“I've never been much of a joiner,” says Tim Hawkinson. Anyone familiar with the 38-year-old artist's works would somehow deduce this. His investigations into the human body intermittently suggest a kinship with Bruce Nauman, Jonathan Borofsky and Kiki Smith, but essentially Hawkinson's work is a universe unto itself.
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!'”
Hawkinson's exposure to high culture was minimal then — he occasionally visited museums with his family — but his artistic imagination began to reveal itself early on.
“I remember the first time I saw an artwork that impressed me, a large pen-and-ink drawing of an eye at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As a kid, whenever I saw a movie or heard a story I'd make my own response to it, and the first time I made an object was after my mother read me a story about a tin soldier whose head was the end of a spoon. I was 7 at the time, and I made a soldier out of a piece of bamboo, with arms made from bread-twist ties.
“I was sort of a sad, withdrawn child, but that started to change in high school. I had this great art teacher who let me do whatever I wanted to, and I became an art star,” recalls Hawkinson, who had his first solo exhibition when he was 21 — and whose current art-star status is established by the fact that seven of his works are featured on the CD insert for Mutations, the latest release by Beck. “Art freak is probably a better way to describe it, because basically the other students were always interested to see what perversion I'd come up with next. I once made a motorized tennis shoe out of Colgate toothpaste tubes, for instance.
“Later, at San Jose, I studied with a sculptor named Sam Richardson, and he's the one who got me thinking about art as a career. I was up there when the graffiti thing was happening in the East Village, so I made my version, which were these garish sculptures out of clear vinyl. I took the vinyl, did reverse painting on it of plant growth, aliens, and blood and guts, then stretched it over foam. I'm sorry to say I showed that work in San Francisco and actually sold a few pieces. I'd like to get them back so I could destroy them.”
It was at San Jose State University, in 1984, that Hawkinson met Wickman, whom he married the following year. In 1985, he began his graduate work at UCLA, where Wickman is now a tenured art professor.
“I worked with several artists at UCLA, but Charles Ray had the biggest effect on my work,” Hawkinson recalls. “He was making Ink Box, Spinning Disc and all those great minimal pieces then, and I remember the excitement I felt when I first saw them.”
As to how he sees his own work evolving, Hawkinson says, “The last show had a slightly darker cast — there was lots of gore in that one — and I've started using what you might call higher-quality materials. However, my work is still mostly made from pedestrian materials you can find anywhere.
“I don't like to overinterpret the work, because that puts a straitjacket on it, but to me this tree piece is about living your life in a spiritual manner,” he continues, pointing overhead. “It's the biggest installation I've ever done, so I guess the stuff is getting bigger, too. I'm sure my work's been affected by the fact that I've been showing at Ace for 11 years, and though I sometimes long to show in a tiny little room, I think it's generally had a positive effect. It's encouraged me to think expansively.
“And fortunately, Ace New York does have one small room,” adds Hawkinson, who plans to show four diminutive works from 1997, including an eggshell made from finely ground hair and fingernails; a feather made from the artist's hair; and Bird, the minuscule skeleton fashioned from fingernail clippings, which Hawkinson describes as “a kind of apparition springing from the fingertips.”
Hawkinson began using his body as a launching point into his work in 1990 with Self-Portrait (Height Determined by Body Weight), a piece for which he poured molten lead into a body mold until the weight of the sculpture equaled that of the artist. The following year, he saved his bath water, boiled it down into a kind of pigment and painted his shadow with it.
“I remember my father saying, 'Dirt is matter out of place,'” Hawkinson explains. “Shadow was simply all my particles descending to form a shadow.”
Hawkinson's interest in the body is matched by an obsession with time that's taken the form of an ongoing series of outlandish homemade clocks: A cracker box announces the time via a slowly rotating crumb on the top of the box; two delicate hairs function as the minute and hour hands on a hairbrush clock; a slowly rotating metal clasp on an envelope indicates the hour.
Time, I note, is for many a concept freighted with anxiety. “Yes, time tells us we're moving toward our death,” says Hawkinson, “but what's death? I'm not saying I'm comfortable with it, but to me it's just a passage, and although I don't believe in reincarnation, I do believe in an afterlife. I think access to that afterlife is contingent on your attitude toward God in this one. I think it starts now.”
Hawkinson has been able to live on the profits from his work for several years, and can afford to hire experts to help him with the technical problems his work presents. But doing things the easy way is not his style.
“I only work with assistants when I'm installing a show,” he says. “The process of learning the vocabulary of each piece is crucial for me, so I solve the problems myself, through trial and error. I'm not good with math and engineering, but over the years I've developed a feeling for how things go together. After making so many mistakes, you develop a kind of cellular memory,” he laughs.
Asked to describe his most disastrous mistake, he says, “In 1995 I made a piece called Tuva that mimics split-throat singing. I wanted to make this magnificent sculpture that would make a polyphonic hum of very lyrical, light, clear vowels, but the piece seemed to break every five minutes. There was also a piece called Mophead, a talking machine with a limited vocabulary, made from a plastic reed and a bunch of valves. Mophead had trouble with 'S' sounds . . .
“Occasionally, I'll figure out a way to recycle a piece. That piece right there, for instance, was made with materials from an old piece,” he says, pointing to a large red geometric abstraction — resembling a Frank Stella painting from the late '60s — leaning against a nearby wall. “It's a body print. I took an old latex self-portrait and sliced it up into rings, then turned each section into a printing roller. If you look closely you can pick out various features — for instance, these are the eyes right here,” he says, pointing to a smear of red paint.
When I note that his body works have minimal sexual content, he points to a particular stripe in the painting and says, “This is the genital area right here. Can you tell?” No, I reply, realizing that that's exactly what Hawkinson intends.
Is there anything else he'd like to share? “Well, yes, as a matter of fact. I suffer from tinnitus. I've had it for a few years, and it's really annoying at night. That's when I used to get all of my great ideas, and now I just think about the noise in my head.”
The Tim Hawkinson exhibition will be on view through April at Ace Gallery New York.