JO HUMMEL: TRANSFORMER

Nick Maroussas, September 2019

I’m up on the sun deck of the ferry, watching the Isle of Wight slowly flood the horizon. I’m interviewing Jo Hummel at her studio tomorrow as she prepares for her forthcoming solo exhibition at &Gallery, in Edinburgh. I first spotted Jo’s abstract collages on instagram nearly two years ago, promptly adding myself to her 20k followers; her bold, colourful compositions translating happily to the small screen. She’s packed a lot on to her CV in those two years; most recently, Safety at Sea, a solo exhibition at After Nyne Gallery in Holland Park, who also represented her at London Art Fair; and Deep End Echo, a joint solo with Stephen Smith, at Sid Motion Gallery. Jo describes her work as ‘purposefully anthropological, with a particular interest in determinism and freewill,' which questions whether our behaviour is governed by forces over which we have no control. I step ashore and begin my long weekend of island life, determined to uncover the forces that have shaped her.

Jo Hummel in her studio

Photograph by Nick Maroussas

The big, new studio in Bembridge isn’t as gloomy as Jo led me to believe. “You’ve been so lucky with the weather,” she points out as she peels back the garage doors. The sun’s up in a clear sky and light bounces in off the concrete, igniting the flammable colours configured within. Small triangles of paper decorate the floor, collecting in corners, dispersed by heavy traffic. The change in light and space has had an immediate impact, helping her to work bigger more prolifically and driving her towards large pools of black or ‘almost-blacks’, like the charred aubergine of Track and Field.

 

Her darks avoid the sinister, often seated surprisingly next to a pastel or a confident primary. These colours never struck me as particularly organic before I visited the island but I find myself tuning in to unexpectedly artificial colours while I’m here, not just the obvious weathered beach-huts but directly from nature; seaweed radiating a luminous-green or the punchy orange of a pebble casually mingling amongst the infinite. I feel like I’m retracing Jo’s steps, recognising her inspirations. “My colour influence comes from everything; from a person’s skin, a patterned wallpaper, the sky, a garage door,” she tells me. “I keep a folder of images on my phone for palette reference.”

Track and Field, 2019

Acrylic and emulsion on watercolour paper and ply

150x110cm

Photograph by Nick Maroussas

Distinguishable structures emerge from the abstract. Surrounded by a landscape so generous, the horizon extends through her work like an open window, supplying gravity, rejecting the void. Shafts of light beam down diagonally, her arches appear habitable. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m having to look too hard to see these elements. Her work is obviously abstract and yet loaded with references. “They’re almost unintentional,” Jo concedes. “I say unintentional as they really are very subconscious, intuitive, emotional deliveries of form. My engagement with the landscape is an emotional one. It’s always been a safe place to return to in life and in work.”

 

Jo moved to the Isle of Wight with her mother when her parents separated. “I would have been 5 or 6,” she adds. Her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia which meant she often had to be self-sufficient, “but his mental health problems weren’t the only ingredient to a topsy-turvy start in life,” Jo explains. “My childhood was tricky because of a mixture of things.” Her brother’s schizophrenia must have had a huge impact on her though? She answers professionally. “It’s relevant. I’m interested in understanding the workings of the mind. Fundamentally, that’s what my work is to me; research.” I ask Jo how the island has remained such a safe haven for her, when many would want to remove themselves from old memories and start afresh somewhere new. “I think the landscape was a comfort to me, even then. It was a friend and an escape which gave me an intuitive bond with my physical environment. I think you can, perhaps, see that in my work.” Of course, like most adolescents, she had a thirst for adventure. She headed to London when she was 19, settling for six years, studying at the RCA and travelling, but the city wasn’t for her. “You’ve got to remember, it’s a unique community here. People are close, it’s a real community. That was also something which drew me back,” she says.

Jo Hummel's studio, 2019

Photograph by Nick Maroussas

If island life is her comfort, then the studio is a veritable womb, a retreat, perhaps from the hectic realities of everyday family life. “I get really moody if I don’t get in the studio for a couple of days,” she confesses. Art rebalances her. Here she thrives, exercised by her “relaxing and exhausting” process, her “research”, asserting control over the self-inflicted chaos of intuitive decision-making.

 

If this is research, is it possible to find answers in art? Artists talk similarly of ‘explorations’, I’ve written it myself; do we honestly expect to ever reach a conclusion or learn anything? And if not clear cut answers, like in Maths, then what? Jo takes my existential crisis impressively in her stride. “I’ve always used art as a phenomenological study of my own psychology. Yes, you can learn about yourself. You can simulate fear, discomfort, pleasure, satisfaction, risk taking…and in doing so, gain a greater self knowledge which universally is teaching you about the human condition. This is what I believe,” she says soothingly. ”This is why, for me, the process is the art.”

“My colour influence comes from everything; from a person’s skin, a patterned wallpaper, the sky, a garage door.”

Details, studio, 2019

Photograph by Nick Maroussas

We break for a moment while I get some photos of her work. All I can hear is the click of my camera and the whirring noise of Jo’s brain. “But you can overthink the art,” she announces suddenly, breaking the silence. “It can sometimes feel like you’re squeezing the joy out of it.” Checking my watch, I realise it’s lunchtime; we’ve been talking for nearly three hours. Of course, she’s right. Too much analysis and you’re missing the point of Jo’s work, indeed most art; that instant reaction, that primal response to colour and form. I should have taken the hint when Jo reached for the hob-nobs saying a sugar boost was needed. Then again, I’m the same guy who suggested she might like to harvest questions from her followers and respond LIVE FROM A KAYAK! So, overthinking shouldn’t be a total surprise.

 

She is something of a conundrum; chatty but slightly on-guard. We've had a bit of shop talk, a bit of gossip. Off the back of a question about her Turps course, we’re diverted into brainstorming the frankly brilliant TV idea of celebrities mentoring emerging artists. (The pilot episode will be Katie Price, if you’re interested, Kirsty Wark to present.) We BBQ together later, admittedly with our families, and her work is only discussed briefly and in practical terms despite a generous application of alcohol. It takes persistence and some e-mail dialogue once I’m sat back in London, to extract analysis from her. Is it fear of meandering towards pretension? “I’m not sure it’s that. I mean sure, let’s talk academically about art, it’s an important and fascinating subject. And yet, for some it’s a normalised everyday activity much like exercise.” She pauses for a moment. “I think I fear placing too many words to something which is non-verbal; the language of visual art, I mean. It’s a non-verbal language which is given and received and felt without the written or spoken word and there’s a reflex in me to just leave it there, as that; a non-verbal thing.”

Drone Pop (detail), 2019

Photograph by Nick Maroussas

I pack up, jealously imagining what insights she discussed with her Turps mentor, while Jo enthusiastically informs me, “I really liked the correspondence format as you can read and then re-read.” I bet they never suggested corresponding on a kayak. Jo continues unheeded. “Also, to write to someone about your thoughts and ideas is highly intimate and, as someone who is quite introvert, thats suits me very well.” While I fumble around in her formative past and present, the course has helped Jo plan out what’s next. “I see this as an important time to reflect on work I’ve made over the past 5 years,” she says. “Without that self-knowledge and informed feedback, I fear I might go in circles. It’s a bit like having a good old root around in the brain to see what’s knocking about. I’d like to plan some studio development, maybe a funding application or residency, to develop some ideas which have been gnawing away for some time.”

Jo Hummel

www.joannehummelnewell.com

Transformer I

7 - 28 September 2019

&Gallery, Edinburgh, UK

www.andgallery.co.uk/

Transformer II

18 October - 23 November

Nordic Art Agency, Malmö, Sweden

www.nordicartagency.com/

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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