Art

Catching Enigmas in a Bottle: Girls Gone Wild in Hot Oil

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“I see all the male artists, or at least all the dead ones, having so much fun painting the female form,” Hilary Harkness told Interview magazine last year. Art history is certainly loaded with dead guys reveling in women’s physicality: works like the saucy baroque masterpiece The Hunt of Diana, where Rubenesque beauties wrangle ferocious dogs, shoot birds with arrows, or simply loll about nude. Harkness updates such sapphic high jinks in Flipwreck (2004), where all-female tribes battle over a World War II beachhead—there are blonde American sailors, natives clad in coconut shell bras, Aryans with riding crops, and Japanese fly girls wearing goggles. All are slim and leggy, perfect for mortal combat and elaborate bondage rituals. While Harness’s figures may lack the anatomical rigor of past masters’, her meticulously rendered preparatory drawings—the one for
Flipwreck hangs nearby—have lovely flowing lines and emotion; the desperation of one sailor’s heroin-chic eyes comes across equally in pencil and oil.

At roughly one by two feet, Flipwreck retains Harkness’s typically intimate scale and obsessively detailed narratives. But its open-air setting is a departure from her signature cross-section views of battleships and convoluted rabbit warren interiors. These cutaways have the segmented feel of comic panels, but they are compositionally interwoven and reveal connections between characters slowly, often with rude humor. The 10-inch-square Air Raid depicts eight rooms of a gabled house populated by a bevy of supermodels. Do the servants hand-washing frills in the basement resent the brunette-on-blonde debauchery in the garden? Who are the women in the attic squatting over mirrors as they give birth? And why the retro trappings like nylons, garters, and clothes wringers, last seen during the Good War? Lacing nostalgia with decadence, Harkness commands her enigmatic art as succinctly as a ship in a bottle.