Mr. Wizard

It's in the blood. It's in the bone. After years of strange, failed contraptions, my father, who was an inventor, hit pay dirt when he came up with what came to be known as the Dexter Hand Sewing Machine. Maybe you've seen one; probably you haven't. It used to be advertised on late-night TV. They stopped making it long ago. My father spent the next 20 years down in our basement working on fabulous gizmos and useless machines. Nothing worked, but he loved to tinker. Now he lives in Florida where he's trying to perfect some kind of new venetian blind. So when I see the work of Tim Hawkinson, an inventor-tinkerer himself, I take the safety off the soft spot in my heart.

Hawkinson, who is 38 and lives in Los Angeles, has fantastical, aberrant ideas. Some are offbeat, others revelatory, all are strange. He has alphabetized a bowl of alphabet soup, and built a music box that plays wallpaper rolls. The guy is a wizard, but a squirrelly one.

Often he insinuates his own body into his work. He has made paintings of all the parts of his skin that he could see, and drawings of all the surfaces he could not; a skeleton, pieced together from rawhide dog bones and empty soda bottles, that wheezes his name; a giant latex cast of his bathroom; and a machine that continuously signs his name on scraps of paper. Almost all his works have a punch line, or a kicker. They look strange and incomprehensible until you figure them out or, more often, read the explanatory wall labels, and then they are amazing.

Hawkinson is a master of the makeshift, a king of the thingamajig: Pentecost (detail, 1999) at Ace.
Robin Holland
Hawkinson is a master of the makeshift, a king of the thingamajig: Pentecost (detail, 1999) at Ace.

Hawkinson is a popularizer of Conceptual Art. His shows bring in large non-art audiences and scads of students. He pushes art toward entertainment, and, like William Wegman, he makes the avant-garde accessible. His first solo show in New York, in 1995 (which contained many of the above pieces) was an over-the-top extravaganza packed with 60 works, many of them joined together by hoses, tubes, or electrical cords. The whole exhibition was like some giant, interconnected, living organism. Whether consciously or not, Hawkinson's work references artists like Rachel Whiteread, Tom Friedman, Jonathan Borofsky, Bruce Nauman, and Rube Goldberg. It was ungainly, but it felt fresh, full of promise, if not inexhaustible. Unknown in New York at the time, here was this newcomer, like some diabolical, naive mole tunneling into and through the core of conceptualist discourse. But somewhere between then and now he veered off course.

It makes sense that Hawkinson's show is at Ace's gargantuan 25,000-square-foot, San Simeon­like space— our Xanadu. Both artist and gallery are somehow on the geographical or aesthetic margins; true individualists, both are a little weird, and crazily grandiose. But Hawkinson seems entirely at home here; the bigness doesn't bother him. A kind of focused Luddite mechanic, or antimodern scientist, Hawkinson is a master of the makeshift and the near at hand, a king of the thingamajig. He works in many materials, any materials: papier-mâché, socks, chicken skin, toothpaste tubes, fingernails, superglue, corduroy, hair, tempera, and electric organs. He's the kind of artist who can turn a hairbrush into a clock. But even though his processes, imagination, and ingenuity are impressive, somehow this show leaves you wanting.

His vision has fragmented and dissipated; the mania has faded, replaced here by doggedness. This show is very hit-and-miss. His ideas come in and out of focus, they're not visually exciting, and occasionally they turn corny or mundane. Stamträd (Family Tree)(1997), a circular genealogy diagram made of Popsicle sticks, never takes off. And Untitled (Mobile)(1998), a large, Calder-like mobile made of TV antennae, rigged as exquisite ship masts, fails to transform into anything other than megajunk. These pieces elicit a kind of so what. Discovering their generating principles doesn't intensify your visual appreciation or sense of wonder. But the wonder still operates in a number of works— you just have to look for it.

The Hawkinson of old is here in pieces like Shatter(1998), which from a distance looks like a huge sheet of smashed safety glass. Up close, the cracks turn out to be ribbons of shiny aluminum sandwiched between clear plastic. Organ(1997), a squarish sculpture made of colored electric wire, turns out to be the virtual "nervous system" of a Hammond organ— everything else has been stripped away. It's like one of those "visible man" displays. Even better is Cyctor(1997). It's complicated, but all you need to know is that Hawkinson took little "core samples" out of the photograph and relocated them on the surface to create other images. He's making photographs out of photographs. Here, a girl turns into a doctor with a stethoscope, reflex hammer, and third eye.

Another gallery is filled with 12 common objects sitting on shelves and on the floor. Among other things, there's a light bulb, an envelope, a toothpaste tube, a can of Coke, and a hairbrush— all functioning clocks. The filaments in the bulb, the clasp on the envelope, the cap and extruded paste on the toothpaste, the pop-top on the can, and two hairs on the brush are the hands of the clocks. Stand here and watch exclamation points form in people's eyes.

Hawkinson's body is still present in subtle ways. One gallery features a tiny cracked egg, a delicate bird skeleton, a single feather, and a spiderweb. Each object is made out of Hawkinson: the egg from ground- up fingernails, the spiderweb and feather from his hair, and the bird from his nail clippings. It's heartrending to think about this marvelous little bird springing, literally, from his fingertips.

Finally, there is Pentecost(1999). Bigger than one of Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses, and one of the largest indoor sculptures I have ever seen, Pentecostis an enormous fake tree made from hollow tubes and who knows what, and painted in faux wood grain. From the trunk sprout branches supporting 12 three-dimensional, life-sized figures— self portraits, it turns out. The whole mega-thing is mechanized so that the figures tap out different Christmas carols with various parts of their bodies: kneecap, nose, penis, ear, etc. It's like some mad apocalyptic crèche. The Bible says the Pentecost is when the Holy Ghost appeared to the 12 apostles and caused them to "speak with other tongues." Similarly, Hawkinson wants to speak in other aesthetic languages. But for all its size and inventive engineering, Pentecostremains mute. It taps and taps, but it can't speak to anyone. Its tongues have turned to gibberish. It's sad.

The first New York Ace exhibition suggested that Hawkinson was heading toward the center. This show reveals that he may be content to remain on the periphery, down in the basement. I bet I'm not the only one who wants him to come upstairs.

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