Best known for her impossibly-detailed paintings of a world inhabited only by women, Hilary Harkness is most obsessed with abuses of power, which she presents on an intimate, yet grand, scale. Sex, war, reproduction, class systems, free markets, manifest destiny, and scientific experimentation all play out in an uncensored stage — yet are still tethered to historical moments and real world settings.
Spanning from 2000 – 2011, Harkness’ cross-section paintings occupy a special place in her oeuvre and operate on many levels. Not only are the architectural cutaways a formal device that give her storytelling some level of veracity and structure, they also help heighten the psychological states of her characters and catalyze their complicated narratives.
In Harkness’ classic military paintings, there are steely panopticons of surveillance and control, where hierarchies are underscored by the regimented bunks, cells, mess halls, machine rooms. But unlike the low-ranking minions swabbing the decks, the viewer has full access into restricted, don’t-ask-don’t-tell areas, where law and order may not exist.
Real World War II battleships in paintings like “Mighty Mo: Fully Committed” contrast workaday military duties with embellished bacchanalia; “Heavy Cruisers” portrays a ship as a hothouse womb, rife with pregnant officers and even a pregnant whale. “Red Sky in the Morning” imagines the suicide mission of the Japanese battleship Yamato, and wonders: when faced with extreme extenuating circumstances such as war, can anyone possibly behave appropriately?
In other paintings, the viewer’s eyes are allowed to trip around the painting like Eloise at The Plaza, weaving in and out of chateaus, chalets, and auction houses. “Nervous in the Service” gives us a God’s-eye view of a slapstick decadent cocktail party. Two paintings of Christie’s at Rockefeller Center propose that the embryo trade would supplant the sales of luxury goods in a world led by armies of women. The opulent surroundings with priceless antiques and artworks are often a counterpoint to the atrocities occurring within.
These cross-sections, which present Harkness’ macro and micro views of history — both visually and emotionally — are all linked by her attempt to portray public triumphs and personal weaknesses in an irrational world.
Hilary Harkness, who exhibits with the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City, is a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale University School of Art Hilary splits her time between New York City and New England. Her work has been exhibited worldwide, including the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain, and the Deste Foundation in Athens, Greece and is in the collection of the Whitney Museum. She has taught painting and sculpture as Artist in Residence at Yale Summer School of Art and Music, and lectured widely at institutions such as Columbia University, Boston University, Yale University, Brandeis University, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Hilary also blogs for the Huffington Post and the New York Academy of Art.