Hurricane of the Eye

Artist photos by Max S. Gerber“I positioned it to sort of look like the eye of a whale, so that when you go in, it’s like you’re being swallowed by the whale.” Tim Hawkinson is hustling around the ground floor of LACMA’s Anderson Building, orchestrating the midcareer survey that was just taken down from the Whitney Museum in New York the week before. The sea mammal in question is actually an inflatable sculpture called Reservoir — a giant latex balloon painted directly on the museum wall, then inflated with air so that it bulges several feet into the room. First installed a couple of blocks east at Ace Gallery Wilshire in 1993, the piece is reconfigured differently every time it’s displayed, depending on the particular wall it has to fill. In this case, the wheezing, milky cushion wraps itself around a large doorway that leads into the next roomful of avant-garde funhouse attractions, and once the idea is planted, yes, it distinctly resembles a large translucent cetacean. And framed by the doorway, the eye-like Volume Control — a 1992 op-art disc made of slightly disaligned concentric rings of aluminum foil — seems to follow you around the room, sizing you up mealwise.

This kind of offhand depth and absurdist humor — equating the journey through 20 years of art making with a mythic hero’s ordeal à la Jonah and the whale — is something we’ve come to expect from Hawkinson. As is the fact that he’s treating the installation of these objects as another layer of the work. “There’s a definite layout — you’re supposed to go around counterclockwise. Everybody enters here, then they’re drawn through this doorway.” I follow along as Hawkinson carefully adjusts lighting and the positioning of the artworks to encourage the correct flow. The show, like many of its components, does indeed have a powerful rotating circulatory energy, and its vast variety of strangely distorted creative jetsam gives you the feeling of being caught up in a surrealist twister studded with witches, scarecrows and wrenched-up Kansas farmhouses.

Bear (2005)
Except that each artifact is meticulously positioned — and sometimes reconfigured for optimum effect. Disturbed by a prominent emergency exit in the main gallery near his famous Spin Sink (1995) — a series of gears cobbled together from Styrofoam and corduroy that shift down from 1,400 rpm to 1 revolution per century — Hawkinson simply went back to the studio on Sunday and built a colossal 12-foot-diameter wheel to expand the piece. Now it spins once every 320 years while conveniently obscuring the offending architecture. All in a day’s work.

Since his debut at Ace in 1988 while still a UCLA grad student, he has stood out as that rarest of breeds — a professional artist incapable of repeating himself. His work runs the gamut from relatively traditional — if quirky — paintings, drawings and sculpture to elaborate multimedia hybrids that incorporate motorized kinetic elements, circulating fluids, handwoven computer programming and sound. There’s no typical Hawkinson piece — it could be a tiny replica of a bird skeleton constructed from the artist’s fingernail clippings, a junkyard robot attached to a wooden school desk that endlessly signs Hawkinson’s name, or a can of alphabet soup, carefully sorted into columns of letters, then mounted in alphabetical order and framed. He’s turned a latex cast of his body inside out, over-inflated it and suspended it from the ceiling; made a clay portrait of the L’il Sprout with special gloves designed to replicate the outsize digits of the Jolly Green Giant; and reproduced Donatello’s famous sculpture of Mary Magdalen as a blown-out monster truck tire manufactured from foam rubber, paper, caulking, wire and string.

(top): Untitled (Ear Baby) (1989)
(bottom): Balloon

Although Hawkinson’s near-pathological work ethic has been a welcome relief from the ’90s’ surfeit of pseudo-conceptualist slackerisms that explore the threshold between doing the least possible work and cashing checks, his success is inspiring on multiple levels. Born without the schmooze gene, he made it without a whiff of Machiavellian careerism or even any you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours alliances. His only teaching gig was with a single long-distance grad student out of Vermont, his public speaking appearances you could probably count on one hand, and he’s a notoriously bad interview. Ask him to discuss the meaning of his work or his personal history and he clams up. But if you ask about the mechanics of a particular work, his eyes start to shine and it’s hard to shut him up.

When I try to pursue the whale metaphor, for example, the artist somehow winds up giving me a tour of the new technological modifications to Reservoir’s air-circulation mechanisms. “It has a cut-off pressure switch which expands until it reaches a certain volume where it makes contact with this switch that’s hanging from the ceiling, and that turns the blower off. Then it starts to deflate and as the air leaks out, it’ll come back on and re-inflate. It won’t be that dramatic, but it’ll be kind of breathing a little bit.” Mistaking my journalistic poise for encouragement, Hawkinson unplugs the piece, then leads me through a wall panel into the 18-inch-wide crawlspace that houses Reservoir’s machinery. “Did you see? When I shut it off, this membrane closes and seals off the fan. When I first tried it, the air would blow back through the fan and make it run backwards and burn out the motor.” In spite of the fact that I’m crammed inside a wall in the dark, looking over his shoulder with a two-by-four jabbing my spine, I do see, and am duly impressed with Hawkinson’s ingenuity. But that’s nothing new.

Over the last decade Hawkinson’s restless creativity repeatedly filled the cavernous rooms at Ace with an overwhelming abundance of fresh ideas and images, packing enough originality into a single show to fuel a dozen lesser careers. But his seemingly boundless inventiveness began early on. The 44-year-old California native spent much of his adolescence obsessed with American roots music, developing a fixation on the Stanley Brothers and building instruments in his home. At San Jose State he met visiting faculty member and future wife Patty Wickman, now a tenured mainstay of UCLA’s painting department and mother to their toddler Claire.

This made things slightly awkward when Hawkinson joined the UCLA grad program, as did his already intensively crafted and stubbornly idiosyncratic output — and it didn’t help that he was snatched up by Ace before even graduating. “I started doing the work that wound up in my first show while working at UCLA with Bill Brice, Sam Amato and Elliott Elgart,” says the artist, dispelling the misconception that he was an acolyte of sculptor Charles Ray. “That was my team. They were real supportive. They said, ‘Yeah, this is great — just keep doing it.’ And then other people were not so supportive. So I just worked with the yes men — the positive energy. It was good to have the time just to futz around with my work, and not feel pressured to do anything else. Then I guess I just kept working.”

That he did, producing literally hundreds of entirely singular artworks over the following decade. Yet in spite of the ceaseless novelty of their individual components, his exhibitions invariably weave entire suites of work into complex, nonlinear narratives full of loops and echoes. In this show’s catalog, for example (full disclosure: It also contains a particularly fragmented essay by yours truly), exhibition co-curator Lawrence Rinder notes that with Hawkinson’s enormous Überorgan, a combination player piano and bagpipe the size of a football field, “one feels not only dwarfed, but also oddly displaced, as if swallowed by some gargantuan song-loving creature.” There’s that whale again.

Shorts (1993)
Unfortunately for Angeleno museum-goers, this is one echo they won’t be able to experience first-hand, as tentative plans to install the Überorgan in the LACMA courtyard proved unfeasible, though negotiations for a separate venue sometime next year are currently afoot. On the other hand, the L.A. version of the show features several major works (not to mention an extra giant gear) not included at the Whitney. Where the New York show was jam-packed to intense and slightly claustrophobic effect, the LACMA incarnation is expansive, allowing for the addition of several large-scale works on paper. These include Crow’s Nest (1998), an actual-size rubbing made from the artist’s backyard deck and hot tub arranged to look like a three-masted sailing vessel, and Bridge (1999), for which the artist used a paint-saturated bumpy foam mattress pad as a kind of rubber stamp; with a system of ropes and pulleys, he then lowered himself repeatedly onto the pad to re-create an Eadweard Muybridge motion-study photo sequence analyzing a game of leapfrog. You know.

The delightfully confounding back stories to most of Hawkinson’s works are one of their strongest hooks — the subtly flirtatious conceptual dance that emerges between first encountering one of his improbable artifacts and recognizing what it actually consists of. It’s strangely empowering for something so addictive, enlisting the audience in a conspiratorial role as co-creator in a half-scripted, half-improvised revelatory experience — a sort of theater of Aha! that suddenly makes the world seem that much bigger and more mysterious than it was a moment ago. It inspires unparalleled public enthusiasm as well as collaborative projects with idiosyncratic pop-culture icons like Beck and Issey Miyake, and it’s an approach that cuts out the poor critic as explanatory middleman but has nevertheless brought Hawkinson to the pinnacle of art-world success.

The LACMA show is sort of the homecoming crown atop a year of career highs for Hawkinson. While the Whitney has been in a state of upheaval for some time now, the imprimatur of a Whitney retrospective is still nothing to sneeze at. With it, Hawkinson has entered into a rarefied stratum of Whitney-sanctioned West Coast artists: Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley, Bill Viola and few others. At the same time, Hawkinson recently left Ace after more than 15 years to sign with blue-chip powerhouse Pace-Wildenstein, whose roster reads like a who’s who of late-20th-century art — Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Louise Nevelson, Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Kiki Smith, and on and on. It’s a whole ’nother league.

In the midst of such acclaim it would be understandable if Hawkinson’s ego turned inside out and over-inflated, or just became overwhelmed. “The museum shows are a nice thing to happen, they’re great experiences,” says the artist, “but I don’t think about that too much. I’m ready to get back into the studio and just work. The Pace thing has made me more aware of it. The value of the work shot up practically overnight. I guess it’s starting to feel like I’m a ‘serious artist’ or something? Even though I still feel more like a kid.”

Another high point of the year (one that neatly bridges being a serious artist and feeling like a kid) is the long-delayed completion of Hawkinson’s contribution to the prestigious Stuart Collection’s commissioned public artworks on the UC San Diego campus. Bear is a 20-foot-tall, 370,000-pound sculpture of a flopped-over teddy bear made from eight naturally occurring uncarved granite boulders that had to be prospected and transported to La Jolla from a quarry in Temecula on a 16-axle truck (the type used to transport space-shuttle engines and the like), tested for earthquake safety, then meticulously assembled in the courtyard of the new Jacobs School of Engineering complex. Although the sculpture will be formally unveiled when the surrounding buildings are completed in the fall, Bear — three years in the making — was given a launch party on May 27 when the head was finally pinned into place.

(Index) Finger (1997)
“[Stuart Collection Director] Mary Beebe had champagne and wanted to christen it,” recalls Hawkinson. “So I complied and I cracked a bottle and it exploded and cut my hand. But it was this big ceremony, and I didn’t want anybody to know, so I just stuck my hand in my pocket, and I had some Kleenex and was just sort of blotting it up. We were all shaking each other’s hands and congratulating each other, and I was just trying not to bleed on anyone.” As for the sculpture itself, Hawkinson credits the Stuart Collection’s project manager: “It’s really Mathieu Gregoire’s bear. He did all the engineering — he’s a genius. The torso alone weighs 117 tons!”

The emphasis on physicality is a fundamental motif for Hawkinson, who for all his renown as a cognitive prankster is one of the most relentlessly body-oriented artists working today. His champagne gash brings to mind one of his most-seen works, (Index) Finger (1997), the oversize severed digit reproduced on the sleeve of Beck’s Mutations whose protruding veins and gristle consist of the red pens used to doodle the giant abstract-intestinalism, Wall Chart of World History From Earliest Times to the Present (1997). He’s mapped his own body with numerous rickety cartographic technologies, then translated the results into scores of additional artworks. The spectacular room-filling Pentecost (1999) that opens the exhibit, as well as Drain & Plug (1996), Bathtub Generated Contour Lace (1995) and several other works, all derive from the artist gradually submerging himself in a tubful of black paint while at intervals snapping aerial photos, which were then compiled to create a topological contour map of his body.

As you might expect from a process wherein one’s face is engulfed in black paint, none of the figures in these works has eyes. In fact, eyes are conspicuously absent from many of Hawkinson’s works — the aptly named 1991 Blindspot, for example, a photomontage assembling every part of his body he couldn’t see directly. Elsewhere, he compensates with a superabundance of eyes, as in Eye Globe (1992), a rotating pink sphere studded with blinking dolly eyes, or Spy Clothes (2000), a laundry basket full of clothes whose buttons are programmed to track the viewer’s movement, though neither of these works is included in the show. But there’s the Volume Control whale eye, as well as a dozen other disc-shaped concentric works with a distinctly retinal shudder. Actually, once you start looking for them, Hawkinson’s eyes are everywhere.

The image of the eye is one of the most potent and complex symbols in human visual language, and for some reason has been of particular significance to artists since the late 19th century – in theory as much as practice. Back in the last millennium, Marcel Duchamp defined the terms under which much of the subsequent evolution of modern art occurred when he famously stated that “Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error.” What Duchamp was getting at was the draining of philosophical, spiritual and psychological implications from art in favor of pleasure-driven variations on pure optical aesthetics. Eye candy vs. brain food. Little did Duchamp dream that this schism would widen to the point where huge portions of the art world would be devoted to either slick décor-coordinated slabs of pseudo-abstraction (“pictures of abstract art,” as one painter has called them) or academic intermedia gestures devoid of sensual content and relying entirely on intimidating critical gibberish to lend them any presence whatsoever.

What this argument boils down to is a misunderstanding. The eye doesn’t just open on the outer world of form and color or the inner world of ideas and understanding; it is a portal between the two and the traffic flows both ways. I’m reminded of the old story about the elephant and the five blind men who fell into dispute over their various limited tactile responses to different portions of the pachyderm anatomy: “An elephant is like a snake.” “No, an elephant is soft and mushy.” Coincidentally, the first piece in Hawkinson’s LACMA retrospective — another large paper work that wouldn’t fit in the Whitney — is 1998’s Elephant Drawing in which the artist repeatedly traces the outline of his hand as his hand traces the contours of a hypothetical elephant. The result is a beautiful accumulation of intricate lines that reads initially as a swooping abstraction, then simultaneously reveals the artist’s hand, the elephant’s hide, and the laborious process by which it came into being.

When I return to see the fully installed show, the “artists’ preview” audience is unusually relaxed and engaged, and there’s a remarkable number of kids present. The show is hung low on the wall, so that the work is physically accessible to children. One of the strange public phenomena about Hawkinson’s work — in spite, or perhaps because of, its integration of so much dark psychological symbolism — is its huge popularity with the young. But even adults and art-world insiders normally given to suspicion and partisanship display a rare warmth and enthusiasm for it. A half-dozen people at the preview commented to me on how positive the crowd seemed. As the last of us stragglers were herded out, photographer Todd Gray commented, “This is the kind of show that makes you want to hug people.” Then he gave everyone a hug. It was like we’d been at church or something. Church of the Giant Severed Fingertip. Church of the Inflatable Latex Whale.

More than any living artist I can think of, Hawkinson manages to reconcile the seemingly antagonistic realms of conceptual and sensual art making, standing at the threshold of 21st-century post-retinal cultural practice, spinning off rigorous conceptual formulations disguised as sparkly op-art and elegantly scripted sensory blasts decked out in geek’s clothing. Round the blind spot of his creative consciousness swirls a menagerie of mutant hybrid forms — human, animal, machine — that stitch art’s dismembered carcass back together and restore it to life, reminding us of why we liked it in the first place. Offhand joke or not, once we’ve been swallowed by Hawkinson’s art, we aren’t coughed up until we’ve reached a different shore.

TIM HAWKINSON | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Through August 28

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