Friday, June 10, 2005

Tim Hawkinson at the Whitney

I arrived in NYC at lunchtime and my friend wasn't due to arrive until three. So I hauled my bag through the long tunnel connecting the Port Authority to the Subway and made my way uptown to the Whitney Museum to see the Tim Hawkinson show. I was only vaguely aware of Hawkinson's work, mostly from magazines, and I think I had him confused with another sculptor who uses paper - Tom Friedman.

The elevators open to a large open room filled with a tree-like contraption that also recalls the ductwork of a furnace. Pentecost (1999) is not a gentle introduction to Hawkinson's work; but nor is it so brash as to turn the viewer away. Human figures perch from the branches of tubing, suspended in a variety of positions above and around you. The figures resemble crude 3-D models of a topographic map of a person. After a moment to orient yourself, you hear hollow notes separated by short increments of time. There's a tune there, but you're not exactly sure what it is. A few minutes longer and you realize that the notes are created by the figures themselves. A rap of a toe here, a kneecap there - small pieces of the figures come to life and "play" the sculpture in movements so subtle as to be hardly noticable. And then it hits you - the entire piece is an organ, in both the musical and physiological senses. If given the time it deserves, Pentecost is the most rewarding and complex piece in the show.

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While intriguing, the rest of the exhibition rarely lives up to the promise of that first room. Hawkinson's best work is like the product of your reclusive neighbor who spends all night tinkering with junk in his garage. The sculptures have a decidedly put together feel. In a time of slick computer animation, of the seamless manipulation of photography and impossible feats of shiny architecture, Hawkinson's work has an initially endearing handmade quality that becomes more political the longer you think about it. The inner workings and means of construction are left in the open, the sources of power and control freely visible to the viewer - always transparent and exposed.

Orange extension cords run overhead and meander through the space, connecting some of the pieces and leading you through the galleries. Washingtonians may recognize Drip (2002), which Hawkinson displayed at the 2003 Corcoran Biennial. Like many of Hawkinson's works Drip produces sound through a mechanical process - this time via water that drips from thin branches of clear tubing to hit aluminum pie tins placed inside metal buckets. At the Corcoran the meditative Drip made a strong impact; but here its unfortunate proximity to the noisier Pentecost undercuts its power.

Hawkinson's demented humour repeatedly bobs its head as you traverse the exhibit. Hidden in a small alcolve is a kneeling skeleton made of the bone-shaped rawhides dogs adore. Penitent (1995) emits a high pitched whistle from it's skull, which is also stitched together from sheets of rawhide. The sound is forlorn, as if the skeleton can't help but call the very animal that would likely devour it.

Another delight is a mop wired to "speak" by blowing air across a pipe the way you would a bottle. The mutant tool whines in understandable English, if you listen closely enough. Tuva (1995), a contraption constructed mostly from the clear plastic water bottles ubiquitous in any city, replicates the eery throat singing of the Mongolian region.

While this review has focused on Hawkinson's sound-producing pieces, his themes range from explorations of the perception of the human body, creating surrogates for that body, and meditations on time.

The junkyard materials and madcap creations are a refreshing change of pace from the slickly constructed, souless abstraction so popular right now. The show could have been tightened up if some of the lightweight pieces (most of the works on paper, and the replicas of familar objects made from unfamiliar materials) were cut in order to focus the show on Hawkinson's examinations of his own body and his doppelgangers made of living machines. Uneven but never boring, Tim Hawkinson's work remains lodged your mind long after you leave the Whitney behind.

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