Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Relentless Yet Dispassionate: Hilary Harkness at the Flag Art Foundation

Nine Year Review: Articles on the artist’s “cutaway” paintings from 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2013

February 8 to May 18, 2013
545 West 25th Street, 9th Floor
Between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City

In a variation within our series, A TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES, David Cohen presents his latest thoughts on the Flag Foundation’s survey of Harkness’s cutaway paintings within the context of his  own earlier reviews on the same body of work. His earlier engagements with these paintings were originally published in the New York Sun.  Readers new to Harkness will want to read the reviews in order of publication (from the bottom up).

Hilary Harkness, <em>Red Sky in the Morning,</em 2010-11. Oil on panel, 37 x 42 inches. Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Hilary Harkness, Red Sky in the Morning, 2010-11. Oil on panel, 37 x 42 inches.
Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation. Photo by Genevieve Hanson


The other day I was musing on a profound subject: who will star in the first movie made of a Hilary Harkness painting?

The obvious casting choices for the party-girl warriors who populate, in miniature, her dense, chirpy yet  grotesque scenes are those acrobatically proven in the action movie genre—Angelina Jolie, say, whose assassin or tomb-raiding getup recalls the bikini-booted scanty efficiency of the Harkness babe.

But why would anyone turn an artwork into a movie, you might be asking?  The traffic in contemporary culture is entirely the other way around, with artists raiding cinema.  Hollywood – adapting novels and historic events, regurgitating TV shows, and Broadway musicals, remaking other, old or not so old Hollywood movies – has surely never, in similar fashion, made a film of a painting.  Art history-savvy directors make compositional sense of them in individual shots, but that is a different matter.  There was “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” (2003) but that’s from a novel that spins a yarn around a painting, and is thus at several stages removed.  What I have in mind for Harkness is something more like director Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross” (2011) but even there the narrative arc takes in Brueghel the Elder, author of the 1564 masterpiece, “The Way to Calvary,” that is the movie’s painterly progenitor.

This is all a rather discursive way of saying two things about Harkness.  First, that there is a narrative logic in her work that compares to literature or movies more than to the static medium of easel painting, at least at the pace that form has demanded of viewers for the last few centuries.  In Harkness, local incident unfolds over time as the eye is obliged to read accumulative detail.  And secondly, “bad girl” transgressive as they remain, these sado-masochistic scenarios warrant big audience attention rather than art world connoisseurship. The ingenuity of Hilary Harkness has (or ought to have) blockbuster appeal.

The Flag Art Foundation has brought together fifteen, which is to say almost all of these labor-intensive and thus rare works from Harkness’s signature idiom, the cutaway babe-infested setting, whether terrestrial or nautical .  As the artist has begun to move decisively in the direction of more traditional, single-scene images staffed by dramatis personae of legible individuality (her Gertrude Stein series), the Flag show affords that first chapter in her work a retrospective sense of closure.  Her newer work dispenses with the assured absurdist humor of her trademark strategy and puts her in uncharted water in which human foible takes over from inhuman gesture.  Meanwhile, the display of her cutaways of battleships, mansions, and even an auction house with their stylized, weirdly good-humored depravity confirmed to this now hardened fan (note the skepticism in the earlier reviews reposted below) her unexpected capacity to build distinct mood within each work despite the seeming ubiquity of her aesthetic and moral world view.

Later paintings within the Flag group witness odd shifts in scale and the introduction of male and animal characters, but still, you might wonder, what would there be for an actress to do, to say, to emote in such emotionally vacuous situations as Harkness offers? Angelina will require adversaries, of course, so step up Milla Jovovich and Charlize Theron.  But how would these players “co star” when casts of thousands are actually rendered equals, each with their deadpan walk-on macabre moment?  I guess it will have to be one of those movies where the star mutates, like the namesake lead in “Being John Malkovich” (1999), and like a comic book-derived action movie all the while regaining pristine calm as they are choreographed from one act of chilled meanness to the next.

In a way the Surrealists would have loved, where one message in my inbox this morning reminded me that the Flag Foundation show is about to close, the next message put Ms. Jolie herself in a headline with news that the actress has undergone a double mastectomy to diminish her odds of cancer. Life is never the jolly game that art can be, snipping the wires between violence, beauty and pain.  If there can possibly be meaning in this bizarre juxtaposition of data (not to force equivalence) it will have to do with second chapters, courage and sparky women.


Hilary Harkness, <em>Pearl Trader,</em> 2006. Oil on linen, 30 x 33 inches. Courtesy the artist and Mary Boone Gallery.

Hilary Harkness, Pearl Trader, 2006. Oil on linen, 30 x 33 inches. Courtesy the artist and Mary Boone Gallery.


Ms. Harkness, who has been written about in-depth in these pages before, is a mannerist with an unwavering ability to marry perversity and skill. She is a master of kinky scale, packing busy compositions with tiny yet dynamic figures engaged in strange activities that fuse cruelty and pleasure. Their industry — relentless yet dispassionate — mirrors that of their own making, and our viewing. The figures in the paintings, and the paintings themselves, exude a cold, absurdist eroticism.

She paints armies of Barbie doll-like stick-figure women, their tight-fitting apparel, rather like Lara Croft’s, suited equally to the bedroom and the battlefield. Their activities generally involve pleasuring or torturing, but with little emotional involvement in either case.

The scene has a Second World War ambiance, though often with contemporary details thrown in. Her style is a cross between comic book fetishist Eric Stanton and Hieronymous Bosch. She will present a building or battleship in cutaway isometric so that you can see room to room overrun with her women, ant-like in the way they devour space.

“Pearl Trader” (2006) makes the Christies auction house at Rockefeller Center, with its distinctive curved façade and Sol le Witt mural, the locale for a battle orgy surrounded by art. In one room there is a Damien Hirst tank and a Roy Lichtenstein “girl” signaling suitable touchstones for Ms. Harkness’s reductive eroticism and chilled cruelty.

Ms. Harkness shares with Sade not just the pathology to which the Marquis lent his name but also an essential element of style — endless variation, at once exhilerating and enervating, upon an obsessive theme.

In a departure from Ms. Harkness’s normal procedure, “Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Paris, October, 1939” (2007–08), painted on copper, increases the scale of individual figures, and is overtly quotational. It is a handsome work, and it is understandable that the artist should look for an escape from her bizarre servitude to the miniature, but it does not yet have the bravura awkwardness that is her essential hallmark.


Hilary Harkness, <em>Matterhorn,</em> 2003-04. Oil on linen, 20 x 27 inches. Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Hilary Harkness, Matterhorn, 2003-04. Oil on linen, 20 x 27 inches. Courtesy The FLAG Art Foundation.
Photo by Genevieve Hanson

The narrative energy in Hilary Harkness is in a higher gear than in [Elizabeth] Huey [discussed earlier in the same review]: the focus of her sapphic, sado-masochistic orgy scenes, pillages and riots is unrelenting. Her skills are in harmony with her vision: where Ms. Huey paints with an awkward approximation of old master painterliness, Ms. Harkness has the hard, clean, nerdish exactitude of a cartoonist. She can be old masterly, too, but in her case it is the finesse of mannerist paintings on copper that come to mind: paint is transparent, surfaces sealed.

But while a typical Harkness is crowded to bursting point with legions of near-identical figures—willowy, leggy stick figures running around torturing each other and exuding as much individuality and personality in the process as laboratory mice—they actually share with Ms. Huey’s angels and children a vacant sense of alienation. Her cloned cast is a herd of loners.

Less than a year ago Mary Boone presented her first show of this fascinatingly perverse artist: three relatively small panels were given a wall each of her Chelsea barn. Now, in a less precious display, an exhibition ostensibly devoted to drawings, which actually includes new panels and works in oil and watercolor on paper alongside line drawings, is offered at their uptown gallery. Morally speaking, it is business as usual: a massacre on a beach, a shoot out amidst back to the future modernist skyscrapers, a mass ablution in a luxurious ladies room.

As ever, formally speaking, there is an amazing balance of detail and all-overness. “Heavy Cruisers” presents in cut-away cross section the bowels of a ship heavily populated by sailorettes equally busy with the naughty and the nautical. If the title is a suitably unsubtle pun, the handling of different mediums nonetheless reveals the extraordinary touch and control of this weird young woman. The firm delicacy of her line drawing, for instance, which have the legato exactitude of engravings, recall the neoclassical draughtsman John Flaxman. It makes one think: if Flaxman had honed his skills to Sade rather than Dante art history would have had its Harkness two centuries earlier.

Hilary Harkness is a deliciously perverse absurdist in paint who brings together the unemotional nastiness of [Cindy] Sherman and the crowd addiction of [Spencer] Tunick [discussed earlier in the same review]. The somewhat precious display of just three smallish pictures at Mary Boone’s Chelsea barn, Ms. Harkness’s first show with this dealer, is a perfect complement to the masquerades and mass actions explored in these other exhibitions.

Ms. Harkness’s all-female S/M orgies and girl’s own adventures at sea are a chilly marriage of medievalism and the comic strip. In “Matterhorn,” (2003-04) for instance, Hieronymous Bosch and Lucas Cranach team up with Quentin Tarantino, Henry Darger, Balthus and his oddball occultist brother Pierre Klossowski, gay illustrator Tom of Finland, and vintage bandes-dessinées pornographer Eric Stanton. In what reads like a sliced-open doll’s house, she offers cross-sectional, compartmentalized views of an army of skinny young women kitted out in black with sexy boots, hotpants, bikinis, and military caps who in each room torture, abuse, molest, and mortally dispatch sartorially and anatomically similar fellows. In fact, as no discerible emotion is displayed on the perfunctory faces or standarized bodies of any of the participants, it is not too easy to say what criterion, fate, or preference determines whether you are a perpetrator or a victim, although the majority of the latter are wearing white socks, which might signify something. No one registers much by way of pleasure or pain on their cute, dumb faces.

In painterly terms, Ms. Harkness favors a flat, nerdish, swiftly dispatched naïvete, in harmony, some might argue, with her moral maturity. What does actually make these sick, silly pictures interesting beyond the shlock-horror inventiveness of her abuse fantasies, and her nostalgic eye for period charm, is a compellingly crafted ratio of detail to whole, a weird sense of decorative balance and all-overness. Mind you, once you allow so formalist a take of scenes of rape and pillage, the artist’s warped values are obviously working.