Art review: 'Richard Hawkins: Third Mind' at the UCLA Hammer Museum
A 20-year survey of Richard Hawkins' art at the UCLA Hammer Museum offers rewards considerably greater than its modest size. Hawkins is not prolific. What the show lacks in quantity, however, it makes up for in the off-kilter acuteness of his layered vision.
The show, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, tracks the Los Angeles artist's work following his 1988 graduation from the California Institute of the Arts. It includes just 15 mixed-media objects and about three dozen works on paper, including informal notebooks, in three small rooms. What at first can seem slight soon starts to ricochet all over the place.
Take "Scalp 1" and "Scalp 2," each subtitled "(Remember the wonderful days when everything could be explained by terms like 'desire' and 'the body'?)" and made last year; they are affixed to a wall and dangling at the entrance. Elaborating on several works from 1991, Hawkins cut two rubber masks, one with tufts of synthetic black hair, into long, thin, continuous strips, which he then tacked to the wall. The dangling parts are held together with small pieces of pink or black paper attached by paper clips, like indecipherable Post-it notes. Overall, these two "scalps" have the look of strange souvenirs or weird talismans
Their subtitle is a snarky reference to the Conceptually-driven heyday of body-art, which was in full swing when the artist emerged from graduate school at the end of the AIDS-ravaged 1980s. Usually a mask conceals identity, allowing its wearer to assume a temporary persona. But, what if a mask reveals more than it conceals? What if the outer face actually reveals an inner core?
As a sculptural motif, shredded rubber hanging on the wall goes back to a founding generation of Post-minimalist artists, recalling one who, at first blush, would seem to have nothing in common with Hawkins. Richard Serra's 1966-67 "Belts" are chunky, tangled strips of vulcanized rubber that hang from the wall like bellicose ancestors of Hawkins' skinny sculptures.
Serra's tangled strips, made as a sculptural riff on Jackson Pollock's ethereal and iconic drip-paintings, are tacked together wherever they cross, further emphasizing their blunt, physical materiality. A brilliant sculptor who also evolved into a near caricature of industrial-strength artistic machismo, hauling around 10-ton sheets of rolled steel like a stevedore on steroids, Serra has his "scalp" handed to him in Hawkins' physically slight, even fey objects. (The catalog reveals that one Halloween mask was originally a devil, the other Michael Jackson -- compounding the conundrum). So much for conventional art about desire and the body.
The scalps' witty allusion to romanticized, pop-culture dramas between cowboys and Indians, idolized colonizers and indigenous heroes, adds to the sly scenario. Popular culture is a prominent feature of Hawkins' art, and almost always it's pop culture of a specific kind. Matt Dillon and Keanu Reeves rule. Fan magazines, heavy metal bands, teen heartthrobs -- adolescent obsessions turn up everywhere.
Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood -- although, for most of human history, there was no such self-contained time in a young person's life. It is, in many respects, a distinctive export of the modern era in the West -- a swamp-like psychological space of personally powerful, socially influential human development wedged between the purity and dependency ascribed to children and the independence and corruptions of adults.
Hawkins' interest in it follows in the pioneering footsteps of Mike Kelley, an artist who has mined the territory more profoundly than any other. But Hawkins goes in another direction. He peels back layers of subliminal and pervasive homo-eroticism that, in a male-dominated culture, cannot be avoided.
Two big sheets of unstretched felt -- another iconic Post-minimalist material, like Serra's rubber -- hang on the wall like paintings. Fan magazine photographs of heavy metal rockers in action are clipped along the edges, as they might be on a teenager's bedroom bulletin board. The performers pose or furiously strum long-necked electric guitars invariably positioned between splayed legs, while their bare-chested, long-haired androgyny fairly shouts.
Because a huge segment of popular culture involves what could be called adolescence-industry exploitation, the work sometimes feels creepy-crawly. Add the brutalities of the age of AIDS, when sex and death became inextricably linked, and the darkness that often settles over Hawkins' art is intelligible.
His sculpture "Shinjuku Labyrinth" is a kind of table-top rat's maze featuring pop-up magazine cutouts of Japanese boys, its dead-end corridors leaving no way out. A cheerful clown painting by notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr., who murdered 33 young men, is at the vile end of a cultural continuum that Hawkins steadfastly means to examine in his own art.
Often, however, resonant humor elevates the work.
A marvelous series of collage-meditations on Greek and Roman sculpture -- or, more precisely, on the perky derrieres of Greek and Roman sculptures, male and female -- starts with a sober art-historical observation. Ancient Egyptian sculpture pretty much kept its monumental back to the wall, its bodies encased in massive blocks of stone. Then, when Greek figures, whether gods or humans, stepped forward to take their exuberant place in the world, suddenly their backsides were exposed.
And so a sculptural issue was born, albeit one that hadn't troubled artists for several thousand years beforehand. Given scholarly (or pseudo-scholarly) permission, you are now permitted to go along with Hawkins as he delves into the subject's various resolutions.
To deliver the coup de grâce, the artist then maneuvers a viewer into place. Nearby, one of a series of haunted-house sculptures, pointedly built on top of a low table, beckons. It's a dollhouse for grown-ups. Windows and doors open onto an interior labyrinth of exotic rooms adorned with Chinese-style furnishings, classical statuary, florid mirrors and other signs of internalized, hyper-refined decadence.
To see inside, one must bend way over. A viewer is left unexpectedly exposed. Deep-seated cultural convention is a funny thing, especially when you suddenly feel it in your bones.
Richard Hawkins: Third Mind, UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through May 22. Closed Monday. www.hammer.ucla.edu
-- Christopher Knight
Photos: Richard Hawkins, "Crepuscule #1," 1994, mixed media; "Scalp 1 (Remember the wonderful days when everything could be explained by terms like 'desire' and 'the body'?)," 2010, mixed media; Credit: UCLA Hammer Museum