Bill Hammond (born 1947) studied art in Christchurch in the 1960s. He became a full-time painter in 1981. In 1989 Hammond’s work changed radically after a trip to the subantarctic Auckland Islands, where he encountered what he described as ‘a paradise for birds’. He learned about the nineteenth-century trade in native birds that had decimated so many species. In his new paintings, hybrid bird-human figures became a metaphor for all threatened creatures.
The artist as time-traveller In 1989 Hammond visited the Auckland Islands, located about 450 kilometres south of New Zealand as part of the Art in the Subantarctic project. He commented: 'You feel like a time-traveller, as if you have just stumbled upon it - primeval forests, ratas like Walt Disney would make. It's a beautiful place, but it's also full of ghosts, shipwrecks, death …' The visit marked a dramatic change in Hammond's art.
His 1980s' preoccupation with rock music and domestic interiors was replaced by paintings of birds that stand as guardians of ecological history as well as ecological irresponsibility. The critic Max Podstolski has suggested that for Hammond the Auckland Islands evoked a lost paradise, a primeval 'birdland' from a time before human impact. Traffic Cop Bay is part of Hammond's evolving vision of the New Zealand landscape crammed with 'ghosts, shipwrecks, death'.
Watching for Buller The subject matter of Traffic Cop Bay was first established in Hammond's Watching for Buller paintings. Hammond's paintings often make reference to Walter Buller, author of the book Birds of New Zealand first published in 1873. In 1994 Hammond commented: 'The Watching for Buller paintings started with the clothing, the dresses with ferns on them. On top of the dress, I wanted to put a passive head, a head that did not show any human qualities, any personality. Birds are perfect - they're calm, they don't have expressions.' In Traffic Cop Bay, the clothes have developed into traceries of ferns that pattern the upper bodies of the figures. Near the centre of the painting is a target-practice dummy with its back turned to the viewer. Is this a self-portrait of the artist, or does it represent Buller, a man that the artist has referred to as 'the bird stuffer'?