New York

Robert Hawkins

Half Gallery @ 16 Morton Street

Robert Hawkins’s first solo exhibition in New York in a decade marked the welcome return of a native of the 1980s and early ’90s East Village art scene. The five paintings displayed are at once brooding and celebratory, a triumph of a kind of “outsider” aesthetic that refuses to be pinned down to one attitude, whether cynical, fantastical, or satirical. If Hawkins’s art expresses all of these in gratifying, protean proportions, it is also deeply lyrical, and infused with a devotion to the painterly that transforms the work into delirious and lurid achievements of formidable artistic magnitude.

For these works, Hawkins has taken the circus as subject, and it’s appropriate to read them as brooding, phantasmagorical, and rather Victorian allegories of a contemporary epoch that has given itself over to those late-empire staples, mass spectacle and decadence. Yet if Hawkins’s figurative take on our era can seem more sympathetic or engaged than condemnatory, this appears to be because he sees past the obvious ironies and bitterness of the situation to its wonders and tragedy.

Hawkins’s circus might have been imagined by a child who craves the spectacle in spite of his horror of it. Exterior of Circus at Night, from a Helicopter (all works 2008) employs bumbling, brightly colored elementary shapes to construct a big top poised in quaintly naive perspective, the eerie night surrounding it strafed by klieg lights and permeated (one imagines) by calliope strains and the whop of chopper blades.

The most bluntly iconic work, Performing Ass, presents the homely posterior of a plumed donkey as the animal stands on a cheerfully painted dais in the middle of a circus ring. This central figure, like those in other of the works, is surrounded by murky gloom. (Even Hawkins’s most brightly colored paintings appear dark or shadowed.) Here, lit from above by a spotlight, the creature becomes a sort of emblem of ourselves within a world that employs us for our cruder uses.

In Acrobats (Seven Families) we see dozens of performers in various fantastical formations—in human pyramids or riding unicycles along tightropes, as well as stretched or tumbling toward implausibly distant trapezes. The theme of acrobatics is likewise taken up in Help, in which an audience of seemingly disembodied heads in the lower portion of the painting watches as performers engage in a breathtaking display above them and beneath the watery blue stripes of the vast tent’s ceiling. Aside from the mesmerizing quality of risk and danger, what’s intimated is the hopeless fragility or impermanence of such rarified displays as those on which contemporary life appears based. As we sense instinctively, and as these paintings plaintively aver, in spite of our continued fascination, something’s got to give.

The whirl and dazzle reach fevered relentlessness in Extravagance, which portrays a one-ring finale of impossible, Technicolor grandeur. Panthers, zebras, sea lions, monkeys, polar bears, banner-waving elephants, and lions leaping through rings of fire appear arrayed in ascending tiers forming a pyramid. This galumphing squall of Busby Berkeley–esque intensity enraptures, in spite of certain ominous elements and symbolism within the painting, such as the elephants’ closed eyes, the snarls and close proximity to us of the panthers, and two clowns recalling Ronald McDonald and John Wayne Gacy’s “Pogo” (the character the serial killer performed at birthday parties, luring boys to their deaths). Then there’s the overall tortured earnestness of these endless, obsequious animals, largely torn from any wild nobility. The scene endears as it horrifies; in its utter lack of self-awareness, the meticulous ostentation transfixes the viewer, as does the doom that, although it looms over the picture, we can almost believe won’t fall.

Tom Breidenbach