Richard Hawkins


The other day, for reasons unrelated to this assignment, I reread Rhonda Lieberman’s classic essay on Karen Kilimnik, published in these pages in 1994. Naturally, I noticed the artist’s passing reflection, “It must be a fun life being Richard Hawkins. I haven’t met him personally, but it was my impression. . . .” Why did she assume that, I wondered? “Fun” would not have been the first thing that came to mind on entering Hawkins’s recent exhibition. The works shown, which harked back—in two distinct styles—to the art of the first half of the twentieth century, gave an impression, instead, of quiet intimacy and reflection.

Hanging on the walls were seven small, framed works on cardboard in oil and collage. Their imagery is mostly abstract, consisting of skewed rectangles of various sizes. Nowhere in evidence are the hunky boys who populate some of Hawkins’s other work, but in some cases the abstract elements are interspersed with photomechanical reproductions of classical statuary (apparently taken from a German textbook, as indicated by the captions visible in Union of Eroticized Gender with Abstract Overlay/Surplus and Feminine with Abstract Overlay/Surplus, all works 2006). The color in these works is subdued, emphasizing grays, dusty blues, and terra-cottas along with black and white. This moody, recessive palette, along with a brushy, lackadaisical facture that’s about as far from hard-edged as you can get while still remaining within the genre of geometrical abstraction, gives the work an air of pensive subjectivity. In this it’s close in tenor to Tomma Abts’s work, which likewise manages to evoke the constructive abstraction of the ’30s while entirely skirting its technocratic optimism.

Also as with Abts, there seems to be more going on in Hawkins’s pictures than an all-too-familiar nostalgia for high modernism in decline; the engaging lightness and bounce of the Angeleno’s “abstract arrays” belie any sense of playing out the losing side of an endgame. Likewise, the works incorporating classical imagery—while calling attention to depictions of gender, as their titles suggest—remain open-ended, admirably balanced between their representational and nonrepresentational elements, and steer clear of editorializing in favor of a sweetly humorous incongruity. Only Ancient and Exotic Masculine x2 becomes too obvious: A Japanese print showing a warrior drawing his sword is overlaid with a couple of bearded Greek heads, as though he’d been the one to cut them off.

Also on view were twenty-two glazed ceramic figurines. No abstraction here. These untitled works may also breathe the air of a bygone era, but it’s that of Gaston Lachaise or Reuben Nakian rather than the concurrent yet incompatible one of Theo van Doesburg and Jean Hélion. Bottomheavy hermaphrodites with dainty little penises and no arms (except for the ones they recline on), their facial features only vaguely indicated but their bellies almost always showing a tiny pinprick to mark the navel, they are rough-hewn, tender, and animated with a Baroque energy. What unites them with Hawkins’s abstract works is that they are self-consciously conventional (with respect to out-of-date conventions) but not reverentially so—rather, they turn convention into a form of fantasy. Because no one owes allegiance to these conventions, one can observe them in a state of liberty. They become, in their own subdued way, fun.

Barry Schwabsky