Tim Hawkinson, a 44-year-old sculptor from Los Angeles, has a pretty traditional take on making art. And he makes art that is about as nontraditional as anything could be.
Every one of his pieces requires vast amounts of the artist's meticulous hand labor. And yet that labor isn't spent daubing canvases or polishing marble. It's spent wiring a burned-out light bulb so that its broken filament can turn and show the time; it's spent constructing a human skeleton out of dog chews, then building in a mechanism to make the creature whistle.
When Hawkinson makes a self-portrait, or a still life, or a work of trompe l'oeil realism, as he often does, he's working in a traditional genre -- and totally rethinking it.
Almost all his pieces address the so-called eternal themes of human culture: the self, time, language, art, birth, death. He's even built work around hallowed Christian subjects: One piece is titled "Pentecost," after the day when the Holy Ghost bestowed the gift of tongues on Jesus's Apostles; another, called "Magdalene," evokes a touching sculpture of the saint by Donatello. But none of Hawkinson's pieces is in the spirit of the Old Master themes they take off from.
All of which makes Hawkinson's first full-scale retrospective, now filling a floor at the Whitney Museum of American Art, that much more impressively novel. Despite its solidly old-fashioned bones, Hawkinson's art looks and feels unlike anything you've ever seen before. It has won him attention and shows across the country, and around the world.
A bare description of "Pentecost" justifies its conventional title: The piece involves the sounds of Christian tunes and images of 12 male figures, and seems to talk about human communication. But confront the thing itself, and all you can do is gape. It fills an entire gallery, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, with a kind of elaborately branching tree made out of massive cardboard tubes. Life-size figures, contoured like relief maps of the human form, are attached at the tubes' ends. Thanks to a preposterous Rube Goldberg mechanism, cobbled together by the artist out of all sorts of oddball junk, the figures use their motorized fingers and toes and tongues to tap out the rhythms of various seasonal songs.
Communication is valiantly attempted, and Hawkinson's absurd labors ensure that a message of sorts is successfully sent out -- but the result is closer to cacophony than sense. As in the Bible, the Pentecostal gift of tongues may be about attempting to say clearly what is on your mind, to as large an audience as you can gather. Or it may be about inspired talk that isn't meant for human understanding.
Of course, the piece also begs to be read as a metaphor for the artistic act: It's a grandiose effort at communication that envelops you -- and yet there's always a nagging doubt about whether you have gotten the point, or even if there's any point to get. The knotty communication that's a feature of this particular piece is also an illustration of what happens in almost every work of art. And its maker is always somewhere near the tangle's heart: The 12 figures trying so hard to be heard in "Pentecost" are in fact derived from images of Hawkinson himself.
Hawkinson appears, in one way or another, in a good number of his works.