Shout Magazine

Mark Kostabi on Robert Hawkins

Apparently Robert Hawkins has gold fangs. According to the Gracie Mansion Gallery, Hawkins-a San Francisco native, who now lives in London by way of New York- also has a ton of piercing and tattoos, none of which I could verify visually when I spoke to him on the phone. I probably met him in the ’80s but I really don’t remember any characters with gold fangs. Perhaps it’s his new look.

This self-taught painter of flying carpets, Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves, and bears in cradles wishes he could paint like the old masters but says he can’t. Yet he goes on painting anyway, which is great for us because, like Magritte and Hopper, he proves that you don’t have to be a great technician to be a great artist. All you need is to be a visionary.

Hawkins has exhibited in New York periodically since the 1980s and has a large, “interesting following,” according to his gallery. He paints about 50 distinctly different images a year, and I can’t wait to see a book of his greatest hits.

My favorite new Robert Hawkins painting is the visually and conceptually brilliant Trap, which depicts a jeweled crown as the bait on a metal bear trap. The zigzag form of the crown echoes the zigzag form of the trap. It’s an old story (beware of the dangers of riches and power), but worth telling again, in a fresh new way, which Hawkins pulls off beautifully in his deadpan, Golden Book Encyclopedia illustration/painting style. There’s no one quite like Hawkins, whose wild and vivid imagination unleashes unforgettable images ranging from a spoon with two handles to a kangaroo carrying a koala bear in its pouch.

While on the phone with him, I mentioned a possible connection with Neon Park, who painted the Weasels Ripped My Flesh album cover for Frank Zappa. I could almost see Hawkins light up with enthusiastic agreement over there in gray London. Then we immediately discussed and confirmed the influence of hippy art and Haight-Ashbury from his San Francisco youth.

I asked him if he thought being self-taught empowered or impeded him. His answer? “I can blunder… and it’s okay.” There aren’t many blunders, however, in this fantastic show.

March 2002