New York

Richard Hawkins, Turd Plug to Prevent Nocturnal Insemination, 2016, glazed ceramic in frame, 25 3/4 × 22 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Richard Hawkins, Turd Plug to Prevent Nocturnal Insemination, 2016, glazed ceramic in frame, 25 3/4 × 22 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Richard Hawkins

Richard Hawkins, Turd Plug to Prevent Nocturnal Insemination, 2016, glazed ceramic in frame, 25 3/4 × 22 3/4 × 3 1/2".

Having seen a number of Richard Hawkins’s exhibitions over the years, I’ve learned at least one thing: not to expect the next one to look like the last. His most recent show made me realize something more: His works may not even look like what they really are. When I first walked into the gallery—before picking up the press release bearing the show’s title, “Norogachi: Ceramics After Artaud”—the works on view looked like paintings. And that’s not exactly wrong. The twenty-four small works that were on view are paintings, if that means, in the famous definition given by Maurice Denis, “essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” But if it means oil or acrylic or the like on canvas or panel, then no: These pieces are made of glazed ceramic, pieced together out of anywhere from four to ten smoothly sliced or roughly carved segments.

Several of these paintings-or-not function as settings onto which relief elements—often figures suggestive of tormented saints, extraordinarily gnarly, grotesquely misshapen to the point of monstrousness—were centrally affixed. A Saint Sebastian–esque figure pierced by nails, sticks, candles, and little screwdrivers turns out to be Judas of Norogachi (all works 2016). Others are reddish-brown, roughly cylindrical forms that looked to me at first like flayed, bloody penises, though by title they are identified, rather, as a Turd Plug to Prevent Nocturnal Insemination, for instance, or a Double-Bladed Weapon Against Spermsuckers. At first, I should admit, I averted my eyes; these works are really ugly, unpleasant to look at. The imagery in the pieces without relief elements may be crude, fantastical, and even obscene—Her Most Wretched Cunt Almighty, Her UnDead Daughter and their Unholy Farting Shits is not atypical, but in a more playful, less aggressive way. Once I’d acclimated myself by way of these less directly visceral works, I found myself able to confront the grosser three-dimensional manifestations of Hawkins’s chosen defilements with more equanimity, and realized that these icons or ex-votos of cruelty had a power commensurate with their crudity.

But still, none of these works are quite what they appear to be, namely, spontaneous outbursts of expressionist invention inspired by art brut and folk religion. They are deeply premeditated representations based on Hawkins’s research into Antonin Artaud’s famous 1936 journey to Mexico, in search (as Hawkins says) of “a people ‘uncontaminated’ by modern European culture.” According to anthropologist Lars Krutak—and it’s hardly surprising to anyone who has dipped a toe into the inflamed and histrionic texts of the great writer/director—Artaud systematically “fabricated, exaggerated, and embellished the ‘truth’ of his experiences among these mystical people,” the Tarahumara. Despite or because of this, Hawkins is fascinated by the psychosexual extremism of the imagery Artaud derived from this falsified encounter, with its fantasies of anal rape, the blurring of distinctions between Christ and Judas, and the permeability of the border between the realms of the living and the dead—the realm of the latter being the “land of opposites.”

Hawkins supplies many fascinating pages of information on all this on the Greene Naftali website, but the visceral charge of the imagery he derives from it is its own reward. That the fantasies of corporeal and spiritual violation embodied in Artaud’s writing do, despite the unreliability of his account, find some echo in the culture he only superficially encountered suggests that there is something universal in them. Writing of Artaud, Hawkins observes that “an active imagination is at work combining what an artist sees in his surroundings with the delusions and fantasies he lays over them.” Naturally, one might say something similar of Hawkins himself.

Barry Schwabsky