New York

Tim Hawkinson, Animal Treasures, 2013, bamboo, steel, urethane foam, cardboard, paper, resin, pinecones, grapefruit, eggshells, 101 1/2 x 105 x 72".

Tim Hawkinson, Animal Treasures, 2013, bamboo, steel, urethane foam, cardboard, paper, resin, pinecones, grapefruit, eggshells, 101 1/2 x 105 x 72".

Tim Hawkinson

Pace | 537 West 24th Street

Tim Hawkinson, Animal Treasures, 2013, bamboo, steel, urethane foam, cardboard, paper, resin, pinecones, grapefruit, eggshells, 101 1/2 x 105 x 72".

Looking at Tim Hawkinson’s work over the years, I’ve sometimes thought of François Truffaut’s famous book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, published first in 1967, then with an additive revision in 1984. Truffaut begins by asserting that “Hitchcock is universally acknowledged to be the world’s foremost technician; even his detractors willingly concede him this title.” Yet while making this concession, Truffaut complains, American audiences feel the title is empty, since the films have “no substance,” and for Truffaut substance is inseparable from technique—given all that technique, there has to be something there. This is the question Hawkinson prompts for me: The technique, the skill, are obvious and extraordinary; so, what’s there?

What’s there, for example, in Kookaburra, 2012? Five years ago Hawkinson made a motorbike entirely of feathers (Sherpa, 2008); now he makes a biker, defined as such by posture and helmet, and shaped out of hard, carapace-like palm fronds apparently riveted together with the paired nuts and husks of acorns. The media are said to include steel, but none can be seen, though there must be some kind of armature hidden under the long, full tail—yes, this biker has a tail—where the fronds turn plumy and rustly and lift the figure eight feet in the air, as if it were riding that airborne feather bike. Or what about Animal Treasures, 2013, also about eight feet tall, in which some kind of mother mammal—bear? squirrel? rat?—holds a smaller one in her mouth by the scruff of the neck, and that one in turn holds a smaller one, which holds an even smaller one, and on to a tiny one close to the floor? The self-evident medium here is cardboard, covered with a goopy resin whose wet-looking surface softens the work’s contours and gives it a mucoid, newborn-baby feel, but there are ringer materials: grapefruit halves, for example, used as the eyes of one of the larger creatures, and what are described in the media list as the shells of eggs but actually seem to be their yolks, for the eyes of one of the infants. To get unbroken egg yolks into eye sockets, hold them there, and preserve them . . . tricky. Part of Hawkinson’s logic may be a principled ethos of recycling, of using mostly stuff picked up around his California neighborhood and home—he made another piece here by cutting up his daughter’s (abandoned) bike. But if that’s a moral, it’s overwhelmed by his daunting ingenuity and skill in putting his media together and getting them to behave.

Contemporary audiences loved something similar in Hitchcock: the filmmaking craft that not only fixed them in their seats but also blinded them to what Truffaut called the movies’ “substance.” In working so beautifully as entertainments, the films didn’t seem to mean anything. What meanings does Hawkinson deal with? He used to write what he called “didactics” for some of his works—capsule summations of their principles—but those, though fascinating, were predominantly factual: A typical one reads, “The inherent geometry of a corn chip determined the size of this geodesic sphere.” (Why? Because it could, that’s why.) And today, interviewed for this show’s catalogue, he is almost comically vague: The text is sprinkled with such phrases as, “It’s not something I think about a lot,” or, “I’m not setting out to speak directly to life and death issues,” or, “I don’t know why I started making chains.” This last is striking, since the chain motif recurs here, for example in a bronze statue (one of the show’s few ventures into a traditional sculptural medium) of a figure in shackles, a slave—a strange subject for cheerful obliviousness during an interview.

And yet the work captivates thanks to Hawkinson’s exaggerated strength in a fundamental property of art, its power of metamorphic transformation—both as associative imagery and at the level of material and making. After all, it’s ultimately no weirder that Kookaburra should be made of palms and acorns than that the Mona Lisa should be made of pigment and a greasy liquid called oil. Hawkinson has an enormous ability to look at a material or an object and see something else, something it can become—an enormous access to the liminal and polymorphous, to the unconscious, dreaming level of perception, where things mutate without reason or sense. And as with Hitchcock’s films, the substance of those mutations is likely to be recognized in time.

David Frankel