Los Angeles

Richard Hawkins

Richard Telles Fine Art

Begin with the fact that beauty leaves you at a loss, fumbling for the life you had before you encountered it as if it were a key to something crucial. Alfred Jarry referred to it as “monster.” Richard Hawkins quotes him on his website: “It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements; the Centaur and Chimera are defined this way to people who do not know them. I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”

Hawkins’ ongoing project is to test the limits of originality and (seeming) inexhaustibility, limits that for him are partly embodied in certain examples of masculinity working itself out in the pages of fashion glossies, star magazines, stroke manuals—in other words, in life. To further his search for the thing (beauty) that is standing apart from him, for its distance and temporal dissonance, he often juxtaposes (or transfigures) the objects of his desire—manifestations of masculinity that, to put it philosophically, call him into being by questioning the existence of his own masculinity or masculinity in general—with (or into) historically forlorn dandies adrift from the turn of the century, or with the undead, who are adrift forever. All of which makes Hawkins’ work sound difficult and complex, which it is; but what makes it astounding is its austere simplicity, its deft bluntness. The sexiness of his simplicity confounds many viewers.

4 guys on blue background (all works 1997) serves as both an introduction to Hawkins’ most recent work and a template for grasping what has gone on before. Against a computer-generated robin’s-egg-blue paper were taped images of four boys in various clothing ads. It is a document of erotic longing, a statement about men’s fashion, and a work that makes the viewer ask many of the same questions about him- or herself and art that might be asked of Robert Ryman’s Constant, 1987, Rrose Sélavy’s Belle Haleine, Eau de Violette, 1921, or Andy Warhol’s Blowjob, 1963: What is this? How does it hold on to meaning? If I stake some aesthetic claim on it, how does it change the way I look at anything else?

Three other elements completed the show: six identical-size portraits of the decapitated heads of beautiful boys (Ben Arnold, George Clements, Skeet Ulrich, and others) floating in delicately tinted, hypnotic, painterly fields of color and framed in appropriately ghastly black moire wood frames; a huge severed head (Clements again), gentle carmine cataract of blood falling from the neck like surrey fringe, blood trickling from ear and nose, the skin drained and bluish; and a suite of four collages for Ludwig of Bavaria (ripped from L’Uomo Vogue and altered by insistent notes in black ink). All but the last were the result of different technological manipulations, but Hawkins deploys the computer and the Internet as if they were the shut-in fans’ basic tools—scissors, paintbrush, and glue—making work yet as fragile, exact, and strange as his collages.

The portraits of Clements are the most haunting. His huge floating head, printed in three panels, pushes Hawkins to a new direction and scale yet retains his inimitable method for getting at mood (loneliness, abjection, etc.) through the precision of his handiwork: he blurs assurance (the background seems to pulsate gently with sherbet pinks, blues, and yellows) with an all-encompassing disappointment (two corners of the piece were left to curl slowly upward and turn away). Suggesting the improbability of physical embodiments of human beauty through the fading away of the subject and the colors making up the subject, disembodied zombie george frozen has Clements’ eyes glowing, pearls of undying, as his head coalesces from nether mists; in disembodied zombie george white, the background hums a pink just this side of white heat.

The effects in Hawkins’ new work have as much if not more to do with late-nineteenth-century damascening, watercolor, and wallpaper techniques as with digital technology, yet the works resist facile nostalgia. Subtly questioning the (fictive) connections between our fin-de-siècle and the last through a reconsideration of wild Salome and certain paintings by Gustave Moreau, he ponders how things (beauty, art, life) exist to dismantle themselves or be dismantled, while barely hanging on to what keeps them recognizable as what they are.

Bruce Hainley