PRINT November 1991


THERE ARE AT LEAST two pieces of correspondence missing from They Call Him Mr. Gacy, C. Ivor McClelland’s 1989 collection of letters to and from convicted serial-murderer-turned-painter John Wayne Gacy. In 1987 a recent Cal Arts graduate named Richard Hawkins wrote the infamous criminal a letter. Did Gacy, it queried, experience feelings of confinement and hopelessness in the presence of beauty? And, if so, did his torture-murders of some 30-odd boys help him feel better? Hawkins, who often incorporates celebrity memorabilia in his work, hoped to gain Gacy’s participation in his installation-in-progress—a multimedia study of unrequited sexual fixation, with the actor Tom Cruise as its objet fixe. But the questions he posed were intended neither as jokes nor as the usual lurid countercultural curiosity. For Hawkins honestly saw in Gacy an alter ego of sorts, someone with extreme sexual fantasies who happened to be trapped in a shy, insecure person’s body. Was the only thing that differentiated them the fact that Gacy had had the courage of his convictions? Hawkins was relieved if inexplicably disappointed when an unsympathetic Gacy, who strenuously denies his guilt, responded with a tirade of homophobic abuse.

The works of Los Angeles artist Richard Hawkins document his schizophrenic interest in male beauty. Witty, poised, and seductively artful, yet explosively lustful not far under the surface, they propose a kind of ominous dream date between his repressed self—the man he’d imagined Gacy to be—and cute, unreachable pop-culture stars such as Cruise, Sebastian Bach of the rock band Skid Row, and actors Kirk Cameron, Matt Dillon, and Billy Wirth (all of whom figure prominently in his work). His photos, paintings, collages, texts, and sculptures are self-consciously inadequate souvenirs of this wet daydream, constructed out of items he’s bought in tourist and heavy metal shops along Hollywood Boulevard, and altered until they reflect in equal measure his intense desire and the embarrassed attempts to conceal it. Take Trixter, 1991, a piece about Hawkins’ favorite member of a current heavy metal band. It involves a Halloween devil mask, shredded into a rubber pasta and paper-clipped with pictures of the band’s sweet-faced singer, Pete Loran. This wad of things is draped over a single nail and obsessively fussed with, almost as if some anal-retentive priss had tried to discover a folk-art treasure among the ruins of some teenage boy’s trashed bedroom.

A similar piece, Slaughter, 1991, which replaces the devil mask with one of Freddie Kruger and the Loran pics with ones of drummer Blas Elias, was included in “Situation,” a recent survey show of contemporary lesbian and gay art at New Langton Arts, curated by Nayland Blake and Pam Gregg. There, amidst works by peers like Cary Leibowitz, G.B. Jones, Donald Moffett, and Catherine Opie, the squeezed-sponge-like intensity of Hawkins’ piece made a particularly fierce impression. As is often the case with his best work, Slaughter’s deceptively simple juxtaposition of two dichotomous elements discloses a veritable maze of little emotional conflicts, from the self-consciously insecure attempt to pay tribute to a bona fide idol, to the overly neat approximation of a display of temper. While other artists in the show, such as Clifford Hengst, Connie Samaras, and Steven Evans, refer to pop-music figures and products as a way of grounding their oddball formalism in the overly familiar, Hawkins’ fetishizing of a heavy metal band’s drummer is colored by his fannish admiration of that band’s treatment of themes close to his heart—suicide, demonology, and sexual power. Even when his work’s reference points stray outside the pop firmament, as in a recent series of pieces in which favorite books are altered by the autographs of incongruous celebrities—Rob Lowe’s in Psychopathis Sexualis, Keanu Reeves’ in Goethe’s Italian Journey—there is always the sense of desire outweighing intellect. Thus the scribbles of people whose value lies in their youthful attractiveness take ownership of works that have been proven to be timelessly great.

In the last few years the art world has grown accustomed to openly lesbian and gay male work. But just as younger homos of both sexes have recently begun rebelling against what they see as the assimilationist politics of earlier generations, it’s possible to see Hawkins as one of a growing number of postgay artists who are fervently studying such politically incorrect turf as the eroticism fueled by overcompensating homophobes like the aforementioned Bach or Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash. Hawkins is far less interested in claiming gay ownership of a corner of contemporary art than he is in using his art education to devise perfect Trojan horses for the bedrooms of heavy metal aficionados. But unlike Pruitt • Early’s condescending beer-can sculptures, which assume teens to be sensation-starved morons, period, Hawkins’ approximations of what rockers might like if for some wild reason they decided to investigate the art world are, for all the embarrassed irony of their presentation, deeply respectful of the tastes of these sexually repressed and emotionally inarticulate young men. While his attempts to find delicacy in the fallout from their brutish rituals always wind up resembling art, the works are often so interfered with by his horniness that they exude intentionality in spite of themselves, like bunches of roses sent to the wrong address.

Dennis Cooper is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. His most recent novel is Frisk, published by Grove Weidenfeld, New York.