Monday, July 28, 2008

From the Outside In

With only a third-grade education and art supplies he scavenged from trash, William Hawkins typifies the kind of outsider artist who found acceptance in twentieth century art. Born July 27, 1895, Hawkins claimed that his mixed heritage—black, white, and Native American—was the source of his artistic ability. Hawkins painted Sioux Indian on Warpath (above, from 1985) as an homage to that piece of his ancestry, but painted images related to American history, pop culture, his farm upbringing, and the Bible during his 94 years on Earth. Using cast-off enamel paint and discarded masonite boards, Hawkins took an innate sense of composition as well as a precocious gift for color and created images that rival those of his contemporary Jacob Lawrence in their colorful simplicity and those of Henri Rousseau in their amusing depictions of animal life. Spurred on by the need to support twenty children and sometimes even his grandchildren, Hawkins painted the world around him always with an eye on what would sell.

I love Hawkins’ Prudential N.Y.C. (above, from 1985) for the odd green mountain take on the famous Prudential Financial logo. Hawkins shows a Pop Art sensibility without the ostentation of Pop Art itself. What you see is what you get. That’s not a swipe at his lack of education but praise at his outsider’s sense of honesty, something that art world insiders often lose once the system lays claim to their talents. Hawkins was already in his seventies when he began painting full-time and didn’t get any wide-spread recognition until he was in his eighties. Even today, few books exist that cover his art and that of similar outsider artists. Critics simply don’t know how to handle these artists. I find myself trying to relate Hawkins to what I know, but realize that the full impact of Hawkins’ art comes from him being slightly different from what I know, as if he’d landed on an artistic Madagascar long ago and evolved in a wonderfully different direction like some kind of rare, painting lemur.

Of course, Hawkins did know some kinds of art, mostly from popular culture and religious imagery. Everyone knows Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, including Hawkins, who created a series of mixed-media works on the subject, including Last Supper #6 (above, from 1986). Toward the end of his life, Andy Warhol also created a series of meditations on Da Vinci’s Last Supper, mostly as examinations of his own devout Christianity, but Hawkins’ series seems more like a study of the imagery itself, with a eye-catching framework that was not only a nod towards salability but also a reminder that this is an image and not unfiltered documentation. Hawkins signed most of his works “William L. Hawkins, Born KY July 27, 1895,” giving the plain, unadorned facts of his existence. His crude writing reminded me of the text that Edward Hicks would place on the borders of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings, giving the plain, unadorned “facts” as the Bible set them out. In many ways Hawkins continues (and perhaps completes) the long line of American outsiders that Hicks began.

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