A Play on Worlds


Has it been 10 years since sculpture-based multimedia artist Tim Hawkinson's last commercial gallery show in L.A.? There was an exhibition at Ace immediately after his Whitney-organized retrospective hit LACMA in 2005, but if I recall correctly it was composed of back stock. Hawkinson was already negotiating his move to Pace — the blue-chip N.Y. powerhouse that fronts for such gilded stalwarts as Jim Dine, Chuck Close, Bob Irwin and Bridget Riley, as well as the beyond-lucrative estates of Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Mark Rothko and Pablo Picasso.

His first show there was scheduled for the following year. Pushing it back to the spring of 2007 not only allowed him enough time to actually produce the work for his cleverly titled Pace debut, "How Man Is Knit," but to oversee the installation of his Überorgan (2000) — a gargantuan DIY player-piano/bagpipe hybrid — in the lobby of the Getty Center, and to knock out a suite of new knockout animal-themed artifacts to flesh it out.

So I guess we can't complain. In the interim, Hawkinson's local affiliation has shifted to Blum & Poe, whose spectacular October opening group show for its Kunsthalle-scaled La Cienega showroom was dominated by his Koruru (2009): a self-inflating simultaneous Maori mask/automotive headlight cobbled together from the usual late-imperial industrial jetsam — in this case pharmaceutical bottles, cupcake forms, aluminum foil and plastic wrap — that the thrifty San Francisco native loves to transform. His other favorite medium, organic detritus (as in fingernails, hair, eggs, chickens, ritual conifers, etc.), is front and center as you enter his B&P solo debut: an utterly convincing pedestal-mounted mummy hand is revealed, on closer inspection, to be constructed from dried apple cores and banana peels.

The industrial jetsam's there too, in the form of a turquoise scarab ring made from a twist-tie and plastic bread-bag tabs, setting up a nice dichotomy between organic and artificial, equating the ancient hardwired lust for bling with the cancerous proliferation of plastic goods we refer to as a "standard of living." The slapstick pratfall and mellow-yellow connotations of Apples and Bananas (2010) are probably coincidental, but all great art has a tendency to pull unexpected (and often unintended) meanings into its orbit. It's an inspired entrée to the current world of Tim Hawkinson.

Though ancient and severed, the mummy hand embodies one of Hawkinson's most prevalent anatomical motifs, the tool by which the artist's visions are made material, and — as we know from the outsize digits of the cortical homunculus ( — one of the most information-dense sensory windows in the human body. Like most of Hawkinson's work, it embeds philosophically charged symbolism within a structure of exaggerated corporeal self-consciousness; in this case a hoax archaeological artifact aesthetically assembled from fragments of garbage, but probably more valuable than the real thing — because of the presence of the artist's hand.

Much of Hawkinson's art has explored the intricacies and paradoxes of the "handmade" — and this exhibit is no exception. One of the twin centerpieces of the show is a creepy, crafty, cosmic animatronic goddess figure titled Orrery (2010) — which is the word for those olde clockwork models of the solar system. A giant grandmotherly figure made from plastic grocery bags and wearing an op-art print dress — Akiyoshi Kitaoka's "Rotating Snakes" peripheral drift illusion, as if you didn't know — is seated behind a spinning wheel built entirely from clear-plastic water bottles. Her head spins, her ears spin, her eyes spin, her topknot spins. Her hands spin and her spinning wheel spins. She sits at the center of a series of concentric circular rings — together resembling a braided rug, with the braiding suggested by the photographically printed pattern of a bicycle track in sand — each of which spins independently at a different rate. That's some heavy rotation.

Its co-centerpiece is loopy as well. "A giant sperm-candle," commented a friend at the opening, "not like those regular sperm-candles." Indeed. Like "regular sperm-candles," Hawkinson's work manifests conceptual categories that seem to have never existed before ... yet seem self-evident in retrospect. An enormous 3-D wood-and-foam blowup of a burning, drip-laden white candle — one of those wide ones that ladies put on the edge of their bathtubs to set the mood — Candle (2010) pushes the artist's theme-park affinities to 11, with cascades of molten flowing tallow exposed, via a tiny backstage door, as illusionistic motorized scrolls. Less evident is the fact that the "drips" are cast from the artist's heels and toes, and as they make their continual rounds produce a gently rhythmical sound track easily lost in a crowd. The memento mori is tempered by the patter of tiny feet. Not to mention a "Playboy at Night" cartoon eroticism amplified into a monumental artifice worthy of Disneyland — and a humor-saturated psychosocial perversity straight outta Duchampton.

Because Hawkinson's work is first and foremost funny funny funny. Puns, considered by squares to be a low form of literary drollery, have a much more complex station in the realm of visual language. Most of the history of human visual culture is defined by verisimilitude — the use of optical and digital skills to generate artificial resemblance to the so-called real world. Visual puns. So when Hawkinson reconfigures negative photographs of his body parts to resemble an image of a motorcycle (Bike, 2010), or dozens of cardboard tubes to look like a play-bowing greyhound (Tube Dog, 2010) or builds an easy chair and ottoman out of black high-gloss paper crumpled so as to evoke both quilted upholstery and shattered glass (Wing Back, 2010), he isn't just delighting us with masterful plays on plays on words, he is engaging with both the metaphoric core of visual language and the pictorialist bête noire of modernism. But that doesn't stop you from laughing out loud.

Or gaping in awe. Entertaining (humorously, intellectually and formally) as it can be, Hawkinson's work channels a more deeply joyous and terrible creative current than is dreamt of in Artforum's philosophy. From the underlying devotional interrogation of the human body in all his work to the integration of a fractal model of chaotic dynamic flow ( into the mundane objective structure of a bicycle (Track, 2009 — an obvious reference to the speculative ruminations of the Irish philosopher De Selby), Hawkinson's work is shot through with a spiritual electricity rooted in — and marveling at — the utter improbability of existence.

Improbability is also the watchword as it regards the latest development in Hawkinson's bag of tricks: painting. He has always dabbled, but two impressive large-scale works on paper — Cylinder Composition and Snails (both 2010) stake out new, characteristically characteristic avenues of visual experiment. The cylinders are rendered with precise illusionism out of stenciled areas treated with a sloppy but controlled ink spatter. The snails have left behind a wonky grid of slick iridescent paint. While they bring to mind such substantial painting talents as Francis Picabia and Larry Poons on their apparent strengths alone, there remains a gizmo-rific backstory to both pieces. Cylinder Composition was painted with a dysfunctional weed-spray bottle and a mechanically customized toilet brush, while Snails depended on carved-foam stamps and application of plastic wrap for the alien organicism of its surface. Seems you can take the boy out of the mad-scientist lab but you can't take the mad-scientist lab out of the boy. Thank God!

TIM HAWKINSON | Blum & Poe | 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. | | Through June 26


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