November 5, 2010

In U.S. debut, Richard Hawkins takes control of chaos

A gnarling, decapitated head, with the eyes turned upwards and its mouth wide open is frozen in a silent scream. Bright colors abound in a tightly confined space behind the head, only to give way to a stark blankness. What could pass as a still from a horror movie is framed neatly in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute’s new exhibition Third Mind features works by the American artist Richard Hawkins. Hawkins, born in the United States in 1961, is one of the most prominent and influential artists living in Los Angeles. His collection addresses a diverse range of subjects—including Roman and Greek sculptures, consumer art, and Native American traditions.

This is the artist’s first American museum survey. The exhibition features works displayed to the public eye for the first time, including a seres of “altered” books grounded in his days as an antiquarian bibliographer. Hawkins’s 1997 print series “Disembodied Zombies” is present in its entirety—six works of decapitated male heads in ink jet print set against a stark polychrome background. The collection also includes dollhouse structures that settle comfortably in the crossover between the fantastical and the grotesque. The convergence of the different media into one collection reflects Hawkins’s swift transition between techniques and genres that tackles the awkward ambiguity of the act of collecting.

A brief introduction of Hawkins and his art at the entrance of the gallery makes way for the simplest presentation of his works. Objects are sparsely erected throughout the gallery rooms, surrounded by paintings and collages on the blank walls. The plain frames and minimal explanations allow the audience to engage and interact with the pieces without preconceptions or distractions. There are no indications of the temporal development of Hawkins’s work, leaving the audience freedom to choose the order of viewing.

The subject matter of his work is as complex as his material and means are simple. Hawkins chooses to keep the materials of his work in their unaltered state. His art, by combining separate ideas and objects, is about the transformative power of coming together, both literally and figuratively. Chinese lanterns, cardboard paper, wooden sticks, and old magazines are fused into a single work, yet preserve their original essence and function. This duality, imparted through the use of collages, is the philosophy behind Hawkins’s works. And it is this duality that inspires the audience to seek out beauty in the mundane rather than in the world of exhibits.

The dominant feature of the exhibition is the collages. What appear to be random images, writings, and objects are placed within the same reference frame in seeming disarray. It is precisely this incoherence, Hawkins’ particular tendency to juxtapose dissimilar elements in the same space, that challenges the traditional norms of interpretation and asks the audience to reevaluate familiar objects in light of the new context.

The distinct contrast between a disposable coffee cup, a Kellogg’s cereal box, and a cut-out image of a Japanese youth is one such example of this collision of the unrelated. In his own words, “the reconstitution of mass -produced images is so effective at simultaneously expressing difference within culture and fantasies beyond culture.” Reconstitution is his medium and fantasy is what he evokes. The clash of vibrant hues of blue, green, and red, bordered by Post-it notes scribbled with thoughts and questions, presents the motif of the exhibit: the creativity of an informed and unrestrained mind. He provokes the audience with the simultaneous pleasure and discomfort of seeing.

Hawkins’s work approaches the breakdown of mass knowledge. The collages that feature ancient sculptures beg the question of how certain information and its prevalence in society allows it to be perceived as inherent. Rather than looking at the front side of Roman sculptures, what happens when their back sides are displayed? How does this shift influence the audience’s ability to engage with art? Only the audiences, through the rediscovery of the familiar by the hands of Hawkins, have the answers to these questions.