For his seemingly demure London debut, Richard Hawkins elected to show half a dozen small abstract paintings interspersed with as many framed pictures of male models cut from fashion magazines. The paintings are crowded with overlapping rhombi reminiscent of semi-squashed box kites. Their rather beautiful palette (limes, orange-reds, jades, browns), is somehow specific, but hard to locate: Psychedelic Revival perhaps. The mark-making seems hesitant, as if wary of a thousand pitfalls, although the final strokes are sometimes arabesque, as if to say 'finished!'.
Smallish and horizontal, they fit comfortably into the tradition of easel painting, which helps explain their strange air of historicism. Their physical presence is miles away from the New York School, although they take on a kind of Ab-Ex appearance in reproduction. They call to mind tentative post-war, old world forays into painterly abstraction - de Stäel perhaps, or Poliakoff. But who's Hawkins fooling? We don't need their catwalk neighbours to know that his paintings are this season.
The magazine reproductions are simply appropriated and framed up, except for the presence of apparently artless brushstrokes that share colours with the neighbouring paintings. Are they simply the surfaces where he cleans his brushes? Their appearance calls to mind the paint-daubed reproductions of Francis Bacon's studio, and other slight, over-inflated relics of artistic genius - Warhol's cookie jars or Picasso's napkin drawings. That Hawkins should himself elevate material he has barely touched seems a self-conscious enactment of naive modesty, or overweening vanity, and funny for it.
But perhaps these 'adapted ready-mades' offer a conceptual solution to the paintings by lending them content - after all, how many painters clean their brushes on pictures of beautiful boys (heavy jaws, big mouths, deep-set eyes, pale skin, and thick, dark hair)? Hawkins seems to be suggesting that he couldn't have made the paintings, despite their abstraction, without these muses. His carefree defacements start taking on a sense of exotic plumage adoringly applied, and the decision to show them comes across as a self-reflexive play on how he imagines his audience might construct their sense of his private life via the fictionalised autobiography in his work.
The abstract paintings and the magazine pictures have the effect of splitting Hawkins' practice, where previously the tendencies they represent - the decorative and the dark, the digital and the handmade - would appear entwined. In the collages for which he first became known, details cut from different reproductions were pasted together to make a kind of composite boy with several faces, torsos, dress senses and advertising settings: a kind of 1990s Hydra. Small areas of flat colour acted as the formal glue. On the surface the collages suggested the simple obsessions of the hobbyist, yet all the while alluding to Oscar Wilde's dictum that everyone kills the one they love. The impenetrable two-way mirror of the printed page ensures the fan's love for a star is absolutely unrequited. Hawkins' scissors and glue puncture this representational divide and patch up new, hybrid lovers, in the way serial murderers kill and dismember as the only means to share their life with the object of their desire. The subsequent print series, 'Disembodied Zombies' (1997), confirms this grizzly analogy: Hawkins scanned his favourite models, chopped them at the neck, used a graphics package to paint in the gore, and left their heads floating against candy-coloured, luminescent grounds, like John the Baptist fashion plates.
The new abstracts may be sweet as a summer's day but they retain some of the after-images of Hawkins' distinctive Californian Gothic. The rhombus shapes are reminiscent of the earlier patches cut from magazines and evoke the stitched-skin motif of Frankenstein's monster by affectionately quoting the riveted metal plates that run through Philip Guston's late paintings. Equally, a vampiric presence lurks in the long thin lines that drip from the bottom corners of the coloured shapes like stage blood from sets of fangs. Nourished in equal measures by Proust, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Montesquiou, theory and gay porn, it's safe to assume that Hawkins' latest pleasure zone only momentarily keeps the pain at bay. If you remain in any doubt check out his magnum opus at www.rufusrufus.com, the first artwork of any worth I've encountered in cyberspace.
First published in Issue 54