The now renowned artist Hilary Harkness arrived at the Yale University Art School -- during a time of pervasive identity politics -- without one.
John Currin had just graduated, leaving Yale professors and critics agape with his mash-ups of Renaissance craftsmanship against sexual and social satire. Contemporary darling Matthew Barney had come armed with "Drawing Restraint 7" -- installations built on the relationship between self-imposed social resistance and individual creativity. And Ann Gale, Marc Trujillo and Malerie Marder were in their initial attempts to discover and undress the human psyche in naked scenes of people and places.
Harkness came to the prestigious school with no other objective than to learn how to paint. Without an agenda, she started making self-portraits, drawing herself over and over, each time placing her face in a different presentation.
"Then I got bored," Harkness said touring the gallery of the FLAG Art Foundation where her new solo exhibition of nearly impossibly detailed paintings of a world inhabited by complex, inter-related and fated relationships opens on February 8th. "Yale didn't nurture me, but gave me a basic tool kit; getting paint to cleave to the canvas; understanding the purpose, limits, and benefits of painting mediums; and creating the illusion of space.
"Outside of Yale, the Master of Osservanza Triptych -- the works of il Sassetta -- opened the door to painting narratives in a simple and easy-to-understand fashion."
Maybe to Harkness, but not to her fans and patrons. In her new cutaway series, Harkness paints an almost labyrinthine and bewitching world of mostly women, engaging in acts of pleasure/pain, seduction/repulsion and caress/abrasion, in the context of battleships, prestigious auction houses and collectors' homes, among other settings. Sex, war, reproduction, class systems, free markets, manifest destiny and scientific experimentation all play out on uncensored Lilliputian stages -- "like ants in an ant farm," Harkness said - and manage to remain somewhat tethered to hypnagogic historical moments and surrealist settings that mock the real world.
"The attention to detail and riveting narratives recall one of my favorite paintings, Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," said FLAG Director Stephanie Roach. But Harkness says she prefers the more playful Pieter Brueghel, a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker, "who had less implicit judgment on his figures.
"Bosch always looked on his figures as sinners going to hell. Brueghel painted peasants celebrating with comedy and joy even in the turmoil between the Catholics and the Protestants. I see it as even in the worst of times, people find room for relief."
No more is the theme of contained allayment apparent than in "Red Sky in the Morning," an oil-on-panel painting that imagines the happenings on the Japanese battleship Yamato, a historic World War II vessel sent on a suicide mission with its soldiers believing it was headed for food and fuel.
Harkness answers the hypothetical scenario of the Yamato by juxtaposing vengeful wives waiting for an adulterous female captain, nude and drunk women officers cavorting and dancing -- and then the lesser ranking female soldiers sinking in waters enveloping the ship. Spirit clouds and phantom geishas, however, protect all of them.
A triptych of an imagined Christie's Auction House across the gallery presents a similar confrontation, only surrounded by opulence, instead of the stark capsules of war. In "Mother Lode," three different armies of miniature women, including Muslim and American, lay down their arms and engage in an endless trade of luxury goods for prized embryos -- symbolic of Harkness' belief that the world revolves around babies, and their trade. This time, however, opulent antiques and priceless artwork offer a stark counterpoint to the atrocities occurring within.
But it's the military to which Harkness always returns. Growing up with a grandfather who was a larger-than-life WWII veteran and soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, Harkness was fascinated by both his toughness and his reluctance to discuss his experiences on the front.
"I started painting the world in microcosm, often encapsulated in military vessels, because I was interested in what people would do when pushed to the edge," Harkness said. "I wanted to play out what might happen when there was inadequate supervision, when everything was at stake, and when traditional morality might fly out the window, justified by a larger cause."
Harkness, who typically exhibits with the Mary Boone Gallery and has works in the collection of the Whitney Museum, recently returned to New York permanently from splitting her time between here and Boston. It was the perfect timing for Roach and FLAG founder, former Goldman Sachs investment banker, Glenn Fuhrman, to approach Harkness for a show. Fuhrman had been following Harkness since her last exhibition at Mary Boone in 2011, a collection of fictional paintings about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
"At FLAG, we try to present artwork in different ways," Roach said. "In this case, we viewed this as a rare opportunity to present the cross section works, which span over a decade, all together.
"A viewer can see the evolution of Hilary's vision and style through the representation of the figure, the narratives and color palette."
At times, however, the question of identity politics does circle back to Harkness. She has been accused of painting images that are both sadist and sexist -- and for not doing enough to be anti-war -- among other things. But she counters those observations with the assertion that painting by default is a romantic, sometimes distorted, lens by which people can view the world.
"You're not going to change the world with hard-hitting investigative works of painting," Harkness said. "In general, my goal is two-fold: to create a work of art that intrigues me enough to force its creation, and personally come to terms with my own issues. The work that comes from it is either hyper-beautiful or decoratively gory and in some ways, the same thing: a grotesque distortion."
Hilary Harkness' solo exhibition will run from February 8 through May 18, 2013 at the FLAG Art Foundation on the 9th floor of the Chelsea Art Towers at 945 West 25th Street. Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.