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Tim Hawkinson @ Hosfelt

Odalisque, 2016, irrigation pIpe, drip line, netting, paper shopping bags, siliconized acrylic, 80 x 140  x  60"
by David M. Roth
Tim Hawkinson thinks with his body.  Which is to say, he uses it as a measuring device to gauge the psychic dimensions of corporeal existence. The conceits behind his investigations tend to have more in common with science fiction than with contemporary body art, which, over the past generation, has remained stubbornly focused on issues of identity and sexuality. Hawkinson is clearly coming from someplace else.  Where, exactly, is hard to say since each of his creations is uniquely conceived and materially crafted to solve new problems the artist sets for himself.   The only persistent question viewers can count on seeing answered is this: What quandaries and contortions will the artist envision for himself next? 
In Garden Variety, his first solo show at Hosfelt, Hawkinson portrays himself and his body parts variously: as a wood screw; a series of grotesquely distorted “masks” made of molded foam core; a microscope with multiple lenses built from impressions of his shaved head and buttocks; a giant quilt whose patterns are taken from the soles of his feet; and a planet-like orb, made from impressions of his lips.  He also casts himself in the role of Leonardo’s da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (1490), a painting da Vinci intended to represent ideal human proportions.  Hawkinson’s remake, Vitruvian Man Averaged, upends that idea by wrapping identically sized photos of his body around identical plastic bottles.  
There’s a fun-house mirror aspect to a lot of what Hawkinson does, and it’s easy to become enmeshed in the wizardry of it.  In Screw self-portrait, for example, the artist took selfies on a rotating base and pieced them

Detail: Sebastian, 2015

 together in the manner of David Hockney, in thin, horizontal strips.  The result is a grotesquely twisted “portrait” that represents the ten rotations required to install a 1 ½-inch drywall screw.  It’s one of the first pieces you see when you enter the show.

The other is a sculpture based on Mantegna’s painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian; only here it’s a tree (not a body) pierced by arrows. They point to one of Hawkinson’s persistent themes: environmental degradation.  That concern, for the most part, resonates subliminally, as a by-product of the artist’s use of found objects.  But at certain junctures it can feel distractingly didactic, as in Odalisque, a ceiling-suspended sculpture made of a rusty water pipe from which bits of paper and cardboard hang like loose flesh, displaying in one prominent spot, words that extol the benefits of recycling.  Still, his point about mortality, signaled by sagging "flesh" is well-taken, and at this monumental scale impossible to miss or deny.   
Mostly, though, it’s Hawkinson’s manipulations of humble materials that command the greatest attention. In the Bog series, four wall-mounted, sculptural self-portraits measuring about 12 by 9 inches, he created topographically shaped versions of his face from photos of himself submerged in a bathtub, filled at varying levels with black paint.  From these the artist created flesh-tone molds whose warped contours fit the shape of mangled eyeglasses he found on the street.  The effect shifts between cartoon-funny and horrific.
That polarity (and its attendant creepiness) has drawn comparisons to Mike Kelley.  But an equal, if not better analog, might be Vik Muniz, the artist who re-creates famous paintings from photographs of dust, peanut butter, machine parts and much else.  Over the past 20 or so years, Hawkinson has done much

Bog 1, 2009, foam and eyeglasses on panel, 12 x 9 x 1 3/4

 the same thing in works that have roamed in scale from a stadium-sized inflatable sound device to a bird skeleton made of his fingernail clippings.  Yet the body remains his consistent theme.  A particularly strong example is Thumbsucker, a white orb suspended before a wall painted ultramarine blue.  It’s built from plaster casts of the artist’s lips, and has, hanging next to it, the figure of a floating astronaut.  It's made from molds of the artist’s thumb. While these elements vary in size, their proportions remain anatomically correct, leading one to suspect the involvement of a 3-D printer; but that is not the case.  Hawkinson relies on old-school methods and materials: namely, a dental impression compound, which shrinks by 50 percent when dry, and a urethane-based concoction, which expands by the same amount when soaked in water.  In all, the pieces required seven generations of casting, and the totality represents, as well as anything Hawkinson’s done, his eccentric, heliocentric worldview. 

Not everything in Garden Variety is so overtly self-referencing.  A wall-sized abstract painting that appears to have been influenced by aboriginal art is really a rule-based rendering of snail tracks, represented in wavy lines comprised of small dots.  They’re interleaved with larger, light-reflecting orbs that rest lightly on the surface, exhibiting the same brittle, opalescent texture as the dollar-sized jellyfish that wash up en masse on California beaches.  Rubber Band Sculpture, made of wood and superglue, is another amazement: a masterpiece of precision micro-joinery that bears no apparent relationship to anything else in the show, apart from the extraordinary craft that Hawkinson brings to everything he does.  
Detail: Thumbsucker, 2015, plaster and urethane globe: 40 x 40 x 40"; figure: 10 x 6 x 4"
This I admire greatly.  But it’s the transformation of self-likenesses into ontological challenges that I admire even more.  In that regard, Hawkinson, you could say, is the Harry Houdini of the art world.  He creates problems from which he finds escape, leaving behind baffling sleights of hand that encourage viewers to question what it means to be alive, to live on Earth.   
Tim Hawkinson: “Garden Variety” @ Hosfelt Gallery through May 7, 2016.

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