Gay City and TimeOut New York: Hillary Harkness

Versions of this review appeared in Gay City News and TimeOut New York.

"Sailing Forth from Lesbos: Hilary Harkness’ women lay down the rivet guns to spray some real ack-ack":

Mary Boone’s Chelsea Gallery.  The expectation is big paintings.  In the current exhibition of new works, Hilary Harkness takes license to show three, and only three, relatively small paintings.  Why three?  Why small?

The paintings depict allegorical scenes—cross sections of lodges and ships peopled by lanky Caucasian pin-up girls.  The women, clad in sailor suits and blue-color undergarments tailored to runway specifications, are active in their worlds, working on the deck of a battle ship (“Crossing the Equator”), or indulging in the S&M escapades of an officer’s retreat (“Matterhorn”).  The figures, evoking fashion illustrations of the 1940s, are psychologically in step with the World War 2 settings.  And, as America rededicates itself to a Cold War outlook (terrorists=communists), the works maintain their political analogs in the present moment.  Harkness’s characters are pretty women because that’s how the America of World War 2 saw itself, and that’s how we see ourselves today.  America the beautiful.  The quaint, prurient interactions are indicative of global nation squabbling, as comprehended by a nation insistent upon a relation to the world that is simultaneously introverted and myopic.  Taking as evidence the limited scope of contemporary media—we can only see ourselves as glamorous fantasies of who we should be, and we can’t see other people at all.

Though no doubt an oversimplification, Harkness, with her WW2 iconography, invites the idea that her three works refer to the onset of World War 3.  And the diminutive scale of the paintings in relation to the gallery ideates the impression that her crystallized narratives are extracted from a vast swill of uncomprehended history.

The appeal of the Harkness war girls is in itself a mini allegory of the artist’s kinder, gentler WW2 (3) America.  The reality of what the girls are doing, whether they are torturing each other or aiming the anti-aircraft guns, is made captivating through a stylish presentation, which is itself precision targeted.  These little ladies sell cigarettes and war, and they’re still around, and we’re still buying.