On almost every painting by William Hawkins you will find his birthdate and place of birth (“William L. H. Hawkins Born K.Y. July 27, 1895” or some variant thereof) prominently marked in bold strokes across the bottom or along the side of the image. In some pieces, the signature’s display is ample and vigorous enough to vie with the subject matter for the viewer’s attention. The self-taught African American artist who lived most of his life in Columbus, Ohio, and whose work came to the attention of gallerists and collections in the mid-80s, felt no need to be shy about his authorship or his Kentucky origins. Vibrantly declamatory, the lettering is of a piece with Hawkins’ depiction of his subjects — animals (real and fantastical) and buildings: beasts and bricks alike appear as if shot through with electric current propelling them outside the frame.
Hawkins, who died in 1990, began taking pictures with an inexpensive box camera in the 1930s and 40s, while also collecting newspaper and magazine illustrations, all of which he stored in a suitcase. These were the raw materials and inspiration for his art. When he first began to paint he used semi-gloss enamels that were about to be thrown out by hardware stores because they were too old. This explains the sharp primary colors that animate his paintings — these enamels were meant for kitchen walls and porches. Unaware, in all probability, of the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, Hawkins nevertheless experimented with methods of texturing the surfaces of his works: to those thick house paints, he often added sand, gravel, found objects, and newspaper clippings.
Many such works are currently on view at Ricco/Maresca Gallery. In “Two Dinosaurs Wrestling” a pair of lizard-like fellows are locked in a strange and contorted dance. The blood-red paint has been slathered on and deepens in color where sand or coal dust was mixed into the paint to mimic, one might guess, the leathery skin of the combatants. (Earlier in his art-making career, Hawkins added cornmeal to achieve textured effects, but he soon discovered bugs would dine on those canvases.) While the black nighttime background and white vibratory foliage don’t conjure a very authentic primordial scene, they do suggest a nightmarish realm in which polymorphous beasts (one has legs that could double as a mouth and teeth) devour one another whole. Or, in a more benign reading, are these rough beasts foxtrotting under the stars?
Not quite so enigmatic, but no less striking is “Three Dinosaurs #2,” a painting that collages photographs of eyes and a partial face onto two nominally prehistoric creatures, while the third (whose anatomy would puzzle the average dinosaur-savvy six-year-old no less than any paleontologist) grimaces as if posing to look fierce. The effect is disquieting, but comically so. There’s an outsize, cartoonish quality to Hawkins’ figures, an exaggeration of physical presence that finds apt expression in his raw, almost aggressive palette. Various yellows, all eye-catching and irresistibly tactile, jostle within the frame and, not surprisingly, the brightest hue banners the artist’s moniker.
“Magical Toad,” another enamel on Masonite (the artist said he preferred the hard surface because it didn’t “suck up the paint,” as might other materials), depicts a scene ripe for speculation. Is that a chef’s hat or crown “Kin Frog” wears? Is that king misspelled or kin? Are the other frogs his relatives or courtiers? And is that another chef approaching the blue-speckled amphibians with a bloody knife? A rural folk tale of cooks and prey, or a sacrifice carried out by a high-hatted priest — what story is at play? The massing of the figures, the blocky composition calls Guston to mind, while the sense of ritualized action echoes Max Beckmann’s mythic depictions. The humor, though, is Hawkins’ own. Eye-to-minatory eye, man and toad bear in upon one another; epic battle is a moment away. Of course, this won’t be the thunderous thrashing of the wrestling dinosaurs. The imagined scene that follows will be more Max Fleisher than Jurassic Park.
The most readily legible of Hawkins’ animal images, “White Elephant,” presents just that. But the artist isn’t inclined to be so straightforward. With a collaged eye that peers — it seems — from behind the white expanse, the elephant appears to be merely a mask for some other animal. Trunk rearing up, a decorative carapace on its back, this giant could hail from an exotic tale. But that wide-eyed and blank look undercuts such atmospherics, substituting instead a farcical air. This is, after all, a white elephant, a precious but troublesome possession. Hawkins tweaks the notion to witty effect — this mask-thin beast has only slightly more substance than the idiom — both are expressions that represent something else, something famously big.
Hawkins’ paintings can startle with their switched-on colors and chunky swaths of paint. They clamor for attention from a distance and reward closer inspection with small moments. For instance, where different colors meet, there’s little regard for clean lines; the brushstrokes slosh against one another making plain the process — along with the viscous feel — of application. These collisions evidence a forcefulness, a confidence that, in fact, invigorates every inch of the canvas. Hawkins announced himself with each daub of paint, not just when he signed his name.
Hawkins drove a truck for a living well into his eighties; before that he ran numbers, ran a brothel, and served in the Army. Although the very definition of a self-taught artist (“Shit, I’m nothing but a junk man,” he’s quoted as saying in an essay by Gary Schwindler), he was still, no doubt, aware that art history begins with the depiction of animals. That he wasn’t confounded by millenniums of precedent and found in them fresh inspiration attests to singularity of a imagination — not to mention its democratic disposition.
William Hawkins: Making Itself is on view at Ricco/Maresa Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 11.