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Art Review: William L. Hawkins at the Columbus Museum of Art

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Art Review: William L. Hawkins at the Columbus Museum of Art
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This spring offers two great chances for central Ohio residents to connect (or reconnect as the case may be) with one of our city’s most inventive and talented artists. William L. Hawkins: An Imaginative Geography is currently on view at the Columbus Museum of Art and William L. Hawkins: Paintings and Drawings is on view at Lindsay Gallery in the Short North.

William Hawkins (1895-1990) was born and raised on a farm in eastern Kentucky. In 1916, at the age of 21, he moved to Columbus. There, Hawkins supported himself through a variety of jobs, including laborer, cement truck driver, and scrap-metal collector. While Hawkins showed an early interest in drawing (learning to draw by copying images found in the calendars and catalogs available at the time), he did not begin painting in the style for which he’s known until the 1970s. The results were, as they say, well worth the wait.

Hawkins’ career took off when he crossed paths with the painter Lee Garrett. Garrett recognized Hawkins’ talent and encouraged him to enter a painting into the 1982 Ohio State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition. Hawkins’ painting won first prize; an honor that paved the way for gallery representation in New York, Hawkins’ first solo show, and a 1990 exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art. Wider recognition followed, including an exhibition at Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1997. Today, Hawkins is recognized internationally as a major outsider artist as well as a preeminent 20th-century painter.

Hindsight affords a certain logic to this ascendancy. The sheer force of Hawkins’ work — the confidence, the bravado, the bursting at the seams exuberance — is undeniable, inevitable even. There’s something unequivocal in the world Hawkins presents. It’s the quality we experience in all fully realized art, that sense that the artist knows exactly what’s important, that they know exactly what they want the viewer to see. That’s no surprise given that Hawkins regularly referred to himself as “the greatest.” Given Hawkins’ personality and work, chances were slim either would remain unknown.

Of course, bold and brash are only part of the story. Yes, Hawkins was self-taught. Yes, he was intuitive in many ways. Yes, the pictorial elements in his works are often simplified. But don’t make the mistake of believing for a second that these works are unsophisticated. Hawkins understanding of color, pattern, figure-ground relationships, visual rhythm, and scale are unparalleled. He was a designer through and through. Schooled or not, Hawkins had a keen eye for how to arrange visual elements in a way that resolved images without reining them in.

Williams Hawkins Atlas Building #2 1980 Enamel on paneling

Those images are a story unto themselves. Hawkins often worked from established images and source materials; curating and collecting photos from a variety of magazines and newspapers. Not surprisingly, he favored image-heavy publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, Look, and Life. In that sense, Hawkins offers viewers a world twice removed; painting not necessarily the world he saw, but the world that popular culture presented to him.

It’s an approach that gallerist Duff Lindsay suggests has a direct relationship to the tenets of Pop Art. In this regard, Mr. Lindsay has a point. This business of culling source material from popular culture, re-imagining that material through the lens and process of the artist, and presenting the resultant work as a new reality is a practice perfected by the likes of Warhol, Johns, Oldenburg and Rauschenberg. It follows then that Hawkins’ work exists both as a personal vision and a snapshot of a shared place and time. Depictions of popular advertisements, published photographs, historical events and local landmarks invite viewers to examine our shared history.

Interestingly, Hawkins himself is now part of that shared history. We see him in relation to today’s vibrant African American arts scene that includes Queen Brooks, Duarte Brown, Lisa McLymont and host of others. We see him in relation to the artists who’ve taken visual cues from his work; artists like Levent Isik, Rick Borg, Smoky Brown and Tamara Jaeger. We seem him in the pride that east Columbus neighborhoods share when they reflect on the amazing art and artists they’ve nurtured.

William Hawkins’ vision may be singular, but his work is open to all.

William L. Hawkins: an Imaginative Geography is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through May 20. William L. Hawkins: Paintings and Drawings is on view at Lindsay Gallery through then end of April.

William Hawkins Untitled (head of a woman) n.d. Pencil on paper (Image courtesy of Lindsay Gallery)

William Hawkins Billy James Theater 1975 Enamel on pressboard (Image courtesy of Lindsay Gallery)

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