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That universe, however, is a multifaceted one. A master of low tech, Hawkinson makes kinetic sculptures designed to quantify various properties of the physical world. They're often likened to Rube Goldberg machines, but the comparison is too crude. True, his art is rooted in a similar spirit of can-do Yankee ingenuity, but Hawkinson's output is marked by a conceptual sophistication that invests it with something vaguely diabolical.
His work can also be utterly disarming in its sheer goofiness, and often exudes the homespun splendor of an ambitious elementary school project: a pair of shorts knit out of orange extension cord, a bird skeleton constructed from fingernail clippings, a massive graph charting the entire history of the world. It's the sort of stuff anyone who ever constructed a Parthenon out of sugar cubes in the first grade can relate to -- efforts few adults would even conceive of. That they occur to Hawkinson is central to his creative gift.
Visiting him at the astonishingly tiny Los Angeles studio he shares with his wife, artist Patty Wickman, one is relieved to learn that the couple recently bought a house in Altadena and are no longer forced to work and live downtown. The place is really small.
An earnest young man with the clear eyes and flawless skin of a choirboy, Hawkinson carries himself with the austere grace peculiar to tall, slender people. He's gentle and soft-spoken, with a fairly weird sense of humor. Leading the way down the densely cluttered hallway that separates his workspaces from Wickman's, he picks up a blob of glue. "Gee, look at this," he says. "I've got van Gogh's ear."
Wickman is a figurative painter, and today she's working on a large canvas of Hawkinson's father that depicts him striking an ungainly pose in his back yard, dressed in a pair of swimming trunks. Wickman points out that Mr. Hawkinson's only objection to the odd portrait was that she'd made his garden look shabby. Apparently eccentricity runs in the family.
Hawkinson is a gracious host, but he can't hide the tension he's feeling about his exhibition slated to open at Ace Gallery in New York on February 20. He has been showing in New York for a few years and the critics there love him, so it's not the city he's worried about. What gives him pause -- again -- is the network of cavernous, high-ceilinged, cathedral-like rooms that constitute Ace, both in New York and Los Angeles. (If Albert Speer had designed modern-art galleries, they'd probably look a lot like Ace.)
Nor does he relish the prospect of opening night. "The most difficult part of being an artist is the social duties," says Hawkinson, who plans to show 34 works, approx-imately half of which were shown at Ace L.A. early last year. "I'm shy and I freeze up under scrutiny, and that's one of the great things about being an artist -- you get to express yourself, but there's a time delay. You say it now, and it gets heard later."
The centerpiece of the New York show is the largest work Hawkinson has ever made. As yet untitled, the piece is a sort of giant tree. Suspended from its faux branches are 12 life-size urethane foam figures that are essentially topographical maps of the artist's body. Each figure is equipped with a drum, and each beats his drum with a different part of the body to create a rhythm pattern programmed by a maze of twitching cogs and gears inside a mysterious trunk that sits at the base of the tree.
The piece is noisy, and sitting under Hawkinson's tree with a headache would amount to a kind of torture. The artist seems oblivious to the sound, however, and sits down smack in the middle of the din to be interviewed. An hour later he asks, "Is this noise bothering you?" as if the possibility has just occurred to him. Obviously, Hawkinson feels very little division between himself and the things he makes.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Silicon Valley, Hawkinson is the elder of two children. He describes his childhood as relatively conventional.
"My parents raised me in the church," he recalls, "and I still go to church. Patty's Catholic and I'm Protestant, and we were married in the Catholic Church. If we have children they'll be raised Catholic, because I had to sign a contract to that effect when we got married. I'm obligated now.
"I was a kid when the hippie culture was happening, and my dad was sort of interested in all that," he continues. "He wasn't smoking pot or anything, but he did help sponsor some concerts that wound up being a total bust. His [optician's] practice was in San Francisco, and I remember being with him once on a street in the Haight district. A bunch of hippies were sitting on the sidewalk, and they all had metal objects they were pounding on the pavement. One of them looked at me and said, 'Hey man, grab a can!'"