By Cynthia Cruz
February 19, 2021
Since the 1980s, self-taught artist William Hawkins (1895-1990) has received growing acclaim for his more than four-hundred paintings of architectural landmarks, rural landscapes, and fantastical animals. In 2017, Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York, which specializes in outsider and folk art, exhibited Hawkins’s paintings in The Unmediated Vision of Williams Hawkins. For Degree Critical that year, writer Cynthia Cruz reviewed the show, considering how the category of outsider art distracts from Hawkins’s artwork, where the gallery, like many institutions, look to personal anecdotes to exoticize the artist. Throughout the review, The Mediated Vision of William Hawkins, Cruz excavates the term “unmediated” in the show’s title, demonstrating to what extent mediation is not only inevitable in curation but also its responsibility.
—Lune Ames, Managing Editor
As I entered The Unmediated Vision of William Hawkins in Ricco/Maresca’s two room gallery, I wondered, what it might it mean to “unmediate” the artist’s vision. Hawkins (b. 1895) was raised in rural Kentucky on a farm, and learned to draw by copying horse auction announcements and pictures from calendars. He moved to Ohio when he was twenty-one, and lived there until his death at the age of ninety-five. The African-American artist left behind some four hundred expressive paintings, which, he said, made themselves. After pouring paint on the surface (wooden board, most often), he would tilt the surface, allowing the paint to follow the pull of gravity.
The Ricco/Marcesa Gallery website states: “the gallery specializes in Outsider, Self-Taught, Contemporary, and historically significant American Folk art in various media.” The term “Outsider Art,” bothers me because it frames the work and its makers, cordoning them off, outside the boundaries of what is deemed and named “normal.” The labels also suggest the act of finding, of discovering—as though by an anthropologist. By contextualizing the work in this way, the power remains in the hands of those who “discover” the artists rather than with the artists themselves. This differs from the treatment of a white artist with a formal training in the arts, who are seen as having agency. Would it not be stronger and truer if all galleries and museums were open to artwork by artists regardless of their class background, race, gender, ability or academic training? The term creates a clear binary between blue chip artwork—work that is expected to increase in monetary worth and hence, becomes part of the art market, serving as a financial asset for investors—and “Outsider” artwork, which is more of an economic gamble. To be considered an “Outsider” artist implies not having been trained within an academic institution. And yet the majority of people in the United States don’t have access to such training programs, which tend to be extremely expensive. In other words, art remains elite, not something one has knowledge of unless one is privy to its deeply self-referential social systems. Indeed, this inaccessibility serves as a means to brand one’s self as elite in the same way cultural references to wealth in the form of clothing labels, for example, work.
The conventional categories both highlight the two marketable spheres of artists—“Outsider” vs blue chip—and further marginalize artists who do not fit nicely into either sphere, such as those who have indeed earned MFAs but remain burdened by poverty, race, trauma, or disability. Artists who are unable for a variety of reasons to make contact with gallerists or curators will remain, regardless of the quality of their work, outside galleries and museums.
This phenomenon brings us back to the word “mediate.” Despite what the title implies, William Hawkins’ work is certainly mediated. For one, without the gallery and the curators, the work wouldremain in the home of the artist, and viewers may never know of it.The gallery “discovered” Hawkins and elevated his work to the gallery space, a fact that brings up the word’s origins. According to the exhibition title, the artist’s vision has not been mediated, but the work loses something in the context of a gallery. The mediation that occurs with work by non-white male artists, the work of contextualizing by providing biographical and often historical aspects to the work, detracts the viewer from appreciating the work for what it is, diverting the viewer’s gaze from the work, itself, to the argument on its behalf. As a result, the work can seem like an artifact. The mediation on his behalf—the gallery’s providing background, context, history—is necessary, but I wonder what would happen were we to see the work without narration, without the layering in of Hawkins’ personality and character? For example, Hawkins’ artist page on the gallery’s website states:
In Columbus, Hawkins held an assortment of unskilled jobs, drove a truck, and even ran a small brothel. He was married twice and claimed to have fathered some 20 children.
How is this information relevant to Hawkins’ work, and would it be included if he were white? When a white male artist marries a woman twenty years his junior, it does not show up in his gallery bio, nor, in general, are examples culled from his childhood to spotlight his strangeness. Instead, the work stands on its own. Only artists outside the assumed standard of the educated, straight, cis-gender, white male require extra mediation and explanation to prove that the work is worthy and to ensure that the artist and her/his work is not misunderstood. If it were presented without context, how would Hawkins’ work be received because or despite of his background and identity?
We would simply see the work, I imagine, and the work of William Hawkins is astounding. When I first saw his paintings—which are displayed side by side in the galleries’ two rooms—I immediately thought of the work of the Belgian painter, James Ensor. The prevalence of the white, creamy paint and its iterations of pale pink and lime green in nearly all the works create a sense of illumination, either the suggestion of another world or the presence of a god or other spiritual entity. This milkiness creates a sense of lightness, of hope. Also like the work of Ensor, Hawkins’ paintings feature ghosts and other symbols of death. The similarities between the two artists’ works continue in their usage of flatness: by flattening of all the animals and humans and objects in his paintings, Hawkins renders them equal. What might be seen as a deficiency (the inability to represent three-dimensional space), is not necessarily the presence of a lack but, rather, a possible attempt at helping the viewer see things from a different perspective. In this way Hawkins’ paintings are modernist in the same way Ensor’s are—an attempt by the artist to allow the work to embody as many perspectives as possible. For instance, Ensor’s painting Skeletons Fighting over a Pickled Herring, 1891, with its creamy paint, its representations of death, and the overall flatness.
Hawkins applies white paint like frosting—buttery yet other worldly, reminiscent of the work of El Greco. Like El Greco, the Hawkins’ paintings use white paint to illuminate and suggest a break between this and another world. This quality is most obvious in El Greco’s paintings of saints—in his use of white halos around their heads, for instance. In Hawkins’, the sense is different: the work is more contemporary but also, the white paint, because the works are so flat, read metaphorically as windows. Because the whiteness appears so often in large swaths, it feels almost as if one might be able to push through to the other side.
What other side might this be? Or, what two worlds might Hawkins’ paintings be alluding to? The easy answer is: this world and the next. The consistent use of white, as well as the repeated references to death, God and the spiritual suggest heaven and the next world while the elements included in the paintings such as the quotidian objects, humans and animals stand in for the world of the everyday. The harder answer is Hawkins’ actual two worlds: the one he lived in Columbus, Ohio, and the other through which his artwork moved: the galleries and museums and the homes of those who purchased Hawkins’ work. Hawkins, thus, was the mediator between his work and the art world and yet a world in which his works could exist only by way of contextualizing the work in a narrative of unfamiliarity. Hawkins remained on the other side—outside the art world and its language, its currency. Indeed, he was mediator, the space in-between. Indeed, his voice was the voice of authority of his own work—the necessary context residing within the frames of his paintings.