Recently, at the debut of Hilary Harkness’s obsessively rendered paintings of women living and working together aboard battleships and submarines, I was scolded by an early-’90s conceptual-political sculptor for appearing interested in this 29-year-old New Yorker’s work. “When are critics going to stop writing about gratuitous, antifemale t&a art by women that shows women in their underwear, naked, or available?” she asked, bristling. She cited Lisa Yuskavage, Vanessa Beecroft, and Kara Walker as “suspect,” and scarily warned, “Harkness better be gay to paint these paintings.” It was like being interrogated by a puritanical parent. Until this moment, however, I hadn’t quite realized how double-edged Harkness’s still-developing art was.
Basically, Harkness is building her own universe of perversion. Each of the five small oil paintings on view is an episodic free-for-all, or black comedy, rendered with what must be a two-hair brush. Each panel depicts only women. The best, Neutral Vessel, features more than 200 teeny females—many of them mysteriously pregnant. According to the press release, all her figures are involved in “an intense interplay for control, power, and sexual dominance.” Whatever they’re involved in, they ooze a bitchy, demonic kinkiness, which makes looking at these paintings slippery fun.
Unconditional Surrender delineates a Henry Darger-like night battle between two warring female armies. Within a heavily defended compound, soldiers and officers conduct some sort of orgy. In Shore Leave, two sailor girls carry a stretcher bearing a comrade who appears to be gut-shot full of phalluses. In Neutral Vessel, Taste of Salt, and the more static Rearguard Action, Harkness—who’s good with titles—uses cutaway views of ships as a compositional device. Each painting depicts a warren of sleeping quarters, mess halls, engine rooms, latrines, doctors’ offices, officers’ lounges, ballrooms, nightclubs, storage lockers, movie theaters, and swimming pools. The women—dressed in bras and panties or short shorts, T-shirts, and sailor caps—work, relax, smoke, flirt, watch TV, get massages, take showers, hang around, dance on tables, swab the deck, squat over toilets, and have sex with one another. Some loll in bed looking at—what else?—girlie magazines; a few are positioned on gynecologists’ examination tables, feet in stirrups; others, with their hands tied behind them, kneel in a detention center.
These are the subjects that pissed off that early-’90s artist. Even though subject matter is only one aspect of any artist’s work, usually the least important one, good and bad subject matter is what the early ’90s often argued about. It’s what made the period seem stringent, moralistic, and frustrating. Ambiguity was anathema; judgment went black and white. Thus, Serrano and Finley were good; Koons was bad. It’s true, these things are complicated. What would we make of Walker’s work were she white? Would Beecroft’s performances or Yuskavage’s paintings be seen the same if the artists were men? The art world is a place that says you should be free, but the minute an artist like Harkness behaves freely, paints what she wants, or doesn’t appear feminist enough, she’s suspect. People need to remember that art isn’t inherently moral, and that subjects choose artists as much as artists choose subjects. It doesn’t matter if it’s a picture of a woman or a saint, a still life or a prison scene. What matters is originality.
Harkness is original in a highly influenced, quirky way. You could reject her as a conservative realist—too craft-bound and folky. I have a weakness for things like Victorian fairy painting, Albrecht Altdorfer, 17th-century Chinese scrolls, Buddhist mandalas, Last Judgments, Grandma Moses, and Where’s Waldo?—art with zillions of well-described figures doing things in landscapes—so Harkness’s work exists in the vicinity of my weak spot. Her paintings are dark, compact, and look like they take a long time to paint. Her dealer, Bill Maynes, claims she only produces about five works a year, which he says explains the hefty $15,000 to $20,000 price tags. Harkness’s oils are also so intricate you have to put your face right up to their surfaces to see anything. But that’s part of what’s so delightful about them. The eye wanders over these shady pictures within pictures. Every figure is an individual, a modern hieroglyph; you feel the shimmer of life—albeit a warped one—in these anthills of human activity.
Harkness’s style is a hodgepodge that includes the wild proliferation of Hieronymus Bosch, the verisimilitude of Cranach, the hollow women of Paul Delvaux, the trashiness of Tom of Finland, and the wonderful reactionary retro-realism of Paul Cadmus and George Tooker. Add to this a whiff of Thomas Hart Benton, superhero comics, Popular Science magazine, women’s prison films, World War II illustration, lesser-known surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini, and affinities with contemporaries like Tim Gardner and Jim Shaw, and you’ve got a genuinely oddball mix.
If Harkness’s world were simply filled with Delvaux’s soulless sirens, you could write her off. If all she were doing was being a button-pusher, you could dismiss her as a sensationalist. But Harkness casts off the melancholy and myth of some of her sources. Working in some postfeminist zone, she turns her back on the dictates of the early ’90s and injects a dose of nostalgia and twistedness into her fantasies of a world run by women.