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Hilary Harkness at Mary Boone
Art in America, Oct, 2004 by Sarah Valdez

Precious is one way of characterizing the three small paintings in Hilary Harkness's recent exhibition. Her intricate, minutely detailed canvases might have looked absurd in Mary Boone's gigantic Chelsea gallery, but the Lilliputian societies Harkness depicts are enthralling enough that it was easy to ignore the outsize surroundings. Lithe females, naked or scantily clad like characters from a Vanessa Beecroft installation, populate Harkness's fantasy structures--cross-sections of a house, a military bunker and a ship. The figures engage in a range of perverse activities, recalling Hieronymous Bosch's religious scenes that, in their miniature details, bring hell to life.

The drama in Matterhorn (2003-04) takes place in a large, nicely furnished house near a mountain and water, with an indigo sky slipping toward darkness. In a bedroom, long-legged girls loll around on a zebra-print rug. Elsewhere in the house, other girls fight, bleed, suck on each other's breasts, boil skulls in a pot, knock phones off hooks and brandish guns. Skimpy outfits include hot pants, stilettos and chest harnesses--all black. On the wall of one room hangs a tiny rendition of van Gogh's famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), his commemoration of self-mutilation due to unrequited love.

The women in all of Harkness's paintings beg the question: Are these lesbians? If so, the word "femme" comes to mind. The most intricate painting, Heavy Cruisers (2004)--the one in the bunker--shows the kind of hot chicks that turn up in fashion magazines acting like lesbians: making out in a Jacuzzi, pinning each other down, strangling and whipping one another in various chambers, and giving a double meaning to "armed service." They also cry, conduct science experiments, make records on clipboards and swim in toxic-looking, chartreuse water. Crossing the Equator (2003), the nautical scene, brings more of the same. Most of the girls here wear a white miniskirt uniform with a slit up the side, knee-high stiletto boots and a breast-baring bandage of sorts crisscrossing their chests.

"By casting only females in her scenes," reads the press release, "Harkness erases gender biases." One has to wonder. Is it possible to eliminate bias by depicting a bunch of hetero-looking babes kinkily intermingling? Harkness paints so exquisitely, one hopes she'll get around to answering this question in her future work. Or at least stop trying to pretend she is on a crusade against the real problem of sexism.--Sarah Valdez

COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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