William Hawkins at Ricco Maresca Gallery

Count the self-taught American painter William Hawkins, the subject of a striking exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, as being among the handful of artists whose work blurs the distinction between Fine and Folk Art.

Hawkins’ iconographic pictures—with their slathered runs of enamel paint, blunt blocks of pattern, garish colors and furtive oddments of collage—have a few painters of acquaintance wondering if they aren’t a put-on. We expect idiosyncrasy and intensity from outsider artists, sure, but not necessarily compositional sophistication or visionary self-awareness.  But “William Hawkins Born July 27, 1895”—the name and date run boldly across the margins of each image—wasn’t a faux naïf with an MFA, but a Kentucky-born farm boy with a genuine gift for pictorial invention.

The current exhibition focuses on Hawkins’ paintings of architecture. A log cabin, Mount Vernon, the Ohio Statehouse, the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle and “Parliamentary Buildings With Three Girls,” a menacing parade of minarets towering over clueless fashion models cut-and-pasted from a magazine advertisement—each is fitted inside the confines of the rectangle with uncanny surety. Their structural integrity owes much to the geometry inherent in the subject matter, but Hawkins’ arrangements of shape make for stark and sometimes zooming arrays of incident. The “wrapping” of each image inside a painted frame increases the sense of compression.

Pegging Hawkins as a backwoods formalist may seem a stretch (or an imposition), but the pictures connect more for pictorial rigor than for what they evoke—no otherworldly hallucinations or spiritual epiphanies here. “I don’t copy what I see. I make it better.”  Such a credo doesn’t obviate thematic depth or associative complexity, but it does point to the work’s over-riding, declamatory force.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 26, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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