The Familiar Aliens of Chris Hawtin
by Fernando Galán
I would like to start by saying that the work of Chris Hawtin cannot be confused with that of other painters, which could seem simple and too vulgar, a characteristic of when one doesn’t know how to begin talking about an artist. But I cannot help starting this way, as it is one of the things that most impressed me, the first time I saw some of his works. Now, knowing the artist as I do (not personally, but through countless emails, in which we can communicate just as well or better than personally, because we both share a passion for writing), by saying “cannot be confused” I do not only mean original and different from the majority (which does not necessarily have to be a merit in itself), but also that it summarises the author's honesty with himself, with his artistic concepts, his human questions, his life experiences, with his intellectual commitment and aesthetic sensibility, but then we are getting into another subject.
The pictorial narrative of Hawtin speaks of the ‘silent screams' (take note, this seems important to me and I will return to this subject later) of ghostly universes, halfway between science fiction and Surrealism or, even better, passing through both simultaneously. Sources from worlds as diverse as the Dutch School of the 17th century and the comic are also referenced. And of Symbolism. And even of Expressionism and Fauvism. Obviously, the result of all this is a very personal and unique explosive Molotov cocktail. Speaking of less formal aspects, there is mystery and obviousness in turn. In the midst of darkness light emerges, and in the midst of light darkness survives. The result: formal and conceptual chiaroscuro, making the imagination and sensitivity of the viewer fly. But there is something in his work that emphatically removes it from an imagined kinship with Goya’s tenebrous and catastrophic engravings (for example): the use of color. Hawtin´s personal vitality is expressed in his painting through a frequent colorism (faded in his latest works) that my particular imagination wants to associate with the clothes of the Indians of the Andes.
And this is the point I wanted to make: his compositions of imagined monsters from other worlds may easily remind us of the mysterious stratospheric characters that were imagined (or "portrayed"?) by the Incas and the Aztecs in Peru and Mexico, respectively. In the stone carvings of both cultures, and in the Aztec codices. But they are humanised by the artist, who dresses them with the cheerful and optimistic colours that the Indians of these areas used to wear and still do. The strictly formal result may seem to us a menacing Alien, but conceptually, and in terms of the perception of our emotional sensitivity we are before a stuffed doll from another world, yes, but in any case it would not be the predatory, monstrous world of Alien, but more the dreamlike universe of ET.
And returning to the ‘silent screams’ of his narrative, there is something difficult to explain about Hawtin’s work, consisting of a strong, even disturbing and overwhelming expressivity, which, however, seems to come from such distant worlds that the presumed sounds, chirps, barks, growls, whistles, clicks or rackets of these mechanical objects (perhaps cyborgs) don´t reach us. Or, simply, we cannot imagine them, because the artist´s imagination seems to fly at the speed of light. As spectators, it seems we are contemplating images of a space mission to a world in another galaxy. Slow motion images, because, although they are static, the majority of them give us a sense of movement. Still pictures, of a movement difficult to predict. Intrigue and suspense. Cries and whispers from the great beyond that is perhaps no more than cyberspace.
And that is even what Hawtin says: “my work is probably 50/50 playing around with paint and playing with the computer". Utilising architectural programmes to create his figures in three-dimensional virtual space and merging them with other images that become "wrapped" in the first ones. “I like the idea of one work cannibalising another, so I use images of previous paintings to wrap these objects in. Painting is really the only space one can do this - simultaneously invest in both an illusion and an object.” Among many other things, the artist admires the Dutch painters of the 17th century who traveled to Italy and, when they returned to their country began painting ‘strange hybrid worlds’. So is his painting, a hyper-contemporary testimony that portrays the hybridisation of current globalisation. But his is a globalisation that stretches to the outside world, to the whole cosmos. As much real as virtual. The harsh reality and the no less harsh illusion.
Lately the creative restlessness of Chris Hawtin has led him to make sculptures, in which the figuration is the protagonist, as if wanting to show us the creatures that inhabit the figureless landscapes of his paintings. The aliens are finally in flesh and blood before us. Although, in this instance, in plastic, metal, polystyrene and plaster. They are less cuddly toys than the previous depictions of his paintings, more cybernetic and devoid of color, but humanity continues seeping in somehow, as in that sensual posture of Seth (2012), as sleek and coquettish as the classical Venus.
Chris Hawtin: Other Worlds, Alienation and Ambiguity in The New Age of Anxiety
by Duncan McAfee
Perhaps it has always been, for one reason or another, an age of anxiety.
As human knowledge and understanding has evolved and expanded, so too has the scope and reach of our anxieties. Where once we feared the forest and the beast, where once anxiety manifested itself in outsiders, invaders, plunderers from across the sea, it is now projected in all directions, inward and outward; insurgent threats, drones, home-grown terrorism, Franken-foods, carbon footprints, stealth marketing, economic unsustainability, infectious social instability.
Anxiety pervades every corner of our lives: ecology, society, economy, our homes, relationships, desires and bodies. And beyond its sheer scale and reach, what sets the New Age psyche apart is the underpinning anxiety that for the first time in history, it is probably all our own fault.
Hawtin's epic landscape paintings seem to reflect this sense of deeply penetrating social and personal vexation. One might read these images as visionary revelations, portents of our Post-Carbon Age prospects, representations of an inevitable juncture along our current path. The viewer might play the part of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, scouring this deserted country, piecing together the back story, in search of “connexions”.1 Hoban's book is narrated by Walker, a 14-year-old boy and relative innocent, so we discover as much through his observations as is conveyed by what is not told to us. Hawtin employs the same tool in his storytelling, revealing only snippets of his future world in paintings, drawings, sculptures and now models. Our advantage over Walker, or Hawtin's Gregor et al, is that we perhaps know at least the first part of the back-story.
But possibly these are not visions of the future at all. They might read like the history paintings they gently echo, images of a distant past. Maybe there is a tongue in the cheek of an alternative history book here, a critique of anti-scientific dogma, such as Creationism as demonstrated in Cincinnati's Creation Museum. This attraction presents a literal depiction of the Genesis story as history, complete with animatronic displays demonstrating dinosaurs and humans walking side-by-side some 6,000 years ago, even down to a saddled Triceratops.2 Is Hawtin's world a parodying alternative creation story, a barbed critique of some Scientologist or Raëlian-like belief system, where life on earth was created by an advanced alien race, and these are the holy paintings that speak of the ultimate rescue of the chosen few?3 We might imagine a repositioning of these images in the past or in another galaxy, science fiction scenes played out in cycles; “all this has happened before, and will happen again.”4
Therein lies one of the great many ambiguities which stretch across this body of work, pushing and pulling between past and future, concealment and disclosure, emergence and collapse, attraction and repulsion, belonging and alienation, pulp fiction and fine art, expertise and amateurism, collapse and convergence, beginning and end, life and death. These may be symptoms of The New Age, disquiet in not knowing what one is seeing, unease in uncertainty.
This is achieved through Hawtin's diverse techniques and painterly mastery. Akin to Hoban's rendering of Riddley Walker, whose society's Stone-Age level of technology and understanding is contrasted with the found remnants of the "sophisticated" people who preceded them, Hawtin cuts and pastes painterly styles, overlaying techniques from different times and places. In The Golden Age of Reconnaissance (2013) in particular we see kitschy marbling techniques beneath a continental decorator's dry-brush work, spatters of flicked and sprayed expressionistic paint veiling areas of landscape techniques that could have been lifted from Dutch italianate paintings of the 17th century, serrated scraper marks stolen from a Francis Bacon portrait against graphic, 1980s, metallic rendering. The results are images that seem to span many genres and times, a collapse of heritage into one ambiguous past-present-future space, untethered from rational lineage.
Despite the absence of the figure, the body is present in the forms that dominate these landscapes. And the body, once more, is riddled with anxiety. They are technological, formed in a way that could not possibly hold together were they made three dimensional. In fact, Hawtin explains, these forms are computer generated, a digital intervention into painting using architectural design software, but in such a way that they are all surface; they would collapse in the physical world. Hollow and empty, they reflect the landscapes around them like broken mirrors.
Hawtin reveals that many reflected elements of the landscapes are recycled from older paintings; landscapes borrowed, fragments panel-beaten into new forms. This might be a kind of schizo-painting, shards pieced together to form new mythology, like the Punch and Judy show of Riddley Walker, misremembered and yet heartbreakingly accurate. Here is also an anxiety about painting itself; it is at once evocative and illusionary, luscious and sensual, fleshy and organic, dirty and drab, lacerated and scabby, stolen and broken.
These biomorphic bodies are hybrids of parts of other forms, each poetically beginning from (and still containing) the form of an egg, a splicing of technology and organic matter. Fiction here channels fact: recently, during FutureFest 2013, social psychologist Bertolt Meyer gave his phone to a fellow speaker, who was then able to control Meyer's bionic hand. “My hand comes with an iPhone app ... This gives the word hacking an entirely new dimension because if someone hacked my phone they could hack my hand.”5
Couple this with President Obama's question as to whether “... technology is moving so quick that ... at some point, does the technology outpace the laws that are in place and the protections that are in place?”6 At what point does the technology develop more rapidly than our ability to prepare for its consequences?
The paintings play both ways as always. These technological bodies are also beautiful objects, magnificent floating creations, monuments to the power of imagination and invention. There is the science fiction fan's obsession and detail in each form. Hawtin himself describes imagination as "… a floating, disembodied assemblage of seemingly irrational elements with many potential directions ..." and could be talking about the painting itself as a representation of pure imagination, a celebration of its power. Is it not this human imagination that binds us together, that creates us as societal beings and provides hope amidst anxiety? Imagination is the place where worlds are made.
There are other more familiar bodies just out of frame, their presence indicated by rudely written signposts marking territories, or broken makeshift residences, sometimes apparently constructed from debris like Jerome's hut in The Mechanism (2013). But in Ennio's Spire (2011) there is again the ambiguous suggestion that this could be either a new kind of semi-organic structure, a future bio-architecture, or the ruins of a previous, tower-like structure, possibly a sky-scraper.
Belief systems and ideologies are always bubbling away beneath the surface. In conversation, Hawtin describes these humanoid characters in great depth, each part of a complexly allegorical story that is still unfolding in the work. Their alienation from this world, their relationships with each other and with the ominous bio-technological forms that co-habit the landscapes point to the work's relationships with politics and technology. Each character, Hawtin explains, has a carefully chosen name, for example Marco (after the explorer Marco Polo), Seth (Brundle, the scientist from The Fly), Jerome (after St Jerome, the hermit); their significances and relationships with each other are developing into some kind of parable of 20th century political history.
These characters have been revealed to us before in Hawtin's previous theatrical sculptural works. Here they have become miniaturised, have moved away from theatre, perhaps towards the hobbyist's workshop. The language of model-making (in this case butchered and bastardised table top wargame figures, rather than matchstick architecture, WWII aeroplanes, or model railways) brings with it an outsider quality. There is a harmlessness, an innocent boyhood preoccupation, or a hobbyist's retirement project, but also a sincerity and an authenticity that one attributes to the model-maker; a truth that can only be spoken by the outsider.
Of course, for Hawtin this ambiguity is ripe; the models negotiate the space between the paintings and the sculptures:
"For me the unique quality of painting is that one can simultaneously invest in the object and the space. With film we are entirely invested in the space, and with sculpture the object. It seemed to me that a model is an object which is similarly invested with the fictional space of a painting.”
Other-Worlds seem to be inevitable side-effects of our New Age; dystopian settings which pick and mix from the available palette of anxieties. These are not places of escape, these are not decorative diversions, these are not proposed alternatives. Hawtin describes fiction as “... a place; a vehicle for channelling and filtering back elements of life.” Like Hawtin's characters, we are all experiencing alienation; from the landscape, from the technology we can no longer understand, from each other, a kind of enforced nomadism.
But there are no lessons here, this is not some confessional, this is no lecture. These are the playing out of scenarios revealed only in brief flickers, fragments of a fiction, channels of imagination, windows on a hidden world with all its ambiguities.
Recent news from The New Age has seen the reported inclusion of geo-engineering in the UN Climate Report by Russia,7 reflecting the money that has already been invested in the development of these technologies. At the end of September the first cargo ship navigated the North East passage, once an impenetrable sheet of ice.8 This is framed by territorial scraps, a race for the undiscovered oil reserves beneath the Arctic ice sheets and debates over new and potentially lucrative tourism opportunities.
And so, in this New Age reading of Hawtin's Other-World, the ambiguity is rich and true, with pessimism perhaps, that this is the land to which our current track leads, our current economic and political destination. Perhaps the money has been spent, the deals have been made, perhaps the future has already been bought. But it is also a metaphorical world, one which we already inhabit, alone in these hybrid landscapes, each of us a nomad, but retaining the enormous potential of imagination. Unlike in the pick and mix spirituality of the New Age that came before, each of us now assembles our Other-Worlds from the palette of anxieties laid before us.
Welcome to The New Age of Anxiety.
Predator: New Works by Chris Hawtin. Curated by Juan Bolivar
Canvas and Cream, September 2012
The Predator society builds sophisticated spaceships, yet they should not look as sleek and hi-tech as a Star Wars stormtrooper. They are a tribal culture, yet their look should not be as primitive as the orcs from Lord of the Rings. They are also a warrior culture, so the ornate cannot conflict with the practical.
Alec Gillis (AVP: Alien v.s Predator, 2004) discussing the Predator design.
In the 17th century a group of northern European painters, principally Dutch, travelled toItalyadopting upon their return the style of landscape painting that they found there at the time. Artists such as Jan Both (1615-1652) and Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683) brought back with them visions of mountains and peasants basking under golden skies, incorporating Italian models and motifs into their own work. Often among Classical ruins, their light-filled canvases of exotic lands were in contrast with the flat and cloudy scenes ofHolland, presenting a curious hybrid hyper-reality. Later, artists such as Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691) and Philips Wouwermans (1619-1668) were inspired by these works to create their own interpretations of landscapes they had never seen.
Forbidden Planet, Jacob’s Island
Chris Hawtin's paintings centre around technological acceleration; the characteristic which defines our times. His paintings, such as Cloak and Veil, 2011, portray amorphous figures born out of the psyche of science fiction. Setting these protagonists against landscapes reminiscent of the Dutch 17th century painter Aelbert Cuyp, they suggest the remains of a time past and aspects of a future in collision. Through the de-territorialisation of these Alien- or Predator-like figures, Chris Hawtin asks the viewer to question our relationship to landscape in this technological era and how the notion of landscape itself has become fictionalised through the proliferation of global media, cinema and virtual environments.