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The Art of Fetish

Ryan Hawk explores BDSM through his kinky creations.

Ryan Hawk (photo by Key Wilson)

Ryan Hawk is an artist that one cannot stop paying attention to once he enters your consciousness. That moment occurred for me when he was still an undergraduate art student in Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I had gone as a visiting lecturer and critic at the invitation of Evan Garza, the Houston-based, extravagantly-gay curator (and until recently the shining light behind Rice University’s public-art program who is now curating the upcoming Texas Biennial). Garza introduced me to Hawk, a star student who was making video, photography, and installation using simple painted props, motions, and his body. These optical situations seemed to mix everything I cared about—abstraction, media, queer bodies, and humor—in uniquely engaging ways.

“I coupled my interests in the histories and practices of performance, video, and minimalism; all of these art practices and their adjacent methodologies are typically historicized outside of one another, when in fact they were all emerging simultaneously,” Hawk explains, clearly manifesting a highly ambitious mode of art making at a tender age.

Untitled (pink puppy), production still from video, 2015; dimensions variable.

Because he was youthful-looking and often nude, his art went viral on websites in ways beyond his control. Even in that powerlessness, Hawk found a way to make something interesting out of the experience. “One of the videos, in particular, went viral on a few different fetish websites. Eventually I became very interested in the patriarchal gaze that had objectified me.” He met submissive guys on apps like recon, and invited them to make art together in ways that also served their fetishes and their desires to have their kinks witnessed. In a series called foreplay (or director/subject), Hawk removed the image of his own body from the work in order to visualize the same representational objectification that he had experienced.

“I developed a methodology that was directly appropriated from BDSM that allowed me, within my own moral framework, to utilize submissive men in the work in a way that was mutually beneficial.” From water sports to fisting, Hawk’s anonymous collaborators helped him produce memorable visual artwork.

Men’s faces wrapped in black were shown on high-resolution flat screens, with only their eyes and mouths standing out from dark fields of leather. The men are being fisted out of the camera’s view, but that is implied as their eyes glaze over in ecstasy or their lips go slack from total release.

“In Untitled (heads), I decided to make that work after encountering so many submissive men online who were looking to be fisted. I was particularly interested in exploring language-based connections between the asshole and the head and/or mouth—namely pejorative idioms such as “get your head out of your ass,” “shit head,” “ass licker,” etc., that are linked to a homosexual subject formation. The head/ass connection is well-explored within critical theory, but I was also interested in the state-of-mind (i.e. “headiness”) induced by the act of fisting, and especially within the context of an artwork that is so methodologically informed. Taking it one step further than Warhol, the isolated heads on the multiple monitors moan and groan like a collective choir; they are linked through the specific sex act which defines them as subjects.”

Untitled (tattoo study #2), 2019; custom tattooing on silicone rubber, silver piercing stud, synthetic hair, push-pin, ink, paper; 11.5”x 8”.

In 2017, as part of Houston’s Experimental Action Performance Festival, Hawk presented Lamenting, in which three normal-bodied middle-aged guys in boxer shorts wept theatrically for 45 minutes. (One had a prosthetic leg, an unplanned bonus that heightens the work’s power. This was a return to performance practices, less grueling than the earlier pieces using his own body. In this work, we are invited to reconsider the assumptions we make about over-40, seemingly straight men.

“If we think about who these men are within a social, cultural, and political context—Caucasian-American men over the age of 40—they are constituted at the top of the hierarchy of power. I became interested in formulating ways to undermine the larger processes of social ordering. Crying men, for example, are a common trope, but it also something that is still lacking within the dominant cultural imagination.”

The men’s faces as they are fisted, and the crying men, are both hyper-emotional in a way that Hawk has developed extensively in the last two years. For shows at the Lawndale Art Center and at the Glassell School of Art, he made prosthetics—extra legs or grossly extended toes or noses, accompanied by sad songs and or the sound of sobbing. Given a tendency toward hyper-theatricality and surrealism (with a dose of horror film and science-fiction), Hawk explored the way cinematic prosthetics affect us emotionally. The queer appetite for sci-fi and horror genres has been much-commented on.

In Hawk’s assessment, “Queer Theory has been concerned with notions of futurity, the death-drive, and the anti-social for sometime now­—and all of these themes are omnipresent in narratives of both horror and sci-fi. Queer people, like other social and political minorities, have always had to construct alternative and/or adjacent worlds for themselves due to being cast off as monstrous or as some kind of threat.”For Sculpture Month Houston, Hawk is showing three flat-screen-based video pieces that play off their installation site in The Silos on Sawyer. A swelling door feels like a scene out of Poltergeist, but also a Magrittian response to the very dramatic stages created by the sharply vertical spaces.

For Hawk’s first Houston show in a commercial gallery (Gray Contemporary on Lake Street in Upper Kirby), Hawk is showing a group of prosthetic skin samples that are bruised, hairy, over-tattooed, and oddly pierced. Describing the work as “less queer,” in his mind, than most of his other work, Hawk points out he was raised by a mom who was herself very tattooed. She allowed him to get his ears pierced in third grade, and on his 18th birthday she paid for his first tattoo. The skin is conspicuously Caucasian and crowded with mismatched symbols to draw attention to the perverse histories of colonization that are part of tattooing.

I have followed Hawk’s trajectory through Boston and Austin as an ambitious artist that other global arts cities might follow. At MFAH’s über-prestigious CORE Residency Program, Hawk appreciates his hometown even more today. “The city now feels very different than the one that I grew up in, but not in a bad way. While I miss the cheap rent that Houston had pre-2010 or so, I’m proud of how the city has grown. Wherever I end up after my time at the Core Program, Houston will always be my home base.”

What: Outta Space sponsored by Sculpture Month Houston
Where: SITE Gallery Houston, The Silos at Sawyer Yards, 1502 Sawyer St. Suite 400
When: Through November 30, 2019

This article appears in the November 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Bill Arning

Bill Arning is a curator, critic, founder of Bill Arning Contemporary Art Consultants.
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