Hilary Harkness at Mary Boone Gallery

Hilary Harkness, Matterhorn (2003), oil on linen, 16″ x 21-1/2″; courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

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There’s no doubt about it: Hilary Harkness, whose recent paintings are on view at the Chelsea branch of the Mary Boone Gallery, has an imagination. Where to begin enumerating its wild and weird attributes? Each canvas presents a cross-section of a labyrinthine environment–a war ship, a futuristic industrial plant-overrun by tall, thin and scantily clad white women. Myriad scenarios take place simultaneously; most involve sex and violence, though dentistry and saving the whales also enter in to it. A painstaking artist (the show includes only three modestly scaled canvases), Ms. Harkness limns her doll-house fantasies with impressive diligence. Would that the touch weren’t so drab. Maybe then I’d agree with the opinion that Ms. Harkness is a “post-feminist Hieronymus Bosch.”

The thing is, Bosch wasn’t post-anything; the nightmarish realms he painted were real to him. Ms. Harkness isn’t capable of going out on that limb. Losing herself in a fiction is the one thing Ms. Harkness can’t imagine. Painting is merely a pose–freaky, fun and finicky. If anyone, she reminds me of Jared French, the 20th-century American artist whose stiff brand of magic realism has been lost to history, consigned to the storage racks. Ms. Harkness’ stiff brand of cartoon agitprop is likely to meet the same fate.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 14, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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