“It is only a short step from exaggerating what we can find in the world to exaggerating our power to remake the world. Expecting more novelty than there is, more greatness than there is, and more strangeness than there is, we imagine ourselves masters of a plastic universe. But a world we can shape to our will is a shapeless world.” Daniel J Boorstin
The Richard Hawkins retrospective, now at the Art Institute of Chicago is one the most comical and introspective shows that I’ve seen recently. Hawkins has an awareness of the confines and limitations of ideologies, and he bluntly points them out, through his esoteric approach to pluralism. Not only does Hawkins question authority, but he also undermines notions of hegemony and unity within his own practice.
Third Mind, the title, takes its name from the William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin novel. The show’s accompanying pamphlet is incorrect in stating that the book introduced the concept of the “cut-up” technique in literature, a method of writing in which printed words were literally cut-up and rearranged in order to create new texts. The Dadaists were actually the first to invent the device, and Burroughs was making cut-up texts and films during the sixties, long before the book was published in 1978. Thinking of the retrospective in relation to the cut-up, supplements the way Hawkins realigns historical and pop-cultural references that are familiar to the viewer, but that take on a new meaning when placed in the context of other elements.
The exhibition begins with two hanging rubber masks, that have been cut into long strips, with accompanying painted pink cards attached with paper clips to one, and painted black cards to another. These pieces are titled Scalp 1 and Scalp 2 (Remember the wonderful days when everything could be explained by terms like desire and the body), were made in 2010, and are an ironic commentary on work about “the body.” Most of this body-conscious work was made in the 90s and took its subject from the oozing, visceral (as in emotional) viscera (as in organs), but has a tendency to often be insipid and unambiguous, hence Hawkins’ titles. Hawkins manages to borrow from an obvious and dated genre, and transform it into something at once witty and fun, by cutting it up, à la Burroughs. The artist becomes an iconoclast, a destroyer of images, in the most literal sense. At first glance, the shredded bits of fake skin with plastic hair clinging to them seem grotesque and macabre, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are a satirical commentary on the once popular work about the body. Hawkins points to how all art is imagined and supposed, whether or not it attempts to seek external validation by aligning itself with any real, physical entity, while also poking fun at the challenges of creating relevant art in our time. After reading the pamphlet, I learned that one mask was of Michael Jackson and the other of a devil, which further complicated the read. By juxtaposing a temporal, and deceased celebrity with an imagined, immortal cultural archetype, Hawkins creates a contemporary memento mori.
Another highlight of the show is Urbis Pagunus series, in which Hawkins collages photographs of Roman statues onto black mat board, and then takes on a mock-academic style of critiquing the ancient sculptures, remarking on the “delectable backside” and the state of art in general, using hand-written, capitalized serif text. One of my favorite collages in the series shows a photograph of Roman statue, run-of-the-mill frontal view, along with a second view of one of these previously mentioned succulent ancient rumps with this accompanying text:
TO MAKE MY POINT IMAGINE IN YOUR MIND ANY PUBLIC SCULPTURE IN A GARDEN, IN THE MARKET, ANYWHERE CITIZENS HAVE FULL AND UNHINDERED VIEWS- IN THE ROUND- OF BOTH THE FRONT AND THE BACK OF A STATUE. APPROACHING FROM THE FRONT, IF THE CITIZEN STOPS AT ALL, HE MIGHT REMARK, ACKNOWLEDGE THE INSCRIPTION, ADMIRE EITHER THE LIKENESS OF WORKMANSHIP OR HAVE A FEW COMMENTS- EITHER NEGATIVE OR POSITIVE- ABOUT THE PERSONAGE PORTRAYED. HE’LL THEN SIMPLY PASS BY AND BEYOND THE STATUE, CARRYING ON HIS WAY AND RARELY LOOKING BACK, FEELING HE HAS GIVEN HIS DUE TO THIS PARTICULAR STATUE WHEN IN FACT, HE’S ONLY UNDERSTOOD A SINGLE SOLITARY ASPECT.
A STROLLING CITIZEN APPROACHING, ALTERNATELY FROM THE BACKSIDE, IS PRESENTED WITH THE POSTERIOR VIEW, A VIEW THAT MAY PERHAPS AROUSE INTEREST BUT WHICH SERVES AS A KIND OF ARROW WHOSE ONLY PURPOSE IS TO INFORM, NOT OF ITSELF BUT OF SOMETHING FORTHCOMING- LIKE ROADSIDE SIGNS THAT ELLICIT THE PROMISE OF HISTORICAL SITES, FOOD AND LODGING OR LEAGUES YET TO THE NEXT VILLAGE. THE BACKSIDE OF A STATUE NEVER HAS AND NEVER WILL BE ANYTHING IN AND OF IT SELF. SO WHY NOT JUST LEAVE IT BLANK?
The viewer is not only asked to question how invested the average citizen is in classical Roman sculpture, but how invested the general art public is typically in all art. The day I was at the exhibit, life imitated art, when countless people walked by this series not even attempting to read the text, exactly like the citizen described strolling in the collage, and like him, these citizens walked away barely considering a solitary aspect of the piece. To be fair, I did witness a handful of people who actually read the texts and tried to understand these pieces, a couple of them even cracking up out loud as they did, which was reassuring.
Another facet of this piece is a critique of convention; Hawkins questions why tradition should be followed especially when it becomes so predictable, that it becomes invisible, as in the case of those sadly neglected “delectable backsides.” This reminded me of a Giacometti interview, in which I remember him criticizing classical sculpture for being empty and vacuous, more of a vase to put flowers in, rather than anything reminding him of a human being.
The recurring idea of time and relevance, made me think of Giacometti, again, because of his awareness of how relative and provisional cultural values are, knowing that he too would one day be replaced in his position as a central figure in art, like so many who came before him. Although being an expressionist, he had less of an intellectual distance than Hawkins. However, if we avoid evaluating history through the vantage of critical presentism, and look past the romanticization of the solitary, Sisyphean creator working in a cruel and indifferent world, Giacometti emerges as having created an accurate, albeit subjective portrayal of the human condition, depicting humans as being fragile, transitory, anonymous creatures who move through space with a determination which can only result from an imagined sense of purpose.
In a different collage, Hawkins offers an example in which the oft over looked backside is not neglected and serves a function:
THERE ARE SOME INSTANCES WHERE THE BACKSIDES OF STATUES RECEIVED A PROPER USE- HOWEVER INAPROPRIATE THAT PROPRIETY MAY BE. ONE CAN IMAGINE LONELY OLD NIGHTS IN THE VILLA ADRIANA WHERE A YOUTH FOREVER SUSPENDED IN DEATH IS AGAIN SUSPENDED IN MARBLE, HIS COLD HARD FLESH WARMED BY THE DAYTIME SUN IS PUT TO GOOD USE COME EVENING.
A recurring metaphorical meaning reveals itself in the collages about the reigning power of the majority, and the overlooked position of the minority. The allusions to homoeroticism and the backside, direct the conversation to the Other, and there is a sadness to these collages despite how very funny they are. Hawkins’ approach, which has an overt rebelliousness to it, is still so much milder than that of someone like Mapplethorpe, especially in that incredible self-portrait, the one in which Mapplethorpe looks back defiantly at the viewer with a whip coming out of his anus. Mapplethorpe is unapologetically confrontational, a dissident icon, whereas Hawkins gives us lascivious winks, drawing attention to less direct sexual imagery. The sexuality of Roman statues goes typically unacknowledged, but Hawkins recognizes that classicism is sexually charged.
The most unusual and impressive grouping in the retrospective, is a series of dollhouses that Hawkins alters and reconstructs into haunted houses. These houses can be interpreted as being anything from institutional critiques to being symbols for the self to becoming about time and entropy. The exteriors of Last House and Dilapidarian Tower are treated with a haunted house facade, and placed on ambiguous, barely embellished coffee table pedestals, that are designed to look like they are neither traditional nor contemporary. The third house, House of the Mad Professor, a one-level ranch, does not receive the haunted house exterior, and instead of resting on a coffee table, is itself a taller, simplified side table, that happens to have a house inside of it. Last House is a proverbial, abandoned haunted house that looks like it could collapse at any moment and that it came straight out of a horror movie. Hawkins has added painstaking details, such as bricked in walls, balconies, and broken glass. Following the language of Halloween, its interior has been set a glow with orange lights. The next house, Dilapidarian Tower, is a skyscraper that’s been given a façade that would give Mies van de Rohe a conniption, were he still alive. Adorned with arches, balconies, meshed screens, and porches, the exterior collides with the cool, empty minimal interior. Each floor looks like a gallery space, with white walls and a grey floor. It is mainly illuminated with fluorescent lights, but two floors are randomly lit with incandescent light. In the House of the Mad Professor, a sparse façade belies a rich and ornate interior. This seems to be a self-portrait, where Hawkins’ series of works have all found a home. His Roman collages coexist with his lanterns in boudoirs that are decked out in extravagant furnishings.