Los Angeles-based Richard Hawkins makes art that is erotica, and erotica that is art. His paintings, and especially his publications (check out Secret Passage, Perfect Sausage), are intended to titillate. His extensive research delves into sexual practices and taboos, looking at how they are handled in visual culture by everyone from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the pop culture figures of today—you are as likely to identify a Greek Kouros as you are to spot Axl Rose or Brad Renfro.
His work is a conversation with the history of art; a dialogue with the construction of sexual hierarchies, imagery and power; a reflection of how sex prescribes masculinity and the eroticization of male bodies. Using techniques like cut and paste, digital collage and painting, compiling images from Google searches and pre-internet homoerotic magazines, Hawkins satirizes male dominance and violence, sexuality and death. His most recent project, a publication made in collaboration with the artist Elijah Burgher that evolved into an eight-artist group exhibition at LAXART, is an “unabashedly phallocentric affair”, filled with fetishes and fertility cults.
Can you tell me about the original Sperm Cult project, the collaboration with Elijah Burgher?
I think by early 2016 we’d both been grousing back and forth about everything from Jack Donovan to gay marriages to the perils of hookup apps and the “queering” of just about anything. Elijah had already been working with an idea for drawings—Bachelors of the New Dawn—which, with a poetaster’s nod to [Aleister] Crowley, was meant to investigate Chaos Magick as well as psychologies of intimacy, vulnerability and—above all—pleasure.
We both tend to find our best affinities and models in fiction, so we initially did augmented mashups of some of our (maybe very predictable) favourites: Tony Duvert, Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Denton Welch. It seemed to us like a chorus of fictional voices speaking a litany of sexual “unacceptabilities” could be our own alternative to cultural preachiness and divisiveness—especially if we could make it insistently erotic. It then didn’t take long to realize we’d already gathered around us a group of friends—between Elijah in Chicago and me in LA—who were hot enough and trusting enough to engage in some pseudo-porn.
“A chorus of fictional voices speaking a litany of sexual ‘unacceptabilities’ could be our own alternative to cultural preachiness and divisiveness”
How did that then evolve into the recent exhibition at LAXART?
The idea came from ICA director Hamza Walker. I initially resisted, since the whole idea behind doing a publication was to have it find its own audience. Sperm Cult was not a social stance or political position; it was intended as more of a religious tract or insidious catalyst. Once you move those ideas into the more public forum of an exhibition, especially within these hyper-contentious call-out times, I imagined it all being misinterpreted and made an example of. Elijah, though, had amazing ideas about expanding beyond or underneath the homoerotic and into a pan-historic celebration of how sex folds into ritual (and the reverse).
Can you tell me about the photo-based work you made for that show?
With Elijah and Hamza taking the curatorial lead for the show I wanted to stick to the idea of its publication origins and contribute something that could be taken home and “used”. A Sperm Cult second “coming”. The images are primarily some of the more explicit outtakes from the photoshoots of the original Sperm Cult with the addition of images from religious and historical art. I was then and still continue to pursue the idea of how the relation between fan-followers and their thirst-traps is devotional—but to a very secular overtly eroticized divine.
“The term ‘masculinity’ has now become too weaponized to continue using”
Sperm Cult, as the title proclaims, seems to also be reclaiming, in a way, ideas about manliness, manhood and masculinity, and the power dynamics of sex and sexuality. What is masculinity for you?
The term “masculinity” has now become too weaponized to continue using. There’s only one mention of it in the original Sperm Cult as part of the refuting preamble, “Those lofty signs of masculine, intellectual, civic, conjugal, bourgeois and revolutionary value that other males hold high, they merely dispirit me.” Surely there are any number of masculinities that desire can seek out, impose and push into play. I’m still waiting for the app that’s more about finding professors and gay uncles than daddies.
You’ve done a lot of research into the history of sex and sexuality; a lot of people might say that the new generation are less interested in physical contact and interaction, that fantasy has a bigger role… What do you think?
Tobias Scheebaum is a huge and charmingly fallible precedent for understanding that in other times and other situations, attraction, desire and sex can be something else entirely. I do hear enough from friends of a younger generation to understand that they’re fantasizing as well as actualizing like crazy. But otherwise, they’re just as evil and ignorant as I was at their age.