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Issue 237

Richard Hawkins’s Art Historical Thirst Traps

Justin Bieber meets Pierre Bonnard in the artist’s new erotic, collage-inflected paintings at Gaga & Reena Spaulings, Los Angeles

BY Logan Lockner in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 25 MAY 23

A collagist’s techniques and sensibilities are defined by harmonious contradictions, containing the impulses to dissect one reality and unify another, destroying context to create a new, idiosyncratic whole. Situating the figures of celebrity hunks and OnlyFans performers in richly rendered art-historical milieux, the nine paintings on view in Richard Hawkins’s exhibition at Gaga & Reena Spaulings in Los Angeles operate, on the most fundamental level, as collages – driven by the dynamics of deft composition and visual juxtaposition. Scale and proportion are thrown askew, with figures’ parted lips and bare torsos enlarged and emphasized amid lush fauvist gardens and symbolist backdrops, commingling sex, the natural world and the exaggerated surreality of the imagination.

Pale pink painting with Owen Wilson (I think?) with his mouth near a phallic shape; other floating accoutrements
Richard Hawkins, ASMR, 2023, oil on canvas, 1.2 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art LA/NY; photograph: Paul Salveson

By refashioning digital photographic images – paparazzi photos, online porn – in delicate brushstrokes, Hawkins subtly intensifies their erotic register: animated by the hand’s gesture and the eye’s gaze, his paintings whirr and hum like libidinal dream machines. In the synesthetically titled ASMR (2023), the head and chest of Justin Bieber floats alongside an elaborate Picabian apparatus. A colourful biomorphic shape, recalling the canvases of Joan Miró, hovers near his mouth, suggesting a phallic innuendo in psychedelic hues. In the painting’s bottom left corner, opposite Bieber, another shirtless male figure is cut from a pornographic setting and inserted at an odd angle, as though he is entering or drifting away from the assembled scene. The marble-like quality of his flesh and hair lends the porn star the appearance of a horny Greek kouros caught in the act.

Floating heads all around a big colorful canvas
Richard Hawkins, Nocturne, 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas, 1.2 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art LA/NY; photograph: Paul Salveson

In many of the paintings, distinctions between figure and ground are lost so that the object of desire constitutes a fundamental part of the overall sensory world. The partial shapes of four figures form the composition of Nocturne (2023), portions of their bodies melting into a tangle of fuchsia vines and a moonlit sky. The face of a young man dominates the upper half of the canvas, his eyes closed and mouth agape in pleasure. Dripping down into the painting’s overlapping planes, his left nipple brushes against a blooming flower; an oversized butterfly hangs nearby, appearing ready to alight on either succulent surface. The other figures – including a blue-skinned Adam Driver – tumble through this night-time reverie, loosely fragmented like memories or nascent fantasies.

A figure with stringy hair, superimposed against a verdant background, with a cat upon a pedestal in the foreground
Richard Hawkins, The Supermundane, 2023, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art LA/NY; photograph: Paul Salveson

As is indicated by the selection of artist’s books displayed alongside the exhibition, a combination of collage and homoerotic celebrity worship has been a hallmark of Hawkins’s work since the 1990s. In multiple editions of his book series ‘Secret Passage’ (2017–19), the artist presents photographic collages of teenage heartthrobs ranging from Bieber to Matt Dillon, whose faces are pasted over imagery taken from renaissance religious paintings, Rosicrucian crosses, internet screenshots and landscapes by Pierre Bonnard. These earlier collages are rougher and cruder than Hawkins’s new paintings, recycling William Burroughs’s cut-up method through the abjection and elation of obsessive adolescent lust.

A colourful painting of a naked man, flora, floating heads, etc.
Richard Hawkins, Sprinkler, 2023, oil on canvas 1.8 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art LA/NY; photograph: Paul Salveson

Freed from the constraints of photographic imagery, Hawkins’s new paintings achieve a more cohesive integration of their disparate source materials, demonstrating the psyche’s magpie-like tendency to cobble together composite images from multiple visual streams: high and low, dirty and divine, real and imagined. In Sprinkler (2023), fantasy triumphs over the photograph: Hawkins modifies a 2019 image of Nick Jonas in swimming trunks – which has since become a ubiquitous internet thirst trap – rendering him fully nude, water hose in hand, among oversaturated flowers and butterflies transported from the works of Odilon Redon. In this garden fantasia, supercharged with desire and the distance of celebrity, what is imagined becomes more vibrant and viscerally felt than what can be seen on a backlit screen.

Richard Hawkins, ‘New Paintings’, at Gaga & Reena Spaulings, Los Angeles, until 27 May

Main image: Richard Hawkins, Conjuring, 2023, oil on canvas, 1.8 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art LA/NY; photograph: Paul Salveson

Logan Lockner is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.