Los Angeles

Richard Hawkins

Richard Telles Fine Art

“It is doubtless an excellent thing to study the old masters in order to learn how to paint,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “but it can be no more than a waste of labor if your aim is to understand the special nature of present-day beauty.” Baudelaire wanted the best of both worlds: a painter able to apply the skills of the past but dedicated to capturing the contemporary world’s “pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences.” Baudelaire, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s coffeehouse observations of modern humanity, from “steady old fellows” to “the race of swell pick-pockets,” would have loved Richard Hawkins’s latest paintings.

A student of visual culture from mainstream to highfalutin to fringe, Hawkins has now become a student of painting in particular—a shift signaled by his late ’90s inkjet prints, which, as Baudelaire might have it, depict today’s fashionable and floating It Boys, their severed heads hovering in luminous haze. Those images, though digitally produced, show evidence of lessons learned from painting—in particular from the Symbolist work of Gustave Moreau. Following on the heels of years spent exploring abstraction, and history and allegorical painting, Hawkins’s latest outing was all oil on linen and watercolor on paper, and represented a return to the culture of the moment, albeit far from glamorous.

Hawkins’s new cast includes variously undressed men seeing and being seen. From hardbodies to skinny lads to flabby, effeminate, girly-men to decrepit lechers, they hang out, strike poses, show off their tan lines, strut on stage as numbered contestants, and kill time in clubs drenched in blue, pink, and green as Hawkins trades in gaslight for ecstatic radiance. His brushwork and treatment of light at times evoke van Gogh, while his treatment of his subject matter is more evocative of Gauguin’s sexual tourism. His paintings blend realism with distortion, picturing urban locations that retain a certain exoticism despite their outward familiarity. His positioning of action in space recalls Renaissance painters, particularly Piero della Francesca, but Hawkins’s snapshot compositions suggest the inaccuracy of using rangefinder cameras close-up or hidden cameras on the fly. Full figures lose their scalps and toes; halves of bodies go missing; faces are caught peeking into scenes.

Echoes of more recent masters like Philip Guston and R. Crumb also make themselves heard, but perhaps most successfully of all, Hawkins draws on Bonnard and Matisse, both of whom devoted their share of canvas to flaunted flesh. In serving up his bathhouse guests and rent boys, he quotes the color and pattern amid which these earlier artists situated their bathers and odalisques. These purely visual elements become intoxicating, immersing us in Hawkins’s strange club-world so completely that he seems almost to achieve Matisse’s goal of an art that soothes and calms like a good armchair. But before you sit down beside the ghosts of Baudelaire and Poe to watch this pageant, you might want to lay down a seat cover.

Christopher Miles