Irreverent Absurdism


If I were to write this review using my right hand for nouns and my left for verbs, or choosing words that start with the letters spilling randomly from a can of alphabet soup, or with a laboriously handmade script pieced together from bits of my hair and fingernails, or based upon my auditory and olfactory sensations while touring the exhibition blindfolded, then my words might begin to approach the irreverent absurdism and insistent corporeality of Tim Hawkinson’s art.

I’m just a humdrum critic, however, relying on more prosaic tools of description and interpretation that fall strangely flat when addressing an artist whose primary impulse, it seems, is to boggle the imagination, with works so variegated they hardly seem to belong to a single individual. This difficulty is exacerbated in Hawkinson’s wildly popular mid-career retrospective, currently on view at the Whitney. Designed by the artist, it eschews chronological and thematic presentation, grouping works instead by elective affinity. The effect (undoubtedly desired) is to throw viewers continually off balance; instead of a logical progression, you’re faced with a series of dejected carnivalesque attractions and nutty conundrums that tease both the mind and senses. It makes for an experience at once endearing and oddly incomplete, like nosing around in somebody’s garage or apartment, checking out their junk, leafing through their dusty photo albums and old journals, without ever meeting the person.

The individual in question is a gangly, pale, sandy-haired male, 44 years old, whose second toe extends a bit longer than his big one. An intimate knowledge of his body is available to anyone acquainted with his work, in which his mortal frame often serves as the starting point for quasi-philosophical investigations of perception and identity.

Consider Humongolous (1995), a map charting the surface of his skin that Hawkinson painted without a mirror, using a scale based upon the degree to which each part was directly visible to him. A headless bigfoot with a strangely abbreviated trunk, four hands (one for each side), and 20 toes, it appears at once monstrous and weirdly familiar, making manifest our unconscious, everyday experience of physicality.

The mysterious intersection of matter and spirit is Hawkinson’s favorite stomping ground, in an art that sometimes seems one long, loony meditation on the miracle of the Word Made Flesh, or transubstantiation. It’s a place where automatons, cobbled together from the abject castoffs of a consumer society, are imbued with an almost human pathos; where the extension cords that power these machines are transformed into art, knotted and hung high overhead in an electrician’s version of a rose window; where the body’s shell and effluvium are turned inside out and given new life.

Pentecost (1999), the installation that fills the exhibition’s first room, includes 12 life-size nude self-portraits sculpted from polyurethane foam and placed amid an enormous, spreading tree of wood-grained tubes. Each figure is fitted at a key juncture or orifice with a motorized wooden hammer that knocks against a tube’s end at syncopated intervals, while the figures lean in or otherwise look as if they’re seeking to decipher the wonderfully odd cacophony—part John Cage, part air-conditioning gone haywire—that emerges from their ad hoc community.

Balloon Self-Portrait (1993) floats near the ceiling in another gallery, like an escapee from some ghoulish version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Made from latex rubber applied to Hawkinson’s depilated body, it was then inverted and inflated by means of an umbilical-like cord attached to another latex piece, the vast Reservoir (1993), whose hugely pregnant, air-filled form swells out from a side wall. Evoking at once a drowned corpse and a fetus in amniotic suspension, it suggests that in-between state, filled with potential, of artistic creativity.

Sculptures such as the wonderfully Beckettian Ranting Mop Head (1995)—a rusted household cleaning instrument, standing near a lectern and fitted with a mechanized reed that emits sounds uncomfortably reminiscent of speech—blur the distinction between human and machine with dark hilarity. On a recent morning, a little boy (one of many who fill these galleries on days when school’s out) stood before Emoter (2002), in which the features of the artist’s face, photographed, cut up, and hinged together like a puppet, move automatically in a grotesque parody of human sentiment. “Talk! Talk!” the toddler commanded it.

I am leaving out vast swathes of work by this almost oppressively prolific artist. About midway through this show, in fact, I found a certain viewing fatigue began to set in. Was it my suspicion that Hawkinson’s art, however marvelous and engaging, suffered from a form of attention deficit disorder, a staccato oeuvre consisting of repeated bursts of inspiration? Was it that his earlier paintings and drawings, installed here in later galleries, seemed to me less compelling? Or was it simply impossible to sustain that sense of wonder ad infinitum? To conjure it again, I traveled 20 blocks downtown, where Hawkinson’s signature work, Uberorgan (2000), a gargantuan musical instrument made of vast, billowing membranes and foil-covered tubes, currently dwarfs the palm trees in the IBM atrium at Madison Avenue and 57th Street. When it plays, four times a day, the music of the spheres meets the functioning of the human intestine, with sublime and ridiculous results.