For all its glorious ambiguities, aesthetic theory can be broken down into this: there are two kinds of art – art meant to inspire and art meant to amaze. Tim Hawkinson, whose work currently fills the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum as well as the off-site Whitney Sculpture Garden, creates art with a strong bent towards the latter.

Hawkinson Whitney.JPGGothamist finally went up with a few friends to see the show last night (it opened February 11th), and was happy to have made it out. The elevator doors opened onto the first of Hawkinson’s works to greet us; entitled Pentecost, it’s a monumental machine of a sculpture, made up of life-size polyurethane foam representations of the human form perched in various poses on the branches of a huge sound tube. Each is outfitted with a percussion device, all wired into a main circuit frame that causes the tiny drums to beat according to a motion sensor trigger and the algorithm of a “found computer program.” The result, akin to the religious holiday Pentecost, when believers were possessed to speak in languages they had no way of knowing, is a mish-mash of the familiar elements of sound and space, taken out of context to form an uncanny reflection on machines and the human body.

As it turns out, machines and the human body are topics which continually fascinate Hawkinson and inform his art. The foam humans of Pentecost are molded after the artist’s own body, a practice he employed to create many of the pieces on display. There’s Balloon Self-Portrait, for example, which he created by painting his body with latex and filling the resulting mold with air. Self-Portrait (Height Determined by Weight) seems like nothing more than a molded sculpture of the artist’s feet and shins, but it’s actually the exact portion of his body that, when cast in molten lead, weights the same as he does. Emoter is an ink-jet print of the artist’s face, cut into small, mobile sections that are hooked up to motion sensors placed directly in front of a television screen. When the image on the screen changes, difference sections of the face portrait – the eyebrows, corner of the mouth, etc. – change with it.

Hawkinson’s artistic fascination, though more highly developed than his contemporaries, did not develop in a vacuum. Born in San Francisco in 1960, he studied as a youth with Charles Ray and frequented the quiet-but-active scene for Material Art in the late 1970s. For instance, Gothamist notices hints of Paul Kos in Hawkinson’s work. The artist Tom Friedman would certainly appreciate a few of the pieces in this show, most notably the tiny sculpture of a bird skeleton that Hawkinson fashioned out of his fingernail clippings and the gigantic sculpture of a tree stump he painstakingly created out of rolled cardboard. Despite his artistic influences, however, Hawkinson is light years ahead of the curve in terms of his ingenuity and his ability to just plain amaze his audience. His current show is no exception – the wow factor of his cleverness caused many a jaw to drop, Gothamist’s included.