New York

Tim Hawkinson


Tim Hawkinson often depends on ingenuity and surprise, on shifting something familiar or at least imaginable into an unimaginable medium or scale. Like Tom Friedman, an artist I’ve fantasized seeing him paired with, he fosters in viewers a sense of jaw-dropped wonder, the “How did he do that?” coming way before “And why?” For this show, for example, Hawkinson made a full-scale motorbike out of feathers. He made a stool out of eggshells and a model of the atmosphere out of tape and what looked like a bicycle frame. There’s something of the science nerd in Hawkinson, and also something of the ingenious kid, the teenager who sets himself mad challenges for the pure love and fun of it. I’m not always sure where to go with Hawkinson’s sculpture, but I’m usually grateful for its combination of playfulness, imagination, and high accomplishment as problem-solving craft.

The kick often comes from impossible material fusions. The all-feather motorbike, say (Sherpa, 2008), works quite beautifully as a metaphor for speed and flight, but you’d instantly destroy it by sitting on it. The stool, Tuffet, 2009, is just as fragile, and three more works made of eggshells from the same year are equally incongruous: Fist and Point, a clenched fist and a faceted arrowhead, are aggressive tools that would shatter harmlessly if you used them as such; while Bather, though the title may conjure Cézanne, is immediately recognizable as a copy of the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic limestone figure famous for its massive sense of weight despite its four-inch height. Elsewhere the surprise is less that the medium is incompatible with the form than that it is used at all: Ghost Bat, 2009, is made of kitchen trash—bread-package tabs, plastic bags, and twist ties—but its half-comic, half-spooky presence is outsize in relation to its modest substance.

There are messages you could extract here—the futility of violence, the fallibility of the motor culture, the value of the humble—but they seem banal and maybe beside the point; Hawkinson seems less a moralist than an artist fascinated by the large capabilities of mind and hand, especially when put to unlikely results. In any case he’s quite ready to go grandiose, as in the nine-foot-long bronze Leviathon, 2009, a skeletal sea serpent whose vertebrae and ribs turn out to be little rowing figures and their oars. If we want, we can play with that image as an idea—the monsters we fear are ourselves? There’s no difference between human and animal?—but I’m not sure it pays off: The work seems most intent on that moment of dislocation when we realize that an apparent skeleton is actually a figurative sculpture, just as, in Point, an apparent chiseled arrowhead is actually eggshell.

As such, Leviathon is a pretty elaborate way of producing that moment, perhaps overly so, but its resonance of sci-fi, or of M. C. Escher, has the virtue of pointing to another strain in Hawkinson’s imagination: a kind of cartoony gothic or grotesque. Ghost Bat, for example, could easily be a prop for Tim Burton—its cheap, improvisatory facture and faint air of the macabre would appeal to any fan of Burton’s Ed Wood. The director might also like Skinned Knee, 2009, a six-foot-high section of a jeans-wearing knee and shin, with a big hole in the jeans at the kneecap where the poor giant boy has fallen and the scraped skin shows through. It takes some while to recognize this tree-trunk-like object as a human body part (perhaps Hawkinson’s own? He has often based work on his own body in the past), and the recognition is disconcerting when it comes, as painted resin transforms in the mind into raw flesh. Even here, though, more striking than the morbid bloodiness is the simple shift in scale, so large that the threads of the torn denim are represented by the head of a mop. This sense of studio experiment and play—if I made the Venus of Willendorf out of eggshells, if I made a scraped knee six feet high, what would the result be and do?—remains the most engaging part of Hawkinson’s work.

David Frankel