Richard Hawkins is the kind of artist the art system finds hard to assimilate. In an expanding art world what’s expected of artists is a stylistic consistency (or, in the wider world, ‘brand recognition’) that can be at odds with the trajectory of a practice pursued with courage and integrity. ‘Trajectory’ is something you find yourself conscious of when looking at new works by Hawkins, since the interest lies as much in trying to relate them to what came before as in figuring out their current relationship to each other. He is one of those rare artists who force you constantly to revise whatever assessment of his practice you’d previously reached.
But ‘trajectory’ is too convenient and smooth a term for the route Hawkins has chosen. Even if you can discern the general outline of his heterogeneous, mainly collage-based output of the 1990s, his turn to painting in 1999 was, and to a certain extent remains, hard to reconcile with the earlier work. Since then each series of paintings has seemed, on first view, to contradict the preceding one. After the first few encounters you might have become acclimatized to the absence of imagery and have thought his project was now a schizophrenic investigation into the ongoing validity of abstraction (schizophrenic since successive groups of paintings look like they’d been made by different artists). But such a conclusion was blown away by the appearance in 2003 of a series of narrative paintings of destitute and dispossessed Creek Native Americans in devastated landscapes, and by other quite different series that have followed, since. Hawkins makes an artist famed for his eclecticism such as Martin Kippenberger seem, well, a bit samey.
As when an artist dies, the schizoid relationship between paintings whose underlying coherence isn’t easily accessible seems to have lent Hawkins’ work from the 1990s a logic it didn’t appear to have at the time. Furthermore, in retrospect the early paintings appeared to announce the erasure of some entity that went under the signifier ‘Richard Hawkins’, one closely related to, but ontologically distinct from, the actual artist and individual we know by that name. An air of fiction – or more accurately, a self-reflexive sense of autobiography-meets-fiction – hangs over Hawkins’ entire output from the 1990s. If they were all brought together in a single space (a scintillating prospect), his paintings might have the aura of props from a film adaptation of a biographical novel, and you might forget, for an instant, that they were professionally certified art works in a mid-career retrospective. The proximity of Hawkins the artist and Hawkins the persona projected by the work is apparent, for instance, in a series of book pieces he made by gluing and Sellotaping images of male models, rock stars, film stars and porn stars into the pages of monographs on contemporary artists such as Julian Schnabel and Cy Twombly (for example, Untitled (Slash/ Twombly), 1992).
Virtually all the work from the 1990s shares the sense of being addressed to and about an object of desire – invariably masculine, young and beautiful (often a composite of several men). At the same time the work has an air of secrecy and encourages the kind of voyeuristic guilt that comes with discovering unsent love letters in a sibling’s drawer. Many works also have the shrine-like quality of fan art, whose natural abode, depending on the mood of the piece, is either the teenager’s bedroom or a stalker’s den.
Pieces falling in the latter category are some of Hawkins’ earliest, dating from 1991, and their main element is a ghoulish rubber mask from a novelty shop, shredded and left to hang on a single nail, like kelp or a small Robert Morris ‘Anti-Form’ sculpture. On it Hawkins has paper-clipped images culled from Heavy Metal magazines of the prettier ‘poodle-rockers’ of the time: Slaughter (1991), for example, features Blas Elias, the drummer in the band Slaughter, and Trixter (1991) the lead singer, Pete Loran. Their apparent artlessness suggests they are macabre labours of love. The shredded flesh substitute recalls a cheap special effect from a ‘slasher’ movie, as if this fan’s adoration was about to turn ugly. Given the violence that’s a part of this kind of band’s image, along with the misogynistic and homophobic attitudes that go with it, the suggestion that these permed pin-ups have a psychotic gay stalker is a darkly ironic instance of beating someone at their own game.
More typically, though, Hawkins’ collage works are populated by film stars, male models and porn stars, while their mood, like so much queer art down the ages, is one of longing and languor. Five cinemascope collages of beautiful young men, entitled ‘Crush I–V’ (1993), feature Post-it notes that simply read ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, jealous’ and ‘regret’. With just four simple words, insistent to the point of obsession, the collages mark out a novella’s worth of emotional incident. At the same time the use of found images shifts the whole idea of appropriation away from 1980s’ debates around copies without originals and author deaths to psychoanalytic reflections on the interrelationship of individual desire and the images rolled out on the production lines of the culture industry. Hawkins achieves this by making them ‘his’ in a dual sense: first, ‘they’ – here meaning these images, these products – become part of ‘his’ oeuvre as an artist (in the manner of Pictures art); second, ‘they’ – meaning the men they represent – become ‘his’ objects of desire within the fantasy scenario that the work projects (‘his’ here meaning the artist’s self played out in the work).
In appropriating these images Hawkins excises these men from their contexts, replacing the environments that have been art-directed within various interrelated sectors of the culture industry (Hollywood, fashion, porn) with those of his own. A slyly subversive by-product of this sexualized appropriation is that an untouchable film star – Tom Cruise or Keanu Reaves, for example – is part of the same sea of flesh as some porn star, the juxtapositions implying that a naked crotch might belong to the famous face next to it. The world within which these young guys are relocated is one with deep roots in darker chapters of the literary and artistic avant-garde: in particular the French Decadent milieu, between the fin de siècle and early Modernism, whose pantheon of aesthetes, dreamers and perverts includes Gustave Moreau, King Ludwig II, J.-K. Huysmans, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, Alfred Jarry and Marcel Proust.
But while Hawkins’ research into this epoch was far-reaching (as was evident in the extraordinary website he set up during the 1990s), the evidence of its influence on his work was rarely allowed to rise to the surface; the imagery remains resolutely contemporary and the facture deceptively light of touch, seemingly insouciant. All the same, French Decadence haunts Hawkins’ work of the 1990s, often by way of structural encryptions. For example, Garage Taizo (1996), a collage involving just two pictures from magazines, was composed along the lines of a Moreau painting. It consists of the arch-shaped outline of a Japanese model on a catwalk surrounded by an image of a utility room, which we are supposed to consider Hawkins’ own. In this manner Hawkins burrows occult tunnels, leading to another continent in another century beneath his domicile, Los Angeles. City Underground (1992), a folding metal table beneath which are suspended a dozen or so images of male models and fast food (a paper cup, a ready meal), perhaps alludes to this idea: the cut-out figures, hung like a public execution, are the mirror image of the shaped billboards that famously line the most developed stretch of Sunset Boulevard.
Hawkins’ most obviously Decadent works are large digitally manipulated prints of serrated heads of various fashion models, the blood cascading from their necks as if they have been freshly beheaded at the bequest of a modern-day Salome. Works from this series are each dedicated to a single muse – for example, Disembodied Zombie George White (1997) – and recall paintings by Moreau, Odilon Redon and numerous lesser Symbolists. The backgrounds are liquescent monochromes in sugary hues – like designer retail interiors inspired by Abstract Expressionism. The beheadings, of course, were done with scissors, the blood with Photoshop. The connection between collage and violence, which underlies all of Hawkins’ work of the 1990s, is made explicit, while in Modernism the Sadism implicit in collage and Cubist fracture is sublimated, with the fragment standing metonymically for the whole.
Abstract sections of the collages anticipate Hawkins’ first paintings. In a series of 1995 digital prints devoted to Matt Dillon and Wiley Wiggins images of the actors are surrounded by far larger areas of high-key psychedelic abstraction, suggesting their creator has blissfully zoned out midway through his fantasy. When he began painting, it took a while for his muses to disappear. His first abstracts, blazing with fruity colours, were accompanied by framed magazine images of models on catwalks, lightly daubed with paint, as if Hawkins had been cleaning his brushes on the picture’s surface. Drips from the corners of the rhombi, meshes of which filled the canvases, subtly suggested blood from fangs.
A year or two later the after-images were gone altogether, including subsequent re-workings of Philip Guston’s colour schemes and his motif of riveted plates. The work was becoming about painting itself, manifested in curious abstractions that seemed to mine lost moments in mid-20th-century American Modernism, which the artist revisited idiosyncratically, rather than quoted dispassionately. Hawkins’ painting opposes the notion that the only valid painting is one that ironically reiterates its alleged non-validity in what Rosalind Krauss refers to as the ‘post-medium age’ brought about by Conceptual art. But Hawkins didn’t retreat to a prelapsarian, idealist understanding of abstraction; instead, his understanding of abstract painting as a continuous circulation of signs without origin or terminus was informed by his reading of Gilles Deleuze. It wasn’t surprising, then, that these abstract paintings, whose abstraction never seemed absolute, soon had figurative elements (mushrooms and tin cans) sprouting up in their midst, elements that Hawkins described as ‘not non-representational’. His Notes Toward Painting, written in 2003, around the time of that shift, is a dense web of references, encompassing the discovery of electricity and the origins of Spiritualism, the interrelationship of abstraction and the GI Bill, Bazooka Joe, the first satellites, Creek Native Americans, cabooses and cargo cults, surpassing the scope of his earlier research into the art and material culture of the fin de siècle in France.
A series of ‘Caboose’ paintings from 2003 was based on a drawing (Volucelle, 1919) and a painting (Volucelle II, 1922) by Francis Picabia and were conceived to connect with the large rhombus paintings of 1999–2000. They feature discs in locations set by Picabia, which in later versions became illusionistic cylinders, recalling Popeye’s cans of spinach. These were followed by the artist’s first fully figurative paintings, which were brought on by Hawkins’ discovery of Creek blood in his family (Hawkins is originally from Texas), and his subsequent research into the beliefs and practices, and the assimilation and annihilation, of First Nation Americans. The paintings are history paintings with dense narratives alluding to the corruption of the old West. The figures’ caricature-like outlines and the works’ pastel and candy colours belie the bleakness of their content: burial mounds, swamps full of wine bottles, stumps instead of trees, a lone cottage and isolated, skeletal humans, both Native Americans and white pioneers, seemingly wracked by melancholy, hunger and substance abuse. Some titles, such as Wrath of the Underworld (2004), invoke a general phenomenon driving the narrative, while others are enigmatic in their specificity, such as The Commercial Distribution of Dynamite Coinciding with the Alabama Cholera Epidemic, 1873 (2004). New work – following another series of narrative paintings, this time reminiscent of Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, and set in sex clubs or ‘Boyquariums’ – stems from Hawkins’ research into sculptures of hermaphrodite deities from the late Roman period, the original Decadence, when the pantheon was dramatically expanded, and are likely to take the form of ceramics.
Hawkins is an artist who researches his subjects in depth, yet he doesn’t make what you might call ‘research art’ (in the manner of, say, Fred Wilson, Mark Dion or Renee Green); his approach is too eclectic and his impulses too subjective. While the thinking that informs his practice relates closely to this research, its relationship with the viewer is largely independent of it. As an ongoing project of self-analysis, Hawkins’ art practice is also a critical case study of society and culture – it understands the self as the confluence of, as well as the rebellion against, conservative social forces.
First published in Issue 97