L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
On The Rolling Stone’s website, you can see a behind-the-scenes video of Terry Richardson shooting the new Justin Bieber cover. In it, between shots, Bieber answers fan mail. He’ll read a letter aloud then, not usually thinking for more then a second or two, spin off his answer. Someone name Marty T. asks the following: “When you take pictures during photoshoots,” (here, Bieber looks up with a we’re-doing-that-right-now grin, and there’s a photoshopped twinkle on his top tooth—it’s like a self-referential toothpaste commercial), “what are you thinking about when you make those intense faraway looks in your eyes?” Bieber, grinning again sans twinkle, replies, “Well, I usually think how bored I am just standing there. Like, photoshoots are long and that’s the face that comes out of me,” and then we see him asleep, head on the piano keyboard, wearing his baseball cap backward. If Marty, who asked that question and could be a girl but sounds like a boy, had hoped those faraway looks meant something special (or that Bieber would be able to put a finger on that something special), he just got hope-dashed by teenage boy cheek.
The day I visited Richard Hawkins’ Third Mind at the Hammer, a show full of some of the most slapdash refinement I’ve ever seen, I was browsing just behind an older couple, a man and woman. The man, standing over Hawkins’ Matt Dillon homage from the early 90s—an obsessive, perpetually nostalgic fanboy collage—half-asked, half-announced, “That’s Justin Bieber?”
Mistaking Dillon for Bieber means misreading the 80s for the 00s and a dirty blond kid-cut for a dark brown shag of curls, but the man had something right: Dillon, like Bieber, was heartthrob worthy and immediately recognizable (well, to some, at least). Dillon, Keanu Reeves, Axl Rose, George Clements, the guys Hawkins adopted into his “indulgent obsession aesthetic” seem to me more beautiful than cute, more striking, less comfortable with childishness than Bieber. But Dillon was in his youthfully seductive, troubled teen stage over ten years before Hawkins the younger version of him on as a muse–one of Hawkins’ earlier works is an altered book by Nietzsche; pasted on the cover is an 80s photo of smiling Dillon and brother Kevin with arms around each other, and text on the left reads, “Through it all, Matt HAS remained close to his family, like his brother Kevin… success hasn’t spoiled this boy at all!”
By the time Hawkins was making works like lg.purple.matt.graveyard (1995) proving Dillon was a good kid no longer behooved mainstream media and Little Darlings, Dillon’s breakthrough and a source for Hawkins, was a decade and a half past. Distance matters in Hawkins’ work. It’s essential.
In a catalogue essay he wrote in 1989, Hawkins dealt with nostalgia and idealism–he wasn’t talking about his work, commenting instead on French Decadence and its contemporary counterparts. Still, what he said always seems to resonate with his own oeuvre: “the ideal may be a natural body, but it has to be distanced in some way.” Hawkins goes on, “It can be distanced by becoming artificial. The melancholic is infatuated with the ideal.” In his show at the Hammer, chock full of cultural references, the images feel compelling because they’ve been distanced from themselves just enough to become, not fetish-objects, but pitch-perfect stand-ins for melancholia. It might be a few decades, if ever, before Justin Bieber’s image can play a role like that.