkerboard of red, yellow, blue, black, and white squares; some squares contain a circle or a number from one to six. Sometimes adjacent squares have the same color and form partial or complete crosses. If there is an order here, it is impossible to perceive, and we are left with an active but seemingly random composition. Is Hammond demonstrating that all systems–including her own–are basically arbitrary?

Hammond’s paintings engage the viewer on so many levels that one tends to forget all about the significance of her catalog. With 276 images, the number of combinations possible is so great that one wonders why she bothers with numbers at all. To complicate matters, Hammond sometimes retires an image and replaces it with a new one. (This seems to have happened in the current show. The title sheet lists one of the diptychs as containing 146, the igloo. But the actual painted image is of a Chinese-looking house or imperial building.) Her “system” is so loose that it’s hardly a system at all–it seems more a device designed to entertain puzzle lovers and game players.

Some feminist theories propose that the only way women and minorities will escape patriarchal oppression is to invent a new system based on a new language. Perhaps Hammond’s catalog is an attempt to do just that. But it doesn’t work, because none of the individual elements are her own creation. The real success of her endeavor lies in her stunning color choices and powerful but open-ended combinations of images. With or without catalog numbers, Jane Hammond’s paintings are some of the most interesting appropriation works around today.