The use of sweeping pronouncements and praiseful superlatives will most often land critics in the dog pound of disdain, for it's axiomatic that a positive review will make one artist happy and fill thousands with scorn. In the case of Tim Hawkinson, however, it is hard to resist the idea that he may be the best artist working in L.A., and a large number of fellow artists would likely concur. Every time I see an exhibition of Hawkinson's work, it feels more like a 10-year retrospective, even though only a year or two's worth of material is on view. His current show at ACE is no different, and it's one of his most memorable.
Hawkinson's practice is so multidimensional that it is impossible to pin him down as representing this tendency or that school of thought. Differences in method, materials, scale and attitude vary dramatically from piece to piece, mapping out a vast territory of interests and expertise, yet recognizably Hawkinsonian landmarks eventually emerge to suggest a coherent range of activity. One of the most obvious characteristics of his work is a preference for time-consuming and intricate processes. The objects that are born of these processes range from precious minutiae, such as the baby-bird skeleton meticulously crafted out of fingernail clippings and Super Glue, to environmental works such as Wall Chart of World History From Earliest Times to the Present (1997), a wraparound drawing of endless spiral doodles, in red pen and pencil, that suggest a protean intestinal system. Both inspire a childlike wonder over the inscrutable beauty and complexity of nature and history, but without a mystical or a melodramatic swoon. The “aw shucks” directness and transparency to Hawkinson's work is disarming, clearing away jaded defenses so that he can ply unsuspecting viewers with a spectrum of profundities.
An example in this regard is Stamtrad (Family Tree) (1997), an ambitious after-school crafts project made out of Popsicle sticks. Here, Hawkinson extrapolates his family genealogy in Swedish, beginning with himself in the middle (“Mig”) and exponentially branching out with compounded combinations of mothers and fathers (“Mor” and “Far”). Eventually, a complex, wall-mounted mandala results, which not only provides a poignant, graphic reminder of the long chain of lives that lead up to the present, but bears an uncanny (unintentional?) resemblance to Scandinavian arts and crafts.
Another standout, installed in the same room, but which takes on entirely different themes, is Cow (1997), composed of dismembered mannequin parts bolted together in an irregular row and supported by a slender metal base. One end of each part – leg, arm, neck, etc. – has been covered with a stretched membrane of brown silicone to approximate an expanded set of bongos, and the artist has placed little carved-plastic men (Bathtub-Generated Homunculi, too complicated to explain here) near each drumhead. A computerized musical program of rhythmic patterns based on Christmas carols is channeled through the little homunculi, who in turn beat out catchy tribal songs with their fists. Besides being an amazing feat of crafty studio tinkering, Cow evokes a menacing image of technological comeuppance, where tiny robots wreak havoc on their human forebears.
The infiltration of our world by technology is a recurring theme in Hawkinson's work, sometimes treated with seemingly cool investigations of technological devices, such as Organ (1997), a denuded electric keyboard whose exposed wiring recalls biological and botanical structures. In other examples, fictional narratives emerge to explore present and future relationships between man and machine. A sneaky group of photographic works – Cyctor, Telecommutant and Frankengehrl (all 1997) – at first appear to be sloppy outtakes from an experiment with collage, until one grasps the method of their making. In all cases, found photographic poster portraits have been attacked with meticulous incisions or hole punches to obscure and alter the original human likenesses and re-create new, mutant identities. With an extremely low-tech approach and a decidedly unslick presentation, Hawkinson intimates a high-style crime of rogue genetic re-engineering.
Despite his incomparable ability to transform a multitude of motley materials into a broadly engaging, ever-expanding body of work, Hawkinson is still no art star. While less-interesting colleagues rack up Whitney Biennial credits and string together international exhibition tours, he has continued to labor in comparative obscurity, allowing him the time, one supposes, to consistently make the best exhibitions in town. Yet, even if the institutional art world wakes up someday soon to the scope of Hawkinsons's talent, it's doubtful they will be able to exhaust his prodigious imagination and energy.
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