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By L.A. Weekly critics
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It’s been just over 18 months since Tim Hawkinson’s phantasmagorical extravaganza of a midcareer survey came home to roost in the last truly important exhibition hosted at LACMA. Organized by the Whitney and subsequently named “Best Monographic Museum Show in New York City” by the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, Hawkinson’s self-titled retrospective was even more impressive in its hometown configuration, compiling more than 65 of his greatest hits from the previous two decades of encyclopedic exhibits at Ace Gallery — most of which already rivaled the best monographic museum shows around in both quality and quantity of work.
From the tiny Bird skeleton made from fingernail clippings to the room-size tree-drum known as Pentecost, the work conflated the intimate and the spectacular, the formal and the conceptual, and the sublime and the ridiculous to a degree unsurpassed anywhere in contemporary art. The only piece of the puzzle missing was Hawkinson’s most epic work to date — the Überorgan, created for the cavernous Mass MoCA space in 2001, and subsequently reconfigured for Ace’s NYC showroom and for Manhattan’s Sculpture Garden as part of the Whitney’s version of the retrospective.
Though probably not the largest musical instrument in the world (that honorific is claimed by the Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caverns and the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ of Atlantic City, New Jersey, among others), the Überorgan is almost certainly the largest optical player-piano/bagpipe hybrid, and has also been suggested to be the biggest single indoor sculpture built by man. Too big for LACMA, for sure. Thankfully, after several delays, the Überorgan will be finally making its West Coast debut from March 6 through September 9 in the Entrance Hall of the Getty Museum, where its gut-rattling blasts of low-frequency melody and Brobdingnagian pneumatic biomorphisms will be sure to startle and delight locals and tourists alike.
One of the most startling aspects of the installation is the very fact that it’s occurring at the Getty, whose founder was notoriously ornery in regard to modern art. Until now, the museum’s forays into contemporary art (indeed, even 20th-century art) have been either in the canonically ambiguous realm of photography or — as with Bill Viola’s “Passions” (2003) — carefully couched as commentaries on the museum’s pre-existing antiquarian holdings. Possibly to this end, the Getty has also commissioned Hawkinson to create four new works whose animal theme dovetails with two of the museum’s summer shows — “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie” (featuring the newly restored 1749 painting of Clara the celebrity rhinoceros) and “Medieval Beasts,” both opening on May 1. But no amount of contextual jiggering is going to make the mighty Überorgan seem like a commentary on some gilded commode or Vincennes soup tureen.
And realistically speaking, the Hawkinson bestiary is basically a thematic extraction from the reservoir of new and recent works that the artist has been assembling for this show and his also-postponed solo debut at PaceWildenstein in New York, now scheduled to open on April 27. I caught up with Hawkinson in his studio as he was finishing up the structural adaptations for the Überorgan’s Getty customization. “The tube that goes from the feeder balloon to the blower is only 30 feet long, and it needs to be 130 feet, so we had to make an extra 100 feet of 5-foot-diameter net-reinforced plastic tubing,” says the ever-gangly artist as he gestures toward a suspended skein of bright-orange string webbing. “So we were making that yesterday. We cut and cable-tied this net all together, then took it to the Laundromat and dyed it, because the net on all the other bags is this color too.”
Whenever Hawkinson’s often improvisationally engineered mechanical sculptures are displayed, there’s a considerable amount of repair work and adaptive design to be accomplished. Throughout 2004 and 2005 — when his retrospective was in high gear — these maintenance duties eclipsed Hawkinson’s studio practice, and when he finally had time to work on new projects again, his life had been radically altered, not least because he had attained an entirely new plateau of art-world success. “I guess it’s typical, and you expect an artist to stall and have a mental block about getting started again, and I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t just that. It was all these other changes as well — Clare [his young daughter with painter Patty Wickman] came, and we were building and moving the studio from downtown to Altadena, and I was leaving Ace and starting to work with Pace, and I had a kind of a frozen moment when I couldn’t get anything done.”
Though nothing compared to the kind of warehouse-scaled spaces commanded by many successful L.A. artists, Hawkinson’s new studio is sleek and expansive compared to the cramped proportions of the dark garment-district garret he and Wickman occupied for the previous decade. “I was kind of adjusting to the new space, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he admits. “But, you know, in the last month [laughs], I’ve started in again. That’s what it feels like. I guess I’ve been actually working for the last year, but in the last couple of months it’s dawned on me that I have these deadlines coming up.”
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