New York

Tim Hawkinson

Whitney Museum of American Art

While poles apart visually, Tim Hawkinson’s current appearance at the Whitney bears comparison to Christo and Jean-Claude’s recent Central Park Gates, a few final remnants of which I walked through en route to the museum. Both projects convey a certain joie de vivre and lay claim to popular appeal but stand to some extent beyond the pale of contemporary critical discourse. However, free as he is from the brouhaha in which the older artists wrap themselves—and the way it veils their work’s conceptual shortcomings—Hawkinson finds himself in a relatively vulnerable position. Yes, he is the subject of a major exhibition in a (usually) serious institution, but many will leave it wondering whether he really deserves the accolade.

Hawkinson, of course, is very far from being a true outsider: His precedents and influences—which range from Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, and Bruce Nauman to Mark Pauline, Tom Friedman, and Charles Ray (his instructor at UCLA)—are sophisticated and transparent. Yet there is something about his geekish absorption in improvised machinery and fascination with intricate repetition that marks him as properly (if accessibly) eccentric. He journeys ever inward in the manner of an amateur scientist searching for some microcosmic fundamental: At the Whitney, navel-gazing self-portraits of one kind or another proliferate, and there is a sense that much of the work was embarked on primarily for its maker’s own amusement (admittedly a trait common to much art but arguably better hidden in most). Add to this impression a folksy, hand-crafted look, and what might have been enviable charm begins to congeal—despite its attendant bells and whistles—into a cloying obsequiousness.

If there’s such a thing as a typical Hawkinson, Ranting Mop Head (Synthesized Voice), 1995, comes close. Here a mop, mounted upright on an office-chair base, is transformed into an ersatz janitor with a voice box made of plastic bottles. A motor forces compressed air against a reed at the base of the mop, producing a sound shaped into an eerie whine that roughly approximates human speech. A battered wooden podium connected to the mop houses a player-piano-style scroll that determines what is said and when. It’s a strikingly low-tech approach to a challenging problem, but while one can’t help admiring the artist’s skill at improvised engineering, the work ultimately becomes a victim of its own technical ingenuity. Ranting Mop Head may be prodigiously vocal, but it has nothing much to say.

While the mop stands in for an anonymous Everyman, Humongolous, 1995, is one of a number of images in which Hawkinson’s own anatomy is rendered according to systemic rules. A painted map of all the areas of his skin directly visible to him, it has enormously inflated limbs but no head. Blindspot, 1991, is a photomontage that achieves the opposite end, exclusively depicting body parts perpetually hidden to their owner. Hawkinson also generates a simulated X-ray photograph by rubbing pastel on a sheet of fabric wrapped around his body so that the bonier protrusions leave their marks; constructs a graph of the relative circumference of his body as measured at regular intervals from head to toe; and draws himself as if woven from lace. In addition, he uses his own hair and nail clippings to create bird skeletons, eggs, feathers, and spider webs. All this activity is “clever” and well-intentioned but finally, it is just too aimlessly amiable, leading us on a path that proves to be not only circular but as self-congratulatory as those orange—sorry, saffron—portals themselves.

Michael Wilson