February 2011

RICHARD HAWKINS The Beautiful and the Damned

A retrospective of the artist’s work is suffused with meditations on desire and celebrity
by PAUL YOUNG / photograph by ERIC OGDEN

  • <i>Crepuscule #1</i>, 1994, collage on Chinese lantern
  • <i>Urbis Paganus IV.9.XXII (Calli-Herma-Baubo)</i>, 2009, mixed media
  • <i>Shinjuku Labyrinth</i>, 2007, wood, collage and table
  • <i>Dragonfly 2</i>, 2009, oil and pencil on paper
  • <i>Lg.purple.matt.graveyard</i>, 1995, ink-jet print
  • <i>Loiterer 2</i>, 2009, collage

A small cutout of a Japanese male model stands upright on a cheap card table, next to a Styrofoam cup from 7-Eleven, some Kellogg’s Apple Jacks and a postcard of a coffin. An edition of Plato’s Symposium—the philosopher’s discourse on the nature of love—is autographed “To Richard, Arnold Schwarzenegger,” with loose seminude photographs of the actor turned politician stuffed between its pages. A withered figure trapped in a fantastical underworld stares at a glowing globe in an oil painting, The Mystical Invention of Television and Its Relationship to Mourning (2004) .

Welcome to the twisted, tortured world of artist Richard Hawkins, the subject of an intriguing retrospective, Third Mind, which arrives at the Hammer Museum February 12 from the Art Institute of Chicago.

The 48-year-old Hawkins started out as a fiction writer shortly after graduating from California Institute of the Arts in 1988. Since then, he has produced a compelling array of sculptures, paintings and books that pair ubiquitous pop-culture images and objects with arcane references and quotes. Current celebrities, literary lions of yesteryear, haunted houses, Asian sex tourism, Greek and Roman statuary and the American Indian experience are just a few recurring themes.

The range of subject matter coupled with the dense layering and self-consciously disheveled nature of many of his works can leave first-time viewers scratching their heads.

“His entire process is an encumbrance to the idea of finish, in every sense of the word,” explains Catherine Lord, an artist, writer and former dean at CalArts. “There’s always another meaning to excavate, another clipping to paste, another quote to connect. His work is unwieldy on an epic scale.”

Tall and lanky, with a distinguished face framed by a full head of hair and a Van Dyke, Hawkins is disarmingly candid. He can be droll and bitingly sardonic, peppering his discourse with sly observations and hilarious rejoinders. His studio, which he says might have once been a barn, sits at the rear of the overgrown backyard of a Spanish-style bungalow near Sherman Oaks.

It’s chockablock with half-finished paintings, sculptures and collages, which when combined with the slanted roof and mostly windowless walls, make for a slightly awkward space. “The landlord told me they used to store some of the control-panel props for the original Frankenstein here,” says Hawkins. “This was the suburbs to movie studio people. Boris Karloff used to live nearby.”

The horror references are significant for Hawkins, who grew up in a working-class family in the small Texas town of Mexia, 40 miles east of Waco. (Fun fact: The town is also notable for giving wing to Vickie Lynn Hogan, aka Anna Nicole Smith.) Frankenstein, Dracula and such TV shows as The Munsters and The Addams Family were his only escape from “nothing but sameness,” he recalls. “I grew up in an environment where there was never any appreciation for creativity. Yet here were these characters who were all about being different, while the rest of the world refused to understand them.”

Hawkins would later make both direct and oblique references to the Munster clan and their dilapidated Victorian mansion in his haunted-house sculptures of the last decade, fashioned from common dollhouses infused with esoteric allusions to fin-de-siècle literature. He employed the aesthetic of horror in his 1990s work as well, most notably in his shredded Halloween masks and his ink-jet prints of movie stars and models transformed into decapitated cinematic zombies.

“Morose and slightly comical, Hawkins’ zombie pictures illustrate a predilection for marrying historical and contemporary imagery.”

Morose and slightly comical, those zombie pictures illustrate the artist’s predilection for marrying historical and contemporary imagery—in this case, references to Gustave Moreau’s symbolist painting The Apparition (1876) combined with material that might have been drawn from a sexually charged men’s fashion layout or a Gus Van Sant film.

According to Hawkins, the death images that reoccur in his early art were partly inspired by the AIDS epidemic and the ethos of the 1980s: “If you lived in L.A. at that time, you know that stuff was everywhere. You’d go to Amok Books, where there’d be true-crime novels next to homoerotica, then to a Bob Flanagan performance or maybe a reading by Dennis Cooper and then to Club F--k. That was a typical night.”

In the conceptually driven art world of the late 1980s and ’90s, there weren’t many contemporary artists exploring the luscious and the painterly. But Hawkins, whom critic Bruce Hainley described as a “painter whose medium frequently is not paint,” indulged in both.

“At the time I was looking at abstract painting,” says Hawkins. “And it seemed really easy to me to make them ugly, because when you deliberately make something ugly, you’re commenting on what came before. But when you make something beautiful, it’s kind of defenseless. Beauty is the one thing we really can’t make sense of—it just is, and it’s irreducible. I have that feeling when I’m looking at something or someone I’m attracted to. I can’t explain the attraction. It doesn’t make sense, but in terms of art, not making sense is an interesting thing.”

On first inspection, Hawkins’ objects, sculpture and paintings can belie the artist’s rigorous, research-based process. Consider the Crepuscule series, one of which was included in MOCA’s 1994 Pure Beauty show. The sculptures appear to be inexpensive Chinese lanterns covered in photos of languorous male beauties such as movie heartthrob Matt Dillon and model Marcus Schenkenberg. Yet the series’ evolution began with prolonged research into the French Decadent literary movement of the 1890s, which led Hawkins to Robert de Montesquiou, an aristocrat, dandy and muse to both Joris-Karl Huysmans and Marcel Proust.

As Hawkins explains, Proust wrote a scene in volume one of Remembrance of Things Past in which the narrator imagines past heroes and future friends being cast on his bedroom wall. Montesquiou, for his part, was known for importing Chinese commodities—and thus Crepuscule’s common lantern, which, despite its simplicity, manages to convey the kind of intimacy far more common among novelists and filmmakers than contemporary artists. The sculptures’ beseeching quality of anxious ache for the unattainable can be seen as a meta-commentary on art itself.

Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, authors of the forthcoming book Art and Queer Culture 1885–2010, argue that Hawkins represents an important generation of gay-identified artists who have profoundly influenced today’s contemporary-art scene in the same way feminist art impacted a previous generation. “There are a number of artists working today—people like Paul McCarthy—who are not queer identified yet are creating within traditional categories of gender and sexuality that are quite confrontational,” says Meyer. “I think that work is influenced, whether consciously or not, by queer art and, more broadly, by queer culture.”

He says Hawkins’ ability to “mash-up avant-garde, kitsch and kink,” including his appropriation of consumer items often designed for girls (dollhouses, pinups, etc.), “challenge us to rethink our hierarchies of value and visual pleasure.”

Lisa Dorin of the Art Institute of Chicago, who curated Third Mind, places the artist’s body of work in the broader context of human experience, with all it frailty, faults and fears. “It is about desire in its deepest, rawest form,” she says. “It’s about difference, about showing us that whatever it is we desire or whomever it is or however we do it, it’s okay—as long as we desire.”

PAUL YOUNG is a journalist, curator and director of Young Projects, a gallery devoted to contemporary video art and film.