Cool and distanced irony, so popular in late 20th-century culture, is said to have died in the smoke of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. By that time, L.A.-based Richard Hawkins had been making overtly romantic and fanatically engaged art for at least a decade. Hawkins communicates longing and desire in his works (which could be described as operatic punk), from the “Crepuscule” sculptures of the early ’90s—glowing red Chinese lanterns suspended from the ceiling and plastered with cutouts of sleek torsos and pretty young faces—to the “Disembodied Zombies” of the late ’90s. The latter are inkjet prints of eerily beautiful heads of young male icons floating on bright painterly grounds. Accessorized with the vacant gazes and dripping flesh of the undead, the images can be read as martyred saints or victims of crimes of passion.

"Third Mind,” Hawkins’s first survey in the United States, provides a welcome look at the artist’s practice over the past two decades. Organized by Lisa Dorin, associate curator at the Art Institute of Chicago (where the show premiered last fall), the exhibition encompasses 60 works in various mediums, though it focuses on the artist’s collages and assemblages. Patched together with the detritus of everyday life, such as magazine cutouts, Post-it notes and paper clips, Hawkins’s collaged works evidence his voracious appetite for culture—his disparate subjects including Roman sculpture, Proust, Native American history and rock stars—and the range of his formal strategies, from making simple interventions on found materials to creating elaborate, even obsessive, constructions.

Some of his collages incorporate clippings from magazine pages that had been used to mix paints or wipe brushes in his studio. One of these, a sepia-toned photo of a young man, is dotted here and there with daubs of pink paint, the oil from which has seeped into the paper, leaving a rich stain. The coloration of the image and the model’s blank-faced beauty convey a moody and romantic tone reminiscent of a Russian novel from the turn of an earlier century. Throughout Hawkins’s collages, a balance of chance and manipulation, as well as an easy commingling of the sublime and the everyday, prevails.

In the Hammer installation, works from different series are exhibited side by side, a strategy that draws out the connections between them. In one example of the smart but subtle layout, a group of 2009 collages from Hawkins’s series “Urbis Paganus” hangs near the sculpture House of the Mad Professor (2008). The collages feature photographs of Roman statues cut from a German art history textbook and pasted onto black paper, each illuminated by the artist’s handwritten observations in white script. The commentary reads like a delightful and surprising art history lecture, one that could easily have issued from the unseen protagonist of the sculpture. This house, a black rectangular box approximately 3 feet wide and set on slender legs, is fitted with narrow windows that provide the only views into its red-lit interiors, each one an orchestration of objects reflected in mirrors placed inside the miniature rooms.

Hawkins’s works have been arranged here to relate not only to one another but also to historical works in the museum’s permanent collection. In an essay written for the Hammer installation, Dorin notes that Hawkins’s zombies play off a 19th-century painting in a nearby gallery, stating that the heads in the manipulated photographs “serve as spectral stand-ins for John the Baptist, whose infamous beheading is augured in Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing Before Herod (1876).” Perhaps it is no accident that Hawkins’s Disembodied Zombie Ben Purple (1997) relates to a much different painting in the collection. Mary Cassatt’s Reine Lefebvre and Margot (1902), which can be seen clearly beyond the zombie print, shares more than its pink-toned palette. Both works point to the fragile complexity of human emotion—something so enduring it bridges the divide between lush sentiment and delicate gore.


“Richard Hawkins—Third Mind” was at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oct. 20, 2010-Jan. 17, 2011, and appears at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Feb. 12–May 22.


Photos: Left, view of Richard Hawkins’s exhibition, showing two “Crepuscule” sculptures. Right, Disembodied Zombie Ben Purple, 1997, inkjet print, 47 by 36 inches.