We attend the opening reception for Rocky Hawkins’ show “Lost at Last” at Altamira Fine Art in Jackson, Wyoming (www.altamiraart.com) on July 15th. The show arrayed an outstanding representation of the broad range of genres that he paints, expertly designed and curated to prevent any distractions from the work. We had an opportunity to converse with Rocky for a while during the show, and began by asking if he would “tell us about the eyes”.
No individual portrayed in any his paintings that we saw is looking at the viewer. When faces are discernable, the eyes are averted, and I believed them to be either absorbed in inward contemplation or immersed as an actor in the scene they observed. The emotions they reveal or try to conceal are extraordinary!
In our conversation, Rocky Hawkins encouraged my understanding of the visual focus of his subject matter. He began by sharing the principle that “Every painting is a journey where getting lost becomes the answer to which direction to take”, then expanded on the aphorism to note how through the development of his paintings, the theme, key subject and details emerged without preconception in most cases. In the midst of sweeping, powerful and boldly colored strokes creating powerful images, the faces are very detailed, very human — and I believe “hard won” for him.
He spoke of one work, Smoky Eyes, as an example. As the work progressed to the stage where the face of the subject needed to be expressed, he painted it. Then, not yet satisfied with the outcome, he added another layer of acrylic with a second iteration, then a third, then fourth, then on and on – until he felt that the expression of the individual still had not revealed itself, or that he had passed it by along the way. Covering the facial feature with white acrylic, he came back at a later time and excavated back down through the layers, one after another, until he feared he would simply reach blank board at the bottom. Nearly there, an early image appeared, and after the experience of layers of faces like layers of history, it demonstrated meaning that brought the entire work alive.
Rocky Hawkins does not just paint faces, he paints meaning. The faces bring meaning to the people and their tradition expressed in each work. And the eyes do not gaze out at the viewer as found in most studio portraits, as if intended to fully conceal meaning. They convey the inner emotions of the subject – subject to as much interpretation as you would need to provide to someone you may encounter on the street, in the cafe, perhaps even within your family.
We cannot know his subjects, and Rocky’s people are also often found observing a traditional scene or landscape that may have one or many compelling foci. Any knowledge we may believe we have of their tradition may lead to an opinion of meaning, or may impel learning more about that tradition.
The conversation with Rocky Hawkins not only added to insights about his work included in a June 2010 article in SouthwestArt magazine (www.southwestart.com) and posted at his website, http://www.rockyhawkins.com/, but excavated a recollection for me, of the article Contemporary Transformations of Modern Architecture in the June 1989 Architectural Record (pp. 108+ff. – aren’t reading notes wonderful!), by William Curtis, who wrote,
“To speak of inheriting and extending a tradition does not mean copying what has gone before… It rather means absorbing the principles behind earlier solutions and transforming them into new vocabularies suitable to changed conditions…imbibe the spirit without mimicking the style (not ‘revivalism’)”.
“Tradition is penetrated for its substructures and not its superficial effects.”.
Rocky Hawkins penetrates, excavates down through the layers to reveal the substructures of the faces. Without them, the overall work would not be able to communicate its full meaning. A superficial, unexcavated image would perhaps beguile, but would misguide the observer into a false meaning of the work.
As part of a Recapitulation of your past work in its context (tradition) to correctly inform your current efforts, excavate down for meaning – even if the task is laborious. Never settle for the easy, superficial answer.