In 1936, the playwright Antonin Artaud travelled by horseback through the Sierra Madre mountains in northwestern Mexico, home of the Tarahumara people. Nearly a decade later, while institutionalized for drug addiction and schizophrenia in Rodez, France, Artaud completed a series of drawings inspired by what he witnessed there. These, in turn, have inspired Richard Hawkins’s latest series, ‘Norogachi: Ceramics After Artaud’, on view at Greene Naftali. Artaud – author, actor, artist and addict – embodies the tangled genres and obsessive desires that have long been the subject of Hawkins’s practice.
The show includes 24 modestly scaled, glazed ceramic tablets mounted on custom wooden panels and arranged evenly across the gallery’s four walls. In addition to the ceramic works, a selection of books by Artaud, as well as anthropological volumes about Mexican indigenous culture, are displayed on a table in an adjacent gallery. An accompanying four-part essay, ‘After Artaud’, includes a selection of Hawkins’s own writing and drawings, along with fragments of research material.
Since the early 1990s, Hawkins has used collage to depict subjects as diverse as the actor Matt Dillon, Greek kouroi sculptures and the founder of the butoh dance movement, Tatsumi Hijikata. Previous works have centred on a desiring, queer gaze; in the ‘Norogachi’ series, as in the novels of Hawkins’s long-time friends and collaborators Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana, sex is often intertwined with ritualistic violence. In Hawkins’s own short-story collection, Fragile Flowers (2013), vignettes of sexual intrigue unfold in sordid, often post-apocalyptic, settings. His recent ceramics further this theme, suggesting that Artaud was drawn to the Mexican desert in search of the Tarahumara’s erotically charged rituals, many of which entail the use of hallucinogenic drugs and simulated anal sex. In Vomiting Shaman and Heroin Priest (all works 2016), for instance, a central character with large red breasts seems to devour a phallus while crude figures look on, surrounded by a constellation of circles that resemble both wagon wheels and anuses. (A rosette inspired by the sight of an anal ‘rosebud’, as well as the Rosicrucian cross – an occult and early Christian symbol – appears in several of Hawkins’s ‘Norogachi’ works.) Hawkins has incised Artaud’s graffiti-like drawings into clay tablets, indirectly borrowing a motif from folk art, and painted them with cheerful pastel-pink, blue and green glazes, heightening the tension between the innocent and the depraved.
Double-Bladed Weapon Against Spermsuckers invokes the Tarahumara belief in a rapacious demon, a derivation of the biblical traitor Judas Iscariot, who will penetrate the anus of (or demand penetration by) any man who falls asleep in his presence. In Judas of Norogachi, a figure with bound legs – set in an arched portal and pierced, voodoo doll-like, with nails, pencils, thin paintbrushes and sticks – alludes to a Tarahumara ritual during which an effigy of Judas (with a giant erect phallus) is publicly defiled and burned. A similar figure appears in four additional works and, in each one, it is punctured, castrated and carved with stigmata.
Repression and homogenization have affected expressions of sexuality not just in rural Central America but in societies around the world. The ecstatic and sexualized rituals of the Tarahumara, however, are an especially apt subject for Hawkins, who – through his writing, paintings, collages and sculptures – has sought to disrupt standardized sexualities through representations of extreme sex acts, violence and fantastical scenarios. In his recent clay tablets, the artist elevates human sacrifice, fecophilia and assplay to refined aesthetic and spiritual experiences. For Hawkins, the erotic can liberate what Georges Bataille called the ‘servile man’ – confined by the overly rational and mechanized systems of capitalism – and lead to a life that is richer, more exciting and, ultimately, more free.
Main image: Richard Hawkins, The Hanging of Judas from the Asshole of God, 2016, glazed ceramic in artist's frame, 65 x 58 x 4 cm. Courtesy: Greene Naftali, New York
Eric Sutphin is a critic and curator based in New York. He is currently editing Rosemarie Beck: Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings, which is due to be published by Soberscove Press (Chicago) in December 2017.
First published in Issue 184