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 Artist Spotlight
This month we continue our innovative programme  "Artist Spotlight", in which we invite curators from different segments of the art world to tell us about one female artist who deserves greater recognition - drawn from among mid-career and emerging talent.  We hope to reflect the diversity of women working in the UK, and the range of media and visions they offer.  
Curator Anna McNay discusses the work of Susie Hamilton
Guest curator Anna McNay is an art writer, editor and independent curator, with a background in academic linguistics. She has teaching fellowships at the University of Oxford and Humboldt University, Berlin.  She has also been on the editorial staff for State/F2 and Art Quarterly
McNay is also a frequent contributor to various online and print publications, including, most regularly, Studio International, Sculpture Magazine, Norwegian Arts, and The Flux Review. McNay was a selector for the Royal West of England Academy 168 Annual Open Exhibition, and recent collaborative curatorial projects include Beyond Other Horizons, at the Iași Palace of Culture, Romania (2019) and Made in Britain | 82 Painters of the 21st Century, at the National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland (2018). She is currently curating a solo exhibition of the work of painter Julie Umerle at Bermondsey Project Space (May 2021) and co-curating an exhibition celebrating artists’ responses to Covid-19 with artist-curator Perdita Sinclair. 
Susie Hamilton
Scorching Beams, 2001

Who is Susie Hamilton?

Hamilton (b. 1950, London) is primarily concerned with the human condition and the solitary existence of individuals – themes with particular resonance amid the pandemic. Hamilton’s paintings condense figures into a couple of suggestive brush strokes, stranded in darkness or light. Even when clustered together, her paintings evoke a pang of loneliness: they offer snapshots capturing that sense of isolation and existential angst we have all felt during moments of difficulty. 

Hamilton studied painting at St Martin's School of Art and Byam Shaw School of Art in London, as well as reading English Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, where she gained a PhD in 1987. She is represented by Paul Stolper Gallery. Hamilton has had solo exhibitions both in the UK and around the world, including in Norway and Russia. She has been in group shows as far afield as Romania and China. Among many others, her paintings can be found in the collections of the Imperial College Healthcare Art Collection, London; the Science Museum, London; St Paul's Cathedral, London; New Hall Art Collection, Cambridge; the Priseman Seabrook Collection of 21st Century British Painting; University of Essex, Modern and Contemporary British Art Collection; and Special Collections, Vanderbilt University Library, Nashville.

What can you tell us about Susie Hamilton? 

‘I see my figures as part of a world of power and dynamism,’ Hamilton herself explains, ‘but they themselves are struggling in that world, vulnerable to things that are more powerful than they are. I’d like them to communicate something about the restless, comic, unfinished, untidy spectacle of life.’ 
Hamilton’s ‘iconoclastic’ painterly techniques, such as adding Fairy Liquid to acrylic paint so that it makes ‘blooms’ on the canvas and using watery acrylic so that it seeps over the boundaries of the figures, add to this battle for existence, and, in her quest to communicate economically – albeit creating intensity through compression – Hamilton’s figures are often reduced to mere blots and specks of paint. Some appear to effervesce at their edges, merging with the background in a Baselitz-esque smear. There is disorder, confusion and fear, on the one hand, and, on the other, a form of ecstasy, since the figures ‘go outside themselves’, as the Greek origin of the word ‘ecstasy’ implies. Furthermore, Hamilton describes this method of painting as ‘ecstatic’ in itself, since the mess disrupts, dissolves and overthrows calm and finished images, suggesting liberation and possibility. The idea of metamorphosis, central to all her work, includes metamorphosis into abstraction through which an identifiable image is turned into something unnamed and mysterious.

Susie Hamilton
Mask, 2020
From the Covid-19 Series
Why is she relevant to our discussions?

Throughout the pandemic, Hamilton has been producing a series of strikingly immediate acrylic-on-paper images of gowned and masked doctors ministering to Covid-19 patients, working from an improvised studio in her kitchen. The images derived initially from front-line pictures provided by one of her collectors, Peter Collins, a consultant hepatologist and deputy director at the University Hospitals Bristol and Weston. She also uses news footage taken from television and online. ‘Like everyone else I am deeply scared by what is happening,’ she says. ‘I wanted to imagine that I was lying on the bed in a position of helplessness with the doctors looming over me.’ Similar to her series of polar explorers and astronauts (in which figures are made strange by the equipment which conceals them), her doctors and nurses are metamorphosed through their hoods, masks and visors. Some appear like creatures from Hieronymus Bosch, even reminiscent of 16th-century plague doctors, while others have an angelic quality with light shining from or bursting on to them. Some of these works were recently acquired by the Science Museum as part of its effort to create a record of responses to the pandemic.
In 2018, Hamilton worked with the mental health charity Hospital Rooms on a project at The Junipers, a newly built Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit in Exeter. In March 2021, she again worked with Hospital Rooms, this time creating three large paintings on a high fence surrounding the courtyard of a men’s PICU in Hammersmith, London. In both the Exeter and London paintings, figures are shown in the wilderness, struggling but resilient, going on a journey in a setting of radiant light.
It sounds as if she is very on the ball, working with the current situation to provide insight and relief. Why choose her work?

Hamilton's work deserves to be up there among the greats, and although she has had major exhibits, given the altruistic nature of her practice, it could inspire so many more people than it currently reaches.  Technically brilliant, she works ceaselessly, even when, like many of us, she was confined by Covid. It feels appropriate to use the UK Friends of NMWA Artist Spotlight to highlight Hamilton’s work, since it relates so closely to present circumstances speaking in a language accessible to all about the true dangers and horrors of Covid-19.
Furthermore, I have had the pleasure of working with Hamilton on a number of occasions, including her work in three curated exhibitions and hosting an online in conversation with her for the Heatherley School of Fine Art online programme last spring. 

Susie Hamilton
Beach 1, 2005
Her work sounds quite complex. Is it accessible to the layperson?
Absolutely. While an understanding of some of the myths and literary works that inspire Hamilton might extend one’s appreciation of the paintings and their components – she has made works inspired by the Bible, Dante, Wordsworth, Homer, Shakespeare, Ovid, Chaucer and Andrew Marvell, to name but a few – even her TS Eliot series, for example, speaks to the layperson with the mundanity of its everyday concerns. Then there are her series of shoppers in malls and supermarkets, figures in winter landscapes, Moroccans in deserts, and cowboys in canyons. Everyone will respond to Hamilton’s work differently, and some might immediately find her crowded beach and restaurant scenes uncomfortable and disturbing, while others might be drawn in by the deep, velvety colours and warm light. Her monkeys, too, might, at first, seem light-hearted, but scratch beneath the surface and there is much inference to be uncovered. for information about our mission, membership, exhibition listings and events. You can also find out about our privacy policy, and how we use your data.

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